Responsibility — You must hold yourself accountable. If you become known as a responsible person, a reliable person, then opportunity will come to you. People will know they can trust you to get the work done, and to do it well. My sense of responsibility and accountability is why Paul Hobbs relied on me to be his Director of Winemaking. Not only did he trust me to help run his business, but he trusted me to experiment with my own business in his cellar. He knew that I was responsible enough to manage Paul Hobbs Winery and Paul Hobbs consulting while also building Mi Sueño.
Is the American Dream still alive? If you speak to many of the immigrants we spoke to, who came to this country with nothing but grit, resilience, and a dream, they will tell you that it certainly is still alive.
As a part of our series about immigrant success stories, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rolando Herrera.
Rolando Herrera is owner and winemaker of Mi Sueño Winery in the Napa Valley. He was born in El Llano, in the state of Michoacán, Mexico in 1967 and has been farming his whole life. He immigrated to Napa at the age of 15 where he worked several jobs to put himself through high school. The summer of 1985 was a turning point in Rolando’s career. Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, a meticulous owner-winegrower, hired him to break up rocks so that he could build a stone wall around his property. Later that summer Rolando accepted a position working the cellar at Stag’s Leap at night, while still attending school during the day. After only three years, Rolando became cellar master at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, where he held the position for seven years. Rolando later became assistant winemaker at Chateau Potelle, winemaker at Vine Cliff, and director of winemaking for Paul Hobbs. In 1997 he made 200 cases of Chardonnay as a side project and Mi Sueño Winery was born. Since 2004, Rolando has dedicated 100% of his time to Mi Sueño Winery, Herrera Vineyard Management, and a small handful of consulting clients. For over 20 years Mi Sueño Winery has not only represented a “dream come true” for the Herreras, but has also come to be recognized as one of the great independently owned and operated wine producers in California.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in a small village called El Llano in the Michoacán state of Mexico, which is where I learned to work the land and respect farming. My grandparents had a six-hectare (14.8 acres) farm where they grew corn, wheat, pumpkins, squash and many other vegetables, which they sold for our family’s living. I used to complain and complain about the hour long walk up a rocky mountain to the family’s ejido (a communal farm), but this is where my abuela taught me my first lessons in terroir, a critical concept in winegrowing. She always said that our ejido was where she grew her best crops for our family. I tasted vegetables from so many sites, and I know in my heart she was right.
I was just eight years old when my family moved from our hometown to Northern California in 1975 with a work visa. My father saw an opportunity, like so many immigrants before and after him, to better his future through hard work and a willingness to sacrifice his greatest values — his home, his extended family, and his culture.
After five years, in 1980, our family returned to Mexico, but I dreamed of living in Northern California. I had spent the bulk of what I remembered as my childhood there, riding my bike through grape pomace and learning how to plant and nurture seedlings and small plants.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell us the story?
When I was 15 years old, I was transitioning to high school. I knew my best chance at a good education was in the USA and I asked my father to let me go back. I had spent five grade school years in Napa, and I wanted to go back to pursue my high school education, and maybe even attend university.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
I hiked across the border through the dessert and mountains, the way many of the men in my life had before me. I was ambitious, and I wanted to pursue a better life for myself. I packed my bags towards the end of December and crossed with a group of people from my hometown. One of the older gentlemen in the group was a friend of my father’s and he looked out for me since I was just fifteen at the time. Pretty shortly after I arrived in the US, Ronald Reagan passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act and I applied for amnesty. I got my residency card in the late 80s and four years later I applied for my citizenship and was sworn in as an American citizen in 1990.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
My 17-year-old brother was already here in Napa and in the beginning, we lived in an apartment with 15 friends and relatives. We were all working hard for a better life. During the day I would go to high school, and at night I worked as a dishwasher at the luxurious Auberge du Soleil and at Cindy Pawlcyn’s Napa Valley restaurant, Mustards Grill. Although I enjoyed restaurant work, I longed to return to my rural roots and work in the fields.
It was at a summer job that I helped to build a stone wall on a vineyard property that I met the person who would become my first mentor in wine. As we completed work on the wall and I was getting ready to return to my senior year in high school, the owner walked by, I went up to him and I shook his hand and thanked him for the job, and I think that surprised him a little bit. Little did I know, I was speaking to Warren Winiarski- the famed owner and winemaker of Stag’s Leap Winery. Warren was impressed by my work ethic and gumption and offered me the opportunity to work crush and help out in the cellar on the spot. Still needing to support myself and preferring the work in the vineyard and cellar over restaurants, I accepted the position, going to school during the day, and working for Stag’s Leap at night. After three years, I became cellar master at Stag’s Leap, where I held the position for seven years. During that time, I also took courses on viticulture and enology at Napa Valley College and UC Davis. Warren taking a chance on me and hiring me was the spark that lit the fire inside of me. My love for wine flourished at Stag’s Leap and I never looked back.
So how are things going today?
I have been in the wine business ever since — with positions as assistant winemaker at Chateau Potelle, winemaker at Vine Cliff, and director of winemaking for Paul Hobbs Winery and Paul Hobbs Consulting. Even though I have dedicated most of my waking hours to wine, I really feel like I have never worked a day in my life. I love what I do.
