For centuries, immigrants have been coming to California to live their dream of making a living from West Coast’s fertile soil. Italian immigrants with iconic names like Gallo, Mondavi, Sebastiani and Martini struck gold with grapes. But their successes weren’t built on pretty labels, celebrity names or clever marketing schemes that have propelled modern-day wine producers to instant wealth. The success of the immigrants was built on long days of hard work.
There is no better representative of this pioneering work ethic than Rolando Herrera who moved permanently from Mexico to California at age 15 to embark on a long but progressive journey from dishwasher to winemaker. His winery – aptly named Mi Sueño for “my dream” – is pumping out success after success with each new vintage. It is a testimony to a self-made man who painstakingly tends to the crop and the winemaking.
Likewise, Laura Munoz left her close-knit family in Spain to come to the United States at 27 to take a fledgling career in winemaking to new levels at such renown wineries as Cardinale, Lokoya and now Ehlers Estate. Both are among a wave of foreign winemakers who left the comforts of home to pursue a dream. Their inspirational stories are worthy to share as Thanksgiving nears and we give thanks to the pioneers who toiled to bring food and wine together.
Herrera joined his family in the mid-1970s when they moved from their home in El Llano, Mexico, to Northern California in search of a better future. The family returned to Mexico in 1980, but Rolando never gave up his dream to return to California. At age 15 he and his older brother moved to Napa Valley. Although that age seems impossibly young for most of us, Herrera said 15 in Mexico is considered an independent adult.
“I was renting a space in a one-bedroom apartment with my brother and 12 people. In a few months, there were 24 of us. But I enrolled in high school and got a job washing dishes,” Herrerra said of his start in California.
His first break came when he went to work for Warren Winiarski at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. The legendary winemaker gave the teenager a summer job breaking up rocks for a stone wall. When it was time to return to school for his senior year, he personally thanked Winiarski for the opportunity. Winiarski was so impressed that he hired him on the spot to work crush and help in the cellar.
“I remember getting a raise and was earning $12 an hour. I thought I had made it to the big leagues. I loved my job and my coworkers became my best friends,” Hererra recalled.
Herrera remained at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars for 10 years, taking college classes at night and eventually becoming Stag’s Leap’s cellar master. Yearning to learn more and advance his skills, he left to take winemaking jobs with Chateau Potelle and Vine Cliff before landing a director of winemaking position with the iconic Paul Hobbs Wines. But he never forgot the generosity of his mentor.
Another break came in 1997 when he married Lorena Robledo, whose parents owned more than 350 acres of vineyard land in Napa, Sonoma and Lake counties. Like Herrera, Lorena’s father immigrated to California as a teenager. Herrera bought grapes from Reynaldo Robledo and made 250 cases of his own wine at a crushing facility. After his father-in-law tasted it, he sent Herrera a message.
“He said he wanted to buy all of the wine,” Herrera said. “I told him no, but I could give him a palate. Then, he asked why don’t you make wine for me?”
Herrera did and together the combined family made wine under the Robledo and Mi Sueño labels.
They joined the ranks of several California winemakers from Mexico: Juan Pablo Torres Padilla of Sullivan Rutherford Estate, and Pablo Ceja of Ceja Winery.
Laura Munoz grew up sharing wine with her father at the dining room table after church in Spain. Her experience with food and wine was so strong that she decided to pursue food and science in college. Despite her father’s concerns, she chose to pursue wine making in Spain and then traveled to New Zealand and Chile to learn more. She said the opportunities in the U.S. are much greater.
“People believe in you here and give you a lot of support, but that’s rare in Spain,” she said. She said she misses those family meals in Spain but craves Spanish food when she returns to her home country every other year.
“It was hard for me because I’m close to my family. Having those Sunday meals, I miss that,” she said. But now that her parents have visited her in the U.S., they are finally impressed with her success.
Like Herrera, Munoz is making some incredible wines to share at the Thanksgiving table.
The Mi Sueño wines fetch $40 to $55 a bottle and they launched an ultra-premium wine that costs $70 to $140. His profit is far more than the $12 an hour he made as a teenager.
“I never thought I would be here. Not for one minute,” he said. “I just dreamed of getting a decent job to provide for myself, maybe rent an apartment and buy a car.”
Many of his employees are young immigrants, like he once was. “Many of them don’t know my story. But some do and I tell them they can do whatever they set their minds to. Don’t be afraid to dream. Don’t be complacent. Work and hard but also work smart.”
Today, he has six children – “five princesses and one champ” – and knows for what to be thankful at Thanksgiving: “God’s generosity to me and my family.”
He will be spending his holiday around the table with a big turkey and a big family with big appetites.
The Munoz Thanksgiving will be “crazy,” Munoz said. She married an American, but her husband has Mexican blood and his brother is from Indonesia.
“Thanksgiving is really interesting here,” she said. The food is a cultural mix, although fried turkey has become a staple at the table. Her contribution is her grandmother’s recipe for natillas, a custard she tops with a cookie.
Here are some of their wines:
- Mi Sueno Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($75). Generous cassis and cedar aromas are chased by plum and red currant flavors with a bit of minerality and spice. Big tannins show it can age, but it’s still enjoyable now.
- Mi Sueno Pugash Vineyard Chardonnay 2016 ($55). Made from mountain-grown grapes, this full-bodied chardonnay has apple aromas and exotic tropical fruit flavors.
- Ehlers Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($55). The merlot in this blend gives the wine nice dimension. Complex with intense aromas of spice, blackberry and blueberries. Red fruit flavors with firm tannins to portend a good future in the cellar.
- Ehlers Estate Cabernet Franc 2016 ($65). Deep opaque color with intriguing violet and herbs de Provence aroma that are indicative of this grape variety. Full body with big tannins and dark berry flavors.
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Tom Marquardt (email for questions) and Patrick Darr have been writing a wine column since 1985. They’ve traveled extensively to vineyards in France, Spain, Italy, Greece and the U.S.
Tom lives in Florida with his wife, Sue, where he conducts wine tastings. Patrick is in