Rolando Herrera is a bit of a unicorn in California’s Napa Valley. For one thing, he’s transcended the wine region’s traditional hierarchy. As a teenage immigrant from Mexico, Herrera started out as a dishwasher before working his way up through prominent restaurants and cellars, eventually becoming winemaker and owner of the award-winning Mi Sueño Winery. For another, he’s that rarely seen combination: a winemaker who also grows grapes.
At first glance, the pairing might not seem remarkable, but it’s not usually how Napa’s wine industry works. Most winemakers hire vineyard contractors to do the on-the-ground work—or they simply buy grapes from existing vineyards. “What I’m doing today, it’s what a lot of people did back in the ’60s and ’70s,” Herrera says. He admits that within his circle of winemaker friends, “they all think I’m crazy.”
But Herrera couldn’t imagine making wine without growing the grapes himself. On a Wednesday afternoon this fall, he was in the field, as he usually is, walking the slopes of Mt. Veeder to mark the land for a new vineyard. He talked lovingly about Veeder’s soil: “It’s just beautiful loam, a gold-reddish soil full of nutrients. It has a beautiful rich topsoil, but [since] it’s a hillside it’s also rocky, and drains really well.”
This kind of attention to soil, the topography of the land, and the nuances of each vineyard’s microclimate is exactly what sets Herrera apart. He has his hands in every stage of his grapes’ growing cycles, and he tries to farm with as few inputs as possible, paying careful attention to soil health. This devotion to the land has deep roots, extending back to his great-great-great-great grandparents.
From Dishwasher to Winemaker
The Herrera family has made a living from the land as far back as they can remember. Herrera’s ancestors in Michoacán, Mexico, were subsistence farmers, and his grandparents farmed a 15-acre parcel in the village of El Llano, growing produce to feed the family and sell at local markets. As a boy, Herrera learned to love the soil alongside his grandparents and cousins, picking his first cucumbers and tomatoes at the age of four.
“Most of my practices are no different than what they were for my grandparents, way back,” he says. “My grandparents always said, ‘Value the most important elements in farming: the sun, the air, and the soil. Take good care of [the land], and allow the dirt to represent the produce that you are harvesting.’”
In 1975, Herrera’s father brought his wife and children across the border to the Napa Valley, where he worked in agriculture. At the time, Napa resembled El Llano: sweeping fields of produce beneath green hills. Herrera joined his father in the fields on weekends, eating cherries and walnuts as he helped with the harvest. “It was a beautiful childhood,” he says. “I loved everything about Napa, and for me it was very easy to want to come back.”
The family returned to Michoacán after a few years in the States, but Herrera felt pulled to the Napa landscape and the opportunities it represented. When he turned 15, he asked his parents for permission to return, knowing he could accomplish more in Napa than El Llano. He returned (first undocumented, and later earning citizenship), joined his older brother in the Valley, and enrolled in a local high school. In those early days, the brothers lived in a plant nursery, and Herrera washed dishes to support himself.
Over the years, he worked as a dishwasher, line cook, and manual laborer. After a summer of breaking rocks at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Herrera’s work ethic impressed owner Warren Winiarski enough to land him a spot crushing grapes in the cellar. Herrera worked nights and attended school during the day. After three years, he was promoted to cellar master. “That’s where Mi Sueño’s story begins,” he says.
Herrera learned everything he could about winemaking during his seven-year tenure as cellar master, taking classes on viticulture and enology on the side. After he married his wife, Lorena, the two set their sights on turning their passion for farming and wine into a sustainable livelihood. Lorena’s parents had also came to California as migrant workers, and she shared Herrera’s love for farming and wine.
In Napa’s elite wine industry, many build their wineries from existing wealth. But Rolando and Lorena didn’t have that option. “This industry is [made up of] the wealthiest people in the world,” he says. “So how do you compete with that?”
The Herreras encountered plenty of barriers on the road to making Mi Sueño—Spanish for “My Dream”—a reality, but the most intractable was financing. “The winemaking wasn’t as difficult for us,” Herrera says. “We had the know-how. But just—how do we afford to buy grapes? How do we afford to buy barrels?”
In 1997, the Herreras produced their first 200 cases of Chardonnay. The wine quickly found an audience, selling out three vintages in a row. While the reception was thrilling, the success pushed the family into years of financial strain.
The Herreras kept Mi Sueño afloat by refinancing their house, riding lines of credit, and working multiple jobs. Herrera took a job as head winemaker with Paul Hobbs Winery after Hobbs hired him to consult with South American clients. At the same time, he built up a small roster of consulting gigs. “I’d wake up, go [to work], and come back to sleep for a few hours—it was around the clock, working seven days a week,” Herrera says. “All of that went towards paying the bills and buying a little more grapes. That’s how we did it.”
