Rolando Herrera and his wife Lorena had a dream — create their own Napa Valley winery. But what to call it? Waking early one morning, Rolando turned to his wife and said, “We have to call it Mi Sueño.”
“When we first started dating I knew he’d have his own winery someday — it was his dream and I always knew that, so the name made perfect sense,” Lorena said as we sat in their warehouse winery just south of downtown Napa.
I’d just spent the last few hours with them touring one of their vineyards, exploring their clean and orderly winery, and tasting wines from their collection. During the entire visit both Rolando and Lorena had talked passionately about wine, their family and the adventure of building what has become one of the bright stars in the crowded night sky of wines in the Napa Valley. By the end I, too, had come to understand that there was only one name for their winery, Mi Sueño — Spanish for “My Dream.”
Rolando was born and grew up in El Llano, a small village in the state of Michoacán, Mexico. There he went to school, played with friends, and helped his parents and grandparents on their small farm. Even at an early age he enjoyed farming and found that he had an entrepreneurial spirit.
“I used to bet my friends a peso that I could bounce a soccer ball on my knee longer then they could,” he said. “I was pretty good and made quite a bit of money that way. She’d never ask for it, but I loved to provide my mother with a few extra dollars to help out when I could.”
Unbeknownst to him at the time, his future wife was growing up in a nearby village only a few minutes’ drive away.
“We lived a simple life with many of our needs coming directly from our garden,” he said. “I can remember living in a very small house with three kids sleeping in a single bed and not even having electricity when I was very young. We didn’t have much, but when you’re a kid that’s what you know and all I remember was being very happy.”
When Rolando turned 8, he and his family moved to the Napa Valley, where his dad had procured a job at Whiting Nursery.
“When I arrived I fell in love with this place — I felt like I’d come home,” he said. “But after about five years my father decided to move us back to Mexico. I lived back in Mexico until I was 15 and then told them I was moving back to Napa.”
As Rolando explained it, the idea of leaving Mexico and heading off to America at such a young age might seem strange to many now, but at that time it was normal because, “I was considered an adult at 15 and so my parents agreed.”
Making his way back to Napa, he joined his older brother, Jose (17), and more than a dozen other acquaintances who all lived in a single-room apartment in Napa.
“It was crowded, but I was busy going to school and working, so I didn’t notice it much,” he said. “When I went to sign up for high school they said I should enter the 10th grade, but I asked to be placed in the ninth because I didn’t want to miss anything.”
I first met Rolando and Jose in 1982, when we all worked as dishwashers and prep cooks at Auberge du Soleil. We were in our mid-teens and worked after school and on weekends. I distinctly remember both Rolando and his brother possessing a wonderful capacity to work hard while keeping a sense of humor during challenging working conditions. They both also had extreme confidence and resourcefulness, teaching me the staying power of a simply prepared sandwich of fried eggs on toasted day-old French bread that had been smothered in spicy hot sauce.
“We’d go to school and then work — we’d get home at midnight most nights and then be up for school early,” Rolando said. “I missed my family and started to realize that it is a lot of work even being able to feed yourself when you are on your own.”
After bouncing around as a dishwasher and a short stint in San Francisco when Auberge Chef Masa Kobayashi asked that he join him in his newly opened restaurant, Rolando found himself back in Napa working as a stone mason for one of the most famous winemakers in the Napa Valley, the founder of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Warren Winiarski.
“When I saw Rolando working on the stone wall he looked up and there was a look in his eyes that told me he had an aspirational quality in his soul and he was going to do something more than just build that stone wall,” Winiarski said. “And so we offered him a job at the winery for harvest.”
“I didn’t even know what ‘harvest’ meant,” Rolando said. “At first, I told them that I was busy with school and really didn’t know anything about wineries, but Warren was adamant and I eventually took the job. I’m happy I did because it really sent me on my path.”
A few years later, Winiarski promoted him to cellar master and Rolando had started reading about winemaking and taking classes at UC Davis.
“I may have given him a job, but he worked tirelessly to learn everything he could about winemaking,” Winiarski said.
