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Becoming Winemaker Rolando Herrera

Rolando Herrera's Mi Sueno

26_rolando1Rolando Herrera used to make a salary that could barely cover his monthly car payments and a bed for the night. He moved to the United States at age 15 and held a night job all through high school as a dishwasher at the Napa Valley restaurant Auberge du Soleil, dreaming he would one day be earning $10 an hour. At 45, his 12-year old wine label, Mi Sueno, produces 6,000 cases of wine a year and sells in sixteen U.S. States, Japan and China. He consults for Red Stitch, a high-end Napa Cabernet. Rolando still dreams. But these days he dreams of building his own winery in Napa Valley. Color spoke with him on what it takes to become a winemaker.

 

"Working hard is part of my nature," Rolando said, speaking of his days as a dishwasher. But he always thought he was meant to do other things and recalling his ambition, said "the square footage is too small in a restaurant." After his junior year in high school, "I asked one of my cousins to give me a job, but he just laughed." Rolando managed to find work helping to build a stonewall at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars. The winery's owner, Warren Winiarski, liked his work ethic. After the wall was completed, Winiarski kept Herrera employed through the harvest doing odd jobs. However, the teenager still had school and raced home every day to work from 3pm to 11pm, saving a few late hours for homework. Rolando remembers stepping into the wine cellar one day when it dawned on him, "The smell of oak barrels and wine hit me. The lighting, the casks. Everything. All this mystery, the questions. I have found my home. I know what I want to do the rest of my life."

 

The first few years he was just cleaning. Three years later Rolando became Stags Leap's Cellar Master. From Stag's Leap he moved on to the much smaller Chateau Potelle Winery, followed by Vine Cliff Winery and now as a winemaker. In 2001 he joined famed Paul Hobbs Consulting as Director of wine making. With much self-doubt, he then bought a few tons of Chardonnay grape and experimented. "When I started, being a Hispanic winemaker was extremely rare. My friends thought I was crazy." But soon, friends, wine shops and restaurants all thought the wine I was making was French wine, and unanimously declared, "You need to bottle this stuff yourself." The logistics and permits took time, but the result was 200 cases of Chardonnay that were sold out in an instant.

 

Rolando's biggest challenge is work/life balance. "While it is great to have your own business, you have to give up a lot and need support. I have great support from my wife. She was the first person who said that I some day would have my own label. I have six kids, from three to 11 years old. I want to spend more time as a father, I want to buy a piece of property and have a winery in the country."

 

His label, Mi Sueno, refers to "what we share, what this country is built upon."

 

"No matter what you do in life, find something you love," Rolando said, "and since dreams are free: if you are going to dream, dream big".

 


Trond's Picks


Mi Sueno El Llano Red Wine Napa Valley (2007, $40, 89/100)

This powerhouse of a Napa wine, a Syrah/Cab blend with 14.5% alcohol, feels almost alive. The floral and vanilla bouquet with a strong tannic structure gives way to jammy notes of blackberry that might make wine critic Robert Parker blush like a teenager. The lingering aftertaste emanates from grapes with quality time in French oak. Despite the complexity, peppery warmth and chocolate makes it imminently drinkable. Yet, graphite and gasoline undertow scares away the Merlot crowd.

 


Medalla Real Cab Chile (2007, $18, 87/100)
This intense, ruby red Maipo Valley effort has a strongly vanilla flavored nose with tannins that make you dry on the mouth, fullness and body, yet with elegantly inserted fruit layers giving you a Bordeaux feel for a penny. Cedar and chocolate undertones and silky texture complete the picture of a full oak experience with some finesse. I might have had this one a few years too early, but who has the cellar space, anyway?

 

Silver Palm Cabernet Chile (2006, $15, 89/100)
Camouflaged citrus on the nose gives way to a strong blackcurrant, vanilla, Merlot-like smoothness and medium aftertaste making it a perfect complement to Mexican food, kisses, cheap American milk chocolate and suchlike. Hints of vanilla and a cinnamon and pepper aftertaste add some seriousness that might lend itself to a steak or some serious type of meat if you are so inclined.

 

 

The Hispanic Wine Scene

26_rolando2

Wine consumption among Latinos has increased tremendously. "Fifteen years ago at a wedding they would serve Tequila and beer, now there is wine at every event," Herrara said. While an earlier attempt to start a Hispanic Vintner's Alliance failed, many individual ventures did not.

 

Alex Sotelo: alexsotelocellars.com
Ceja Vineyards: www.cejavineyards.com
Frias Family: www.friasfamilyvineyard.com
Gustavo Thrace: www.gustavothrace.com
Mi Sueno Winery: www.misuenowinery.com
Renteria wines: www.renteriawines.com
Rios wine company: www.rioswine.com
The Robledo family: www.robledofamilywinery.com
Marita's Vineyard: www.maritasvineyard.com

 

 


 

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