Paving the Way for Latinx Winemakers
Since those early, scrappy days, a lot has changed. Mi Sueño now produces between 8,000 and 10,000 cases of wine every year. The winery is internationally recognized, and Herrera’s wine has been served at three different White House dinners (the 1999 Los Carneros Chardonnay in 2001, the 2006 Russian River Pinot Noir in 2008, and the 2006 Herrera Rebecca Cabernet Sauvignon in 2010). Since 2004, Herrera has turned his full attention and energy to Mi Sueño—where he is both farmer and head winemaker—his vineyard management company, and his consulting work.
But a lot hasn’t changed, including Rolando’s tenacity and work ethic. “His attention to detail, from exploring different regions and different cooperages to estimating proper barrel aging, sets him apart from many other winemakers,” says Rich Aurilia, owner of Red Stitch Wine Group, where Herrera consults as the winemaker. “We’re very confident in the fruit we get because we know first-hand who’s out there taking care of it on a day-to-day basis.”
Now that he’s found success in an insular industry, Herrera wants to break down doors for other Latinx winemakers to walk through. He employs a team of full-time, year-round workers, many of whom are Latinx. The Napa wine industry runs on seasonal labor, but by owning both his winery and his vineyard management company, Herrera can maintain a permanent crew and move employees between the vineyard and the cellar. This allows him to provide stable jobs and a consistent income to the team he calls family.
In 2010, he founded the Mexican American Vintners Association (MAVA) with a small group of other vintners. “It was no longer a question of whether we wanted to unite and form a group—it was a responsibility that we had,” he says.
The group exists, in Herrera’s words, “to be an inspiration, to be role models, to be a home and a hub for Latinos and minority people to come and ask us questions, and to show the path for all the new generations that want to do this. We don’t want them to trip on the same rocks that we did. We share with them our experience: what we did, what worked, what didn’t work.”
Aurilia adds, “He’s had a huge impact on other Latino people in the wine industry—whether they’re vineyard workers or people who work in barrel rooms or people who are interested in making wine. You can look at him and say, ‘If this guy can put his mind to it and do it, why can’t I do it?’”
Devotion to the Land
Today, Herrera Vineyard Management covers vineyards across the Napa and Sonoma regions—he and his team currently manage 40 acres, and they planted an additional 45 in 2019—Herrera lets soil variation and microclimates dictate his rootstock and irrigation choices. In the Carneros region, where he grows Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, the soil is built from limestone, silt, and sand. In his Tierra Blanca vineyard (named for the soil’s white color), located in a cooler area closer to the Bay, he says, “We put a rootstock that can stay a little more on the top of the soil, not go too deep.”
But a dozen miles west at his Russian River vineyard in Sonoma, Pinot Noir grapes grow in completely sandy, loam-rich soil. Here, Herrera plants a more vigorous rootstock that reaches deeper into the earth. He also irrigates more frequently and in smaller amounts to compensate for the quick-draining soil. “Some of my vineyards here—and this is something I saw in Mexico—are only a quarter of a mile apart, but they have different soils and different microclimates [depending on] the land,” he says.
Soil and microclimate aren’t the only things that inform Herrera’s choices. “Every year Mother Nature gives us a different growing season, and that alone creates hundreds of different variables,” he says. The subtle shifts in weather are what keeps Herrera in the field, testing his grapes against the humidity, temperature, rainfall, wind, and erosion of a given season.
In all his vineyards, Herrera farms in a way that prioritizes soil health. “I do everything I possibly can to minimize any herbicides and fungicides out in the vineyards,” he says. “One of the biggest challenges we have is weed control. I invest a lot in labor—moving weeds with a shovel—or mechanically, with instruments, instead of just spraying.”
To avoid erosion, especially during the rainy season, he plants cover crops and spreads hay on particularly steep areas. He visits his vineyards right after rainstorms to get a sense of the water flow and how his team can redirect water into creeks. “There’s not a lot for me to create out here, other than just continue to learn, learn, learn,” Herrera says.
Every harvest season, Herrera tastes every varietal until each one hits the notes he wants: ripe fig, honey, plum. “There are years when we have to drop 20 percent of grapes on the floor to get that quality,” he admits. But fine-tuning the grapes’ brix levels, flavors, and acidity results in a wine that is completely his own.
Herrera’s farming philosophy hasn’t changed much from the one his grandparents handed him in Mexico. His approach to farming is intuitive, almost innate, inherited from a long history of devotion to the land and attention to the soil.
“For me, there are really no secrets to being a great farmer,” he says. “If there are, I’d say: respect your land, love your land—and [put in] a lot of work. Some of my vineyards I’ve been farming for 25 years, and the more I’m out there, the more I love farming [them].”
Photos © Rocco Ceselin.