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Q & A With Winemaker Rolando Herrera of Mi Sueño, Part 2: Out Of The Trenches And Into Wine + The 2010 Harvest

Rolando Herrera
Rolando Herrera
Mi Sueño Winery

When we left off yesterday's baseball and Cabernet chat with Mi Sueño Winery's Rolando Herrera, the winemaker was recalling how he wound up in a hard labor construction job at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars (he thought he was being recruited for grape vine pruning). Not that it was a problem, as Herrera was a remarkably adaptable teenager. He had already worked his way up from dishwasher at Auberge du Soleil to a line cook position at Mustards Grill in Napa. And those were just his extra curricular activities his sophomore and junior year of high school.

Today, Mi Sueño produces more than 5,500 cases per year of Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Syrah and as of late, Rosé. Herrera's brother Ricardo, formerly an assistant winemaker at Screaming Eagle and Dominus, was until recently Mi Sueño's Vineyard Operations Manager. They're just a couple of country farmers, says Rolando, doing their job. Sounds like a lot more than that to us. Turn the page for more.

Herrera: Growing Up Fast Has Its Happy  Hour Advantages
Herrera: Growing Up Fast Has Its Happy Hour Advantages
Mi Sueño Winery

Squid Ink: You were telling us about showing up at Stag's Leap for what you thought was a job at the winery, but you wound up doing construction on the owner's home.

Rolando Herrera: Yes, it wasn't exactly what I was expecting. But that's also when I met Warren [Winiarski, the founder of Stag's Leap ]. He challenged me with different responsibilities, digging trenches and things. My last week of summer when I told him I had to leave, he asked me what university I was going to. I told him I still had one more year of high school. He was pretty surprised to hear I was only a 17-year-old. So he started asking me what job I was going to do next. I told him I figured just get another restaurant job.

SI: You had the experience certainly.

RH: Yes, but I really didn't want to go back. Then [Winiarski] says, "Do you want to work harvest here?" I asked him what harvest was. I honestly had no idea. He had two shifts, so I took the night shift job, which started the same day as the first day of high school. I have to admit though, I was really bummed to have to work the first day of my senior year. When all my friends were catching up after school, I had to leave right at 2:00 to go to the winery.

But when I walked in, I immediately thought, "Wow, I love this place. This is my home, where I want to learn, where I want to be the rest of my life." It was really like that for me.

SI: Since then, you've put your name on the map the past 25 years by working for Stag's Leap and Paul Hobbs, as well as your own label. With all those harvests under your belt, how do you feel about the 2010 harvest? There has been much debate on whether it was a bad year.

RH: You know, 2010 was very challenging. But at the same time, it was great for that reason. It was challenging from the growing season side, as there was a lot of mildew, but thank god I didn't experience any of that. I had a great season, actually. I think a lot of that, though, is because I manage my own vineyards with my own crew. But yes, the actual physical harvest was the most challenging of any in my 25 years.

SI: Why is that?

RH: Everything came in so late, even the early varietals like Chard and Pinot, so the harvest was so compacted. Normally, I have 8 to 10 weeks to do my harvest. This year I had to get everything done in 6 to 8 weeks, including those Chards and Pinots I'd normally have already have harvested. Logistically, it was intense.

But also, the thing with a challenging year is that we simply have to work harder when Mother Nature challenges us more. That's what being a farmer is about. Mother Nature challenges us.

SI: But overall, then, you still think it was good?

RH: Yes. I actually think 2010 is going to be the best vintage decade since 1980. The last vintage decade, 2000, was very tough. 1990 was better, 1980 was very tough. I always remember closing the decade with not such great wines, but I think with 2010 we can finally say that it will be a good vintage decade wine. I was hoping for that.

SI: A nice full-circle moment for your career. Speaking of, do you ever get back in the kitchen these days, or did washing all those dishes as a teenager kill any desire to cook at home?

RH: [Laughs] Yes, actually. Now I appreciate the restaurant business, especially the cooking side, much more. It's very similar to harvest, actually. The pace, how everything has to happen at that very moment in a restaurant and a winery. My wife cooks a lot, but I like to grill.

SI: Anything we need to try?

RH: Actually, one of my best dishes is from Rouas [the founding chef of Auberge du Soleil]. It's his rack of lamb. I make it all the time. The key is marinating the lamb in Syrah.

Check back later for Herrera's wine-soaked lamb by way of Claude Rouas. It's easy to make -- and of course includes a generous pour of wine.