The Story of the American Dream: Mi Sueño

Every winery has a story to tell. The story of Mi Sueno winery is one of hard work, perseverance, optimism and pride. It was a pleasure to meet with Rolando Herrera of Mi Sueno over Zoom to talk about the story of Mi Sueno. It was inspiring to listen to him amidst the challenges that 2020 has brought all winemakers. I wrote about it in the Napa Valley Register and am sharing it here.

2020 has been a challenging year, to say the least. A year that started with so much hope and promise has thrown us one curve ball after another. As we continue to watch California burn, we watch our friends struggling and wonder what will become of the 2020 vintage. With all the destruction and sadness, we need some hope and inspiration. The story of Mi Sueño is that.

Mi Sueño is a story of hard work. It is the story of perseverance. It is the story of success. It is the story of the American dream. Mi Sueño is the story of Rolando and Lorena Herrera.

When Rolando and I first spoke, the Wallbridge Fire in Sonoma and the Hennessey Complex Fire in Napa were burning, and the sky was filled with smoke. Rolando described walking through the vineyards was like walking in the clouds. Harvest had only just begun and yet he was not concerned. Having survived the 2017 fires, Rolando learned a lot. While no one knows what might happen in the bottle over time, he said, “I am not afraid of smoke anymore.”

Harvest at Mi Sueño began on Sept. 8,  with the picking of Chardonnay. With 40 acres, his plan is to continue harvest through the third or fourth week of October. Rolando looks at 2020 as another year of learning, but he is optimistic. It is too soon to know how the smoke will affect his grapes, but he looks forward with positivity.

If you had met Rolando as a child, he would never have said that he would one day be a winemaker. While he grew up around agricultural farming with his grandparents, he was not even aware of the world of wine.

Rolando was born in Mexico in El Llano, “the plain.” Surrounded by thousands of farming acres, he was born and raised in the fields, pulling weeds and rocks as a child.

Rolando’s father had been travelling to the Central Coast of California since the 1960s. A friend encouraged him to go to Napa to work at a big chicken factory in St. Helena. In 1967, he worked a harvest at Schramsberg. While in Napa, Rolando’s father met landscaping architect Jack Chandler who was impressed with his work ethic, offered him a job and helped bring his family to Napa.

Rolando came to Napa in 1976 and lived there for five years before returning to Mexico. But, after two years in Mexico, Rolando knew that he wanted to return to Napa. He had an older brother who was still living there. So, in 1982, at the age of 15 1/2, Rolando moved to Napa to continue his studies.

Rolando enrolled in Napa High School and worked as a dishwasher at Auberge du Soleil at night. He and his brother would move around, sleeping in the vineyards and in their car. It was difficult, but they were determined to establish themselves in Napa.

By 1985 Rolando was finished working in restaurants and wanted to work outside. He got a summer job  breaking rock for a wall for Warren Winiarski, founder of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. At the end of summer, Rolando thanked Winiarski for the opportunity and said he was returning to high school. Winiarski, impressed with his work ethic, offered him a job to work harvest.

Rolando did not know what harvest was, but he accepted the job. He described the amazing experience of walking into the cellar for the first time. It was like “walking into a new world. The smell. From the first moment I walked in, I knew this is what I wanted to do.”

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars is where Rolando grew up, spending three years working in the cellar and seven years as cellar master. Rolando also enrolled in Napa College to study winemaking. After 10 years, he had reached a plateau and after a hard decision, he left to work at Chateau Potelle in St. Helena.

Rolando explained that leaving a great job at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars where it was like family was the most important step in his journey. Working at Chateau Potelle offered an opportunity to work in a small winery where he could do everything from working in the vineyard to blending and tasting in the cellar. In three years, he grew from cellar master to winemaker.

1997 was a big year for Rolando. He married his wife Lorena. And, after years of being told what to do and how to do it, Rolando felt ready to take on more responsibility. He felt the inner pulling of his entrepreneurial spirit but with so much competition and talent in the region, he did not know who would hire him.

