In a village tucked away in El Llano, Mexico, a normally rambunctious little boy was silent and intensely focused on his grandma as he waited to eat some of the tiny tortillas she made in her adobe “mudbrick” home. The boy, Rolando Herrera, also nicknamed the “little devil” in his family, who could typically be caught doing everything he wasn’t supposed to be doing, like climbing trees and pulling their goat’s tail, would only sit still on a wooden bench in the kitchen next to his grandma, named Mama Ester, as she made fresh tortillas. Rolando’s Mama Ester was a marvel of a human being and she had her own fierce inner fire. She balanced five different businesses that ranged from making tortillas for 20 families to bringing kerosene to her neighbors – as there was no power in their village – or taking the journey every Sunday to a larger town to carry back pots and pans that she would buy to then sell to her village, just to name a few.
That little boy would go on to live a life in Napa Valley, California that his grandma couldn’t ever imagine although her very spirit made it possible for him as she was his “hero” and “role model”. The little boy, Rolando Herrera, would go on to not only become a Napa Valley winemaker but also own his own winery.
The Herrera family lived with his Mama Ester until he was six in Mexico as his father wanted to move to California, ending up in Napa Valley, to make enough money to retire at an early age back in Mexico. But for a couple months each year, during the summers, the family would go back to Mexico to live with Mama Ester and so she was a constant force in Rolando’s life. In 1980, Rolando’s father decided that it was time to move back to Mexico to retire but a couple years later a 15-year-old Rolando with his older brother decided to come back to Napa Valley to finish high school as well as build a career and future for himself in a land that had a lot more opportunity than his village in Mexico.
Journey from Dishwasher to Napa Valley Winery Owner
Rolando washed dishes at Auberge du Soleil for a few years during high school and then he started working in construction with his first job site at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. The founder and former winemaker, Warren Winiarski, must had seen something in Rolando as he invited him to become a “cellar rat” – constantly keeping the cellar clean as the majority of the work in the winery is cleaning. And it was “love at first sight” when he saw the tanks, barrels, the cellar – at 17 years old he knew that this would be his future. Within three years he was promoted to cellar master and he stayed there ten years with Warren until that fire inside of him demanded another big challenge, and despite his great working relationship with the legendary Warren Winiarski, he needed to be more than just a cellar master.
So he went to work as an assistant winemaker for Chateau Potelle for Jean-Noel and Marketta Fourmeaux as he was instantly taken by their “old world” philosophy. “The way they talked about the soil and the various parts of Mother Nature got me really excited and so I took the job as it reminded me how my grandma used to talk about the land.” For three years he would work 24/7 during harvests during his time at Chateau Potelle and in spite of it being “a lot of hard work” it was an “amazing” experience; Rolando was the cellar rat, the cellar master, the assistant winemaker, the lab technician, the vineyard manager – he was doing it all.
Mi Sueño Winery
His time at Chateau Potelle prepared him for his ultimate dream which was to have his own winery. Rolando left Chateau Potelle to become head winemaker at Vine Cliff Winery and then after that, director of winemaking for Paul Hobbs Consulting while starting his own winery Mi Sueño in 1997 with his wife. After a few years of working for Paul Hobbs he realized that he couldn’t give him 100% as he was trying to get Mi Sueño off the ground and so he made the “tough decision” to go his own way.
Rolando’s wife Lorena was raised with her eight siblings growing and managing vines as her parents, who came from Mexico as immigrant workers during the late 1960s, accumulated over 350 acres of vineyards in Napa, Sonoma and Lake County. Rolando not only noted his wife’s innate connection to the land but her incredible palate has always been great to have around when it came to helping him blend the wines. So in 2003, Rolando and Lorena took the leap to give all of their energy to Mi Sueño, which is Spanish for “my dream”.
Today, Mi Sueño Winery produces 10,000 cases of wine from their estate of 40 acres across Napa Valley. Rolando also developed a line of wines honoring his family’s name called Herrera wines inspired by his time spent with Paul Hobbs. The Herrera wines are single varietal small bottlings with each wine coming from three or four barrels that are noted as being extraordinary by Rolando when he is doing the final tasting before bottling. Rolando also started his own vineyard management company as he had hired another company to manage his vineyards in the past as he felt he could only take on so much but his frustration with the work not living up to his standards really got to him and the last straw was when his vineyards did not live up to the great 2002 vintage in his opinion. This way he can make sure that Mother Nature is allowed to always give him the best grapes as wine is mainly made in the vineyards.
