Five minutes into a conversation with Rolando Herrera, the owner-winemaker at Mi Sueño in Napa, it's clear that what first comes across as shyness is really more of a quiet conviction for winemaking. He didn't come from a longstanding winemaking pedigree. He didn't wake up with a gut feeling that he should become a winemaker. He doesn't have a gold-framed degree in oenology on his office wall. Herrera was just a high school kid who, damn it, needed an after-school job.
His father immigrated to St. Helena in the 1970s from El Llano, a small town in Michoacán, Mexico, to work at a chicken farm (in the days before pricey vineyard plots wiped out other forms of farming in the area). When worked dried up, the family returned to Mexico. Rolando, then 15, wanted to come back. And so he did.
To pay his rent, he worked as a dishwasher at Auberge du Soleil (in the restaurant's pre-hotel days when it was known foremost for cutting-edge cuisine) and later became a line cook at Mustards Grill. All while he was still in high school. That focused work ethic would eventually land Herrera a cellar job at Stags Leap Wine Cellars, an Assistant Winemaker position at Chateau Potelle, and later a position as Director of Winemaking at Paul Hobbs' consulting arm. In addition to Mi Sueño, which he launched in 1997, Herrera also makes wine under a separate label for the Giants' Dave Roberts and Rich Aurilia. And yet the man is still a Dodgers fan. Turn the page for more on Herrera's unconditional love for wine and baseball.
Squid Ink: So you are a baseball fan?
Rolando Herrera: Yes. A big baseball fan, actually.
SI: Giants, presumably, as you are now making a Cabernet-Merlot blend for Dave Roberts and Rich Aurilia under their Red Stitch label. We'll try to forgive you.
RH: Yes, a Giants fan. I've always liked sports since I was a little kid, and I've had the opportunity to meet a lot of the ball players. It leaves me speechless [meeting them]. [Roberts and Aurilia] are great people, great individuals, great family people, and they do really love wine. For me, I love people in general, so I would find it really difficult not to like any athlete.
SI: Really? Even the Dodgers?
RH: Actually, yes. The Dodgers have one of my favorite people, Mark Sweeney. What a nice man. I love the game of baseball so much that I'm more than a fan of just one team. If you really like sports, it's hard not to like it all. It's funny because even though I am a die-hard Giants fan, as I meet [more players], I realize how much we all share in common. They have a passion for what they do, and I have a passion for what I do.
SI: Your winemaking style follows that fan-of-many logic, too. You don't focus on one or two grapes, say Cabernet, but make a wide range of wines, and you just released your first rosé.
RH: Yes, because I truly love making all wine. It doesn't have to be Cabernet grapes from Napa. I just love being a farmer. But I also love being a cellar rat, an accountant, a vice president, a janitor, all of the above on different days, different time of the year. I've been fortunate to have the opportunity, or actually sometimes the necessity, to learn from the bottom. I've never had the resources to hire everyone else to do things for me.
SI: Tell us about how you started.
RH: My first job when I was 15 years old, coming from Mexico, was at Auberge du Soleil washing dishes. But it wasn't just as a dishwasher. I was the dishwasher for one of the best chefs in the world, Claude Rouas. It was a great opportunity learned from that man.
SI: Pretty remarkable opportunity. After that, becoming a chef wasn't tempting?
RH: I loved working with Rouas. What he was doing I loved. But personally, I actually did not like working in a restaurant at all. It was the only job I could find at night, and at the time, I was a full time student in high school. So I needed a job that fit my schedule, which meant only a restaurant job. They gave me the 3 to 11 p.m. shift. It was a great opportunity. But to be honest, I could not wait to get out of a restaurant.
SI: But you stayed for a while.
RH: Yes, well, I had to because I was still in high school. So in 1984 or around then, when Rouas opened a restaurant in San Francisco, he took me and my older brother to work with him. I stayed there for nine months. I missed Napa Valley. For me, living in a 500 square-foot apartment in a crowded city with cars everywhere wasn't what I liked. I moved back to Napa in early 1985 and got a job at Mustards Grill working for Cindy [Pawlcyn, the chef-owner]. I was tired of being locked inside a kitchen.
SI: Did you know at that point that you wanted to get into the wine industry?
RH: No, not at all. I wanted to go to Napa Valley College to be an engineer, to do something in electronics. I thought I'd be one of those “graduated” men who wore a suit and carried a briefcase. But after Mustards, I was just going into my senior year in high school so I still needed a job. I told my cousin that I really wanted to work for a winery, do something more physical, with more sun. He laughed and looked at my clean hands and said field work was not for me.
But he got me a job developing irrigation for new development, which is where I met the vineyard foreman who asked me if I was interested in going to work in a winery. He talked to a lot of us and said he only needed three people, and that he would pick the people who he thought would do well. I was so hoping I would be one of the lucky ones – I was – but I think it was only because I had a beat up 1970s Volkswagen that was half rusted but still worked.
SI: So that's how you wound up at Stag's Leap?
RH: Yes, that's how I got into the Cellars. But I thought it was a job in the winery itself. Turns out, [the foreman] drove us all the way up to the mountain to where they were constructing and remodeling the owner's home, not to the winery.
SI: Oh man. That had to stink.
RH: Yeah. I get out of the car and I see this machinery and cement blocks. The supervisor gives me goggles and gloves and tells me I need to break them up. What the hell?
Check back later for more on Herrera's career shift from from restaurants to construction and finally winemaking. All before he finished high school.