So, he decided to buy his own grapes and experiment. The idea was to make a few bottles of wine and use them as his resume. He bought four tons of Chardonnay from a vineyard in Carneros and made 18 barrels of wine, playing with yeasts and lees. Nine months later, he blended the wines together for the final result. He had no money but bottled the wine, and Mi Sueño was born.

While 1997 was the first vintage of Mi Sueño, it was his last vintage at Chateau Potelle. Rolando was hired as the assistant winemaker at Napa Wine Company and two months later, he was hired as the head winemaker at Vine Cliff Winery. He worked three harvests at Vine Cliff while slowly growing Mi Sueño.

Needing more flexibility, Rolando accepted a job with Paul Hobbs and worked as the director of winemaking from 2001 to 2003. By 2003, Rolando was running around, burning the candle at both ends, with his job, three consulting clients, his own brand and two children.

Forgoing the comfort of a paycheck, he took the leap to focus on Mi Sueño full time, while maintaining a few consulting gigs to help pay the bills. Rolando also began expanding his vineyards. With long term leases, he started in 1998 with five acres in Carneros, and today has eight vineyards with 40 producing acres. In 2007 he bought a building and built the winery on Enterprise Way.

Mi Sueño has been producing 10,000 to 11,000 cases of wine a year since 2009. They make Chardonnay from Los Carneros and Sonoma Mountain, Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley, and Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon from the Napa Valley.

2020 was off to a great start for Mi Sueño. Rolando started clearing a 20-acre property in Mount Veeder. He also started planting a new 45-acre vineyard in the Petaluma Gap that he had been eyeing for eight years.

First Covid-19 hit, and then the fires. Fortunately, Rolando and his family have not been significantly affected. There have been some delays due to Covid. And now it is a waiting game to see how the 2020 vintage will turn out.

But regardless of the roadblocks of 2020, Rolando never dreamed life would be so good to him. “I could never imagine it,” he said. “I am a big dreamer, but I did not have the means or the background.” As a child, he wondered how people succeeded. More than 30 years later, after hard work and patience, he has succeeded.

Mi Sueño is Rolando’s “field of dreams.” He is determined to make Mi Sueño one of the best wineries in Napa. And it is this that drives him to be a great farmer and a steward of the land.

“I love what I do,” he said. “For 35 years I have been working but I have loved it. I stopped ‘working’ the day that I walked into the cellar. I am having the time of my life. You cannot rush success. Patience is the key. Work hard and you work smart.”

Now, more than ever, Rolando knows the American dream exists.

Mi Sueño wines tasted:

— Mi Sueño 2016 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($75), 700 cases

Fruit is sourced from Coombsville (60 percent), Oak Knoll (10 percent) and Mount Veeder (10 percent). The juice spends 20 to 30 days skin contact and is then put in French oak barrels, of which 50-60 percent are new. The wine is luscious with notes of blackberry, cassis, chocolate, coffee, licorice, leather, sweet tobacco, and white clay. It is sweet upon entry into the mouth and has a fresh and lovely mouthfeel. The acid is well-integrated, and the tannins are smooth yet grippy.

— Mi Sueño 2017 Mama Estér Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Coombsville ($90) 210 cases

In 2016, Rolando started producing single vineyard wines. Mama Estér is named after Rolando’s grandmother, his role model in life. It is a three-acre vineyard in Coombsville. He has been working with this vineyard for seven vintages but 2017 is the first vintage as a single vineyard wine. The juice spends 25 days on the skins and the wine is aged in 70 percent new French oak. The wine has aromas of dark fruits, cassis, coffee, vanilla, and dusty wet earth and on the palate chocolate and graphite notes appear. The wine is young and tight and needs 15-20 years of aging. But it is a wine of confidence, power, and strength which is representative of Rolando’s Mama Estér.

— Mi Sueño 2017 Lynne’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Mount Veeder ($90), 275 cases

Planted in 2012, Lynne’s Vineyard was the second vineyard Rolando leased in Napa. The wine has aromas of dark fruit, violets and roasted pumpkin seeds. It is a big wine yet refined and youthful with ripe, chewy, yet integrated, tannins.

Read the original story in the Napa Valley Register.