Sitting down at the bar of the recently opened, sleekly appointed, and already crowded White House Tavern in Aspen last week, my first thought was (as it most always is), “what am I going to drink?” A quick glance at the wine list revealed that The White House offered the 2009 Mi Sueño Winery El Llano Napa Valley Red by the glass. Question answered, problem solved.
My first experience with Mi Sueño (“my dream” in Spanish) came in February at Premiere Napa. This wine tasting and auction at the Culinary Institute of America plays host to more than 100 of the finest wineries in the Napa Valley, all of whom are pouring wines from barrels made specifically for the auction. It is an incredible event allowing participants to taste an astounding selection of wines and meet a great many winemakers in a short period of time.
After tasting perhaps 75 wines, I stopped next to the last barrel in the room where I was greeted by Rolando Herrera. “Would you like to taste Mi Sueño?” he asked. I did. And even though my palate was already purple after tasting a score of great wines, this one stood out. Rich, ripe, and balanced (the wine, not me), I made a mental note of it as I floated out of the CIA into the Napa sunshine.
That note came back to me when The White House Tavern bartender said, as she filled my glass, “Mi Sueño is one of our owner’s favorite wines.” She also said that the Hillstone Restaurant Group, which owns The White House and close to 50 other restaurants across the nation, buys much of Rolando Herrera’s Mi Sueño production. “We are very fortunate to have a good relationship, both personal and professional with George (Hillstone founder and food industry innovator George Biel),” Rolando told me during a telephone interview when I recounted the story. “We try and provide wine for as many of their restaurants as we can. George loves the wines.”
Rolando Herrera’s story reads like a storybook version of the American dream. Raised in Michoacan, Mexico, his wine journey began in his early teens when he came to Napa and began working in the inns (Auberge de Soleil) and restaurants (Mustards Grill) of the booming Valley. As a teenager he developed an appreciation for vineyards, wines and the hospitality they provide.
In 1985 Warren Winiarski, then winemaker and owner at the fabled Stag’s Leap Winery, gave him a job. Not making wine mind you, but building a stone wall. Admiring his determination, dedication and blooming palate, Winiarski took Rolando him under his broad wing, mentoring the 19-year-old and teaching him the fundamentals of wine. A decade at Stag’s Leap included seven years as cellar master, the ultimate in a hands-on wine education.
This was followed by stints in “graduate school” as it were, working as an assistant winemaker at Chateau Potelle for Jean-Noel Fourmeaux and then as a winemaker for celebrated wine consultant Paul Hobbs on some of the most famed names in Napa Cabernet. Eventually he took over as winemaker for Napa’s Vine Cliff Winery. “I have been very fortunate to be with both Warren and Paul,” he said with obvious appreciation. “And at Chateau Potelle, that’s where I really learned about how the French look at wine. How to make wines that represent the terroir and the varietals.”
In the late ’90s he began his quest to make his own wines and control the process from vine to bottle. “Vineyard managers and winemakers don’t always see eye to eye,” Rolando chuckled, “I wanted to control all aspects so I began to find vineyards to lease that I could oversee, and in some cases even plant.” Today, under his Mi Sueño label, Rolando produces approximately 5,000 cases of the El Llano Red (named for his ancestral home in Michoacan) along with pinot noir and chardonnay from Sonoma’s Russian River Valley, a syrah from Napa and assorted smaller lots.
Through his company, Herrera Vineyards Management, he also makes wines for a select few private clients from plots throughout Napa and Sonoma and even as far away as Washington. On the day we spoke, he was on his way to Walla Walla to visit a client’s vineyard. “They send me grapes to my winery (located in an industrial section of downtown Napa) but I feel like I can’t just make the wine without seeing the vineyard, walking the land, feeling the dirt.”
Rolando is currently smitten with the dirt of Coombsville, a newly designated American Viticultural Area (AVA) in the southeastern quadrant of the Valley. “That’s where I discovered my little Bordeaux in the Napa Valley,” he said with a hint of secrecy. “It’s just a little cooler and I can leave grapes hanging one, two even three weeks longer there.” It is a sweet spot and we can expect to taste more form Coombsville in future Mi Sueño releases.
As a recent past-president of the Napa Sonoma Mexican American Vintners Association (NSMAVA), Rolando sees great opportunities for Mexican-American winemakers. “There are so many young winemakers coming up and the opportunity is there,” he says, without noting that he was one of those who paved the way. “The future is very bright.”
Drink the dream.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and a black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.