“I found that I really loved being around the winery and in the vineyards,” Rolando said. “The tanks, the smells of fermenting wine and the aroma and feel of the earth in the vineyards were wonderful.”
After working at Stag’s Leap, Rolando was hired as assistant winemaker for Marketta and Jean-Noel Fourmeaux at their old-school style Chateau Potelle, located on Mount Veeder. There he continued to learn more about the value of terroir and how to work in what was — compared to the famously clean and well-ordered operations at Winiarski’s winery — a more rustic setting.
“Hearing Marketta talk about the importance of the earth, sun and water reminded me a lot of what I’d heard my grandmother tell me when I was younger and working on the farm,” he said. “It made me feel at home and that I could contribute in a real way to what they were doing.”
After Potelle, he was hired as winemaker at Vine Cliff Winery and then director of winemaking at Paul Hobbs. He’d been dating Lorena for a few years, and in 1997 they married and started their own winery.
“It was really tough to make things work at first,” Rolando said. “I had to borrow and work on the side so that I might bring in enough to cover costs. For a while, I tried to just do our winery, but I quickly realized that I needed to keep my clients and also work for at least a few more years as a winemaker for Paul. He was gracious to really encourage me to keep working on my own projects.”
“Rolando wanted to make great wine and was willing to sacrifice anything to do that,” Hobbs said. “Hard work, long hours any time of the day or week, he was ready to go, ready to do whatever was required, always with a grin on his face from ear to ear. He was entirely plugged in. I felt like he was like an extension of myself. He never let down, never gave up. He really added his own signature to our wines.”
Today, Mi Sueño Winery employs 17 full-time workers, owns 40 acres of their own vineyards with plans to plant more of their land in the coming years, has long-term leases on many of the valley’s most prominent and well-regarded vineyards and runs Herrera Vineyard Management Co.
Mi Sueño makes a variety of wines, including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Tempranillo, Malbec, Petit Verdot and the “El Llano” red blend made primarily from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.
All the wines I tasted that day were lush and rich and yet retained a sense of the earth throughout both the distinct aromatics and textures, which I found to be the most compelling elements of the wines.
The 2014 Los Carneros Chardonnay ($42 a bottle and 450-500 cases made) shimmered gold in the glass and had aromas and flavors of baked apple, nutmeg, lily flower and ocean stones.
The Syrah ($55 a bottle with only 150 to 200 cases made per year) was opaque in the glass, had aromas of black cherry and duck confit, and was chewy and meaty in structure with an almost umami-soy richness.
The Pinot Noir was from a vineyard in Sonoma’s Russian River ($55 per bottle and 250-300 cases made per year). This wine is full of red and blue fruit, wet-Madrone forest floor and earth.
The 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon from Coombsville ($75 per bottle and 600 cases made per year) is silky with aromas of black current, cherry cola, sweet tobacco and moist cedar wood. The finish is full of candied violets and smoky oak.
The “El Llano” ($49 and 4,000 cases made) is something entirely special and reminded me of a “thicker” version of a classic Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
As I tasted the El Llano for myself, the words of Winiarski and Hobbs echoed in my mind.
“One of my favorite wines from Rolando is named after the village he comes from,” Winiarski had said. “I love all the textures and nuances and how he’s brought together so many different elements so beautifully.”
The name of the winery and wine, Hobbs said, “speaks from the heart and celebrates his roots — does it get better than that?”
As we talked and sipped wine, other guests toured the winery and tasted wine, their muffled voices, clinking glasses and bursts of laughter echoing through the cavernous space.
“I always felt like something wonderful was going to happen,” Lorena said. “I knew that if we worked hard every day we might build something meaningful for ourselves and for our family.”
Rolando smiled, nodded slowly and then looked down at his glass for a long time.
“I love when a wine can give me a light beam into their soul, their origin, their earth,” he said. “It’s like when I find the trail of a wine and learn about where it comes from and where it might be going. Smelling the native earth, its flowers and herbs, or when it rains and there’s the aroma of wet earth, but earth from only a single place.
“That’s what I love about wine. And that’s what I love about people, too. We are sharing a dream and not afraid. Instead we feel truly blessed.”