The idea of owning a winery may sound glamorous — all romantic picnics with wine, cheese, and stunning vineyard views — but, in reality, making wine is an expensive, time-consuming pursuit and turning a profit can take several years, particularly in a place like Napa Valley. The astronomical land prices and high costs of living in the most famous wine region in America make it nearly impossible for anyone with limited resources able to make a go of it. Rolando Herrera, of Mi Sueño winery, is a winemaker who, against all odds, made the journey from immigrant manual laborer to winery owner in Napa Valley.
It all began back in the mid-70s when he was eight years old and his father’s job in a vine nursery took the family from El Llano, a small town in the Michoacán State, to northern California. His family only stayed in the U.S. for five years but Rolando dreamed of returning to Napa. Two years later, when he was 15, he made his way back, attending high school during the day and supporting himself working nights as a dishwasher in a luxury hotel. Despite all the hard, menial work, he was happy and felt that his dreams were coming true.
Rolando’s first job in wine was cutting stone at Stag’s Leap Winery where he was recognized for his hard work and outgoing personality. He was soon offered a job in the cellar where he found his calling amongst the tanks and barrels. Rolando’s used his ten years of experience at Stag’s Leap as a springboard for other opportunities in the Napa Valley wine world. Along the way, he met his wife Lorena, a child of Mexican-American migrant workers, now winery owners themselves.
“There’s this preconceived notion that Latinos are just the farmworkers.” says Rafael Rios III, an attorney, vintner, and past president of the Mexican-American Vintners Association. “That’s one of the most important things: to dispel those kind of thoughts and ideas.” Rolando has become a role model for the growing number of Latinos in winemaking who work hard and desire more rewarding and higher-paying jobs.
Together, Rolando and Lorena started the Mi Sueño (Spanish for “My Dream.”) wine label in 1997 with a small amount of purchased Chardonnay grapes. Their tale is an American success story that started with a dream and was built on a lot of sweat, tears, laughter — and a little bit of luck. (To learn more about Rolando’s journey, read my colleague Marco Salerno’s article on Grape Collective.)
Today, Mi Sueño produces between 8,000 and 10,000 cases of award-winning wine each year from several grapes, including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah. Rolando’s philosophy of winemaking is to extract all the flavor from what Mother Nature gives him. “I don’t shy away from leaving the wine on its skins for a few weeks.” he says. “But I use less oak because, in my opinion, many wines out there are being killed by too much oak.” Rolando wants his wine to express the best, inherent characteristics of the fruit, just as Rolando himself has been able to realize his dream, his “sueño.” (See below information about visiting the winery).
A TASTE OF THE AMERICAN DREAM
As hard as Rolando and Lorena work, they always make time to enjoy a homemade meal. While they both have their specialties in the kitchen — Rolando’s garlicky rosemary-mint rack of lamb is a family favorite — it is Lorena’s delicious cooking that brings everyone together around the table. Lorena credits her mother Maria with teaching her the importance of using fresh produce and for handing down generations of recipes prepared by her Mexican ancestors, like the authentic mole that is made with 30 ingredients. “There are so many flavors in the sauce,” says Lorena. “It’s so rich and full, like a great wine.”
Pop open a bottle of Mi Sueño’s 2015 Syrah to enjoy with Lorena’s delicious Chiles Rellenos. The meaty, almost bacon-like flavors in the wine pair perfectly with the sweet and spiciness of the dish. Or, enjoy Lorena’s favorite pairing with the dish, Mi Sueño 2015 Russian River Pinot Noir, a silky smooth, rich and fruit-forward wine. If you prefer white, the 2016 Sonoma Mountain Chardonnay, with its creamy texture and rich, round tropical fruit flavors, works well with the dish.
Chiles Rellenos With Cheese and Grilled Tomato Salsa
Serves 4 people as an appetizer
4 large poblano peppers
3/4 cup cooked white rice
1/4 cup cotija cheese, grated (feta cheese can be substituted)
1/4 cup monterey jack cheese, grated
salt and fresh ground black pepper
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
3 egg whites
2 egg yolks
1½ cups grape seed or other vegetable oil
1) Char the poblano peppers under a broiler or on a grill until the skin is blackened on all sides. As each pepper is finished cooking, place it in a large bowl covered with plastic wrap. Once all of the peppers are done, let the bowl sit for at least 15 minutes. During this time the peppers will steam themselves which will make removing the skin much easier.
2) Rub the skin off the peppers with your hands making sure to leave the seeds and stem intact. Using a small knife, make a 2" long lengthwise slit across the top of a pepper just below the stem and set the peppers aside.
3) Mix the cooked rice with the cheeses and then stuff the mixture into each of the peppers.
4) Beat the egg whites in a mixer on high speed until soft peaks form. Add the egg yolks and beat 5 more minutes. Place the flour into a wide and shallow dish.
5) Heat the oil in large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Dredge the stuffed peppers in the flour and dip in egg mixture. Fry the peppers until golden brown on all sides. Transfer the peppers to a paper towel-lined plate to let oil drain. Serve immediately with grilled tomato salsa.
Grilled tomato salsa
4 arbol chiles
2 serrano peppers
1 jalapeno pepper
3 large tomatoes
3 garlic cloves
Sea salt to taste
1) Grill all ingredients until they are all charred and skin is blackened.
2) Core the tomatoes and take the stems off the peppers. Transfer all ingredients to a food processor and pulse 3-4 times until well combined but still chunky. Transfer salsa to a bowl, season with salt to taste.