Living the Dream of One’s Grandma
One of the questions that Rolando has been asked over and over again in his 35 year wine career: where did he get his tenacious entrepreneur spirit? His parents? A teacher? A boss? But he has always just been too busy taking on the next challenge to think about it as he not only had his own winery with Mi Sueño and Herrera wines but also his own wine consulting business and vineyard management company and he is now getting ready to plant 70,000 vines along 45 acres in the Petaluma Gap in the Sonoma Coast for his next project. Yes he loved what he did but when one is too busy trying to build something, the roots of what drives a person is not so visible to his consciousness.
“My Mama Ester!” Rolando shouted out with joy one day finally having the answer to his resilient entrepreneur spirit. Many times one has to live a lot of life before the mysteries of his character is revealed which many times is rooted in his childhood. And this year is the first release of the Mi Sueño single vineyard named after his Mama Ester located in the Coombsville AVA of Napa Valley as he has been waiting for the right vineyard to represent this “special woman” for many years. It produces Cabernet Sauvignon grapes with beautiful fruit flavors, spice and a brightness and firmness to a wine that ideally represented the combination of Mama Ester being a “fun lady” who was also a serious business woman.
As Rolando’s Mama Ester would take that long journey every Sunday to buy pots and pans to sell to her village, as it was the only day where she wasn’t running her other four businesses, one can’t help but wonder, being the smart, hardworking and strong woman she was, if she ever looked up at the sky and dreamt more for herself. Or perhaps the only dreams she had were to provide enough for her family so her grandchildren, even her “little devil” who sat by her side while she made tortillas, would live a life she couldn’t even imagine. And maybe, just maybe, the reason she always smiled around him was because she sensed he had that same fire that was within her to do great things if given the chance, and even though she wouldn’t be able to accomplish the great things on a grand scale that she was capable of, her grandson would – he would make her dream come true.
2017 Mi Sueño, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from three appellations in Napa Valley: Coombsville, Oak Knoll District and Mount Veeder. Rolando says the Coombsville gives a high acid and beautiful color to the wine, the Oak Knoll gives sweet fruit and a supple palate and Mount Veeder gives big tannins and structure. Chocolate dust and espresso on the nose with deep blackberry and ripe plums on the palate that had a wonderful balance between being delicately beautiful with finely etched tannins and purity of fruit combined with an overall richness.
2017 Mi Sueño, ‘Mama Ester’s Vineyard’ Cabernet Sauvignon, Coombsville, Napa Valley, California: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from Mama Ester’s vineyard in Coombsville. “When I got this vineyard in 2008 with its red, gravelly soils, great exposure I knew it would give me the fruit for my Mama Ester wine,” explained Rolando. He planted two of his favorite Cabernet Sauvignon clones there, 412 and 169, and most years it will be a blend of those clones except some vintages may only have the 412 in it as this clone represents his Mama Ester’s beauty, wisdom and strength the best. This wine has a lot of structure in this stage of its life so it will need to be held onto for a couple more years before drinking. After several hours of decanting black currant fruit with fresh sage and lots of gravelly notes started to come out with chewy tannins on the palate and cumin seed and mint on the finish.
2017 Mi Sueño, ‘Lynne’s Vineyard’ Cabernet Sauvignon, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley, California: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from Lynne’s Vineyard in Mount Veeder. The godfather of Rolando’s youngest daughter owns this hillside vineyard in Mount Veeder. Pretty cassis notes are inviting on this wine that evolves through time into more complex aromas of dried tobacco and graphite with mouthwatering acidity and a long expressive finish.
2016 Herrera, ‘Valeria’ Petit Verdot, Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley, California: 100% Petit Verdot sourced from the best barrels selected from Linda Vista vineyard and Valeria Block vineyard in the Oak Knoll District. Named ‘Valeria” after Rolando’s youngest daughter as all the Herrera wines are named after someone in the Herrera family including his wife and all their kids. Rolando likes to say that this wine gives him the “sensation of a volcano”. Deep ruby-purplish color with black cherry compote and ripe black raspberry flavors with layers of cracked pepper and smoldering earth that had a broad shouldered tannic structure that was balanced by dense fruit.