In 1997, I married the love of my life, Lorena, after more than a decade of friendship and courtship. Lorena had also come to California as migrant workers in the late 1960s. With a shared understanding of farming and wine, the two of us produced 200 cases of Chardonnay later that year and launched Mi Sueño Winery as a side project. Originally intended as a “resume in a bottle,” the wine garnered attention from our friends and family who encouraged us to sell the bottles. The wine sold out three vintages in a row and in 2001, we got a call from the White House requesting our wine at a state dinner. We realized we were on our way to making our dream come true.
Today, we are getting ready to release our 22nd vintage of our Los Carneros Chardonnay and we could not be prouder to have built this winery from a 200-case side project to a nationally distributed winery that produces between 8,000 and 10,000 cases a year. We farm across five AVAs and in 2003, founded Herrera Vineyard Management so that we could completely control all aspects of our farming, from budbreak to harvest. We are still 100% family owned, and proud of the wines we create because they are our own.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We hope that Mi Sueño is an example to everyone that with hard work and a lot of passion you can accomplish anything. Our wines have been poured at the White House three times, the first time in 2001, our Los Carneros Chardonnay by President George W. Bush. Then in 2008, our 2006 Russian River Pinot Noir was poured at a Cinco de Mayo celebration hosted by President Bush. The third time, in 2010, our 2006 Herrera Rebecca Cabernet Sauvignon with paired with a wagyu beef mole dish at President Barack Obama’s first-ever state dinner, where he honored Mexican President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa.
In 2010, I and a group of other Mexican American vintners recognized the need for an association that could connect members of a common heritage and history. We formed the Mexican American Vintners Association that would not only serve as a marketing vehicle but a source of motivation and support for future generations of aspiring Mexican American winemakers and winery professionals. MAVA and its members strive to bring awareness to world class Mexican American produced wines while advocating quality standards throughout its members and providing educational sponsorships to Latino youth. I was the first Founding President of MAVA, and the continued progress of the Association is a testament to the idea that when we all come together as one and speak with one voice for the benefit of all, great things can be accomplished.
You have first hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you suggest to improve the system?
The biggest problem from my perspective is that we have a major labor shortage in California’s agriculture industry, and the wine industry in particular. Most of these workers only want to be here seasonally, for short periods of time, and then they want to go back home. Our government should simplify the current process by working with growers and farmers to allow to laborers to come to the US for a period of time and then go back home.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
1. Hard work — You have to love to work and embrace the American work culture. When I came to the United States at the age of 15, I didn’t have a clear plan and I didn’t have any money. What I did have was a good work ethic, I immediately picked up multiple jobs to support myself while I finished high school. I worked nights as a dishwasher at Auberge du Soleil and Mustard’s Grill, I got summer jobs, I balanced it all with my schoolwork and I never stopped working.
2. Discipline — Show up to work every day, on time and never late. You have to consistently give 100% every day, not four or five days a week, but seven days a week. You stay and do the job until the job is done right. Having a job is more than getting up and going to work, it is a sacred thing. You have to give it the upmost respect and not take it for granted and don’t allow people or friends to distract you. If there was ever a need to stay late, I would be the first one to raise my hand. When you have that discipline of course you are going to do good. Continue to apply that passion and mentality today and you will be successful. Discipline is why Warren Winiarski hired me to work in the cellar at Stag’s Leap, it is how I have built everything that I have now.
3. Responsibility — You must hold yourself accountable. If you become known as a responsible person, a reliable person, then opportunity will come to you. People will know they can trust you to get the work done, and to do it well. My sense of responsibility and accountability is why Paul Hobbs relied on me to be his Director of Winemaking. Not only did he trust me to help run his business, but he trusted me to experiment with my own business in his cellar. He knew that I was responsible enough to manage Paul Hobbs Winery and Paul Hobbs consulting while also building Mi Sueño.
4. Treat people the way you want to be treated with respect and kindness and honesty.
5. Passion and entrepreneurial spirit — My advice to people that don’t have passion is don’t do it; having your own business is not something you can pick and choose you have to want to do it. Being successful in life is not having your own business, its being happy doing whatever you are doing. So, you can only be successful in entrepreneurship and in your own business if it is what you want to do.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
1. The people, the culture. American culture is amazing. We have this amazing drive to come together and solve problems, especially when things get tough. That’s the American Dream, the American Drive, the American Passion. It is a spirit unlike any other. It doesn’t mean we agree on everything, which is fine, that’s what makes it exciting.
2. The opportunity and the freedom that each American has, that we can go around and apply for a job in whichever industry. That is a tremendous opportunity that other countries don’t have. In this country I can go work at a restaurant, a winery, a bank, a law firm, a school, anywhere that I can imagine. That is something that many other countries don’t have. Those opportunities do not exist in many other countries. It makes me very optimistic, not only that I have these opportunities but that I am able to provide them to my children as well.
3. Our adaptability. For example, when shelter-in-place orders came the wine industry, Mi Sueño included, was able to pivot and change directions to e-commerce and digital tastings. This is American ingenuity at work.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Mark Cuban, I am a fan of Mark Cuban and I’d love to pick his brain. His entrepreneurial spirit is a role model to me. When I see him on TV and sports and programs, I think he carries himself very well and is a good speaker and thinks strategically, but he is also kind and treats people with respect. I would love to buy him a glass of wine and watch a baseball game with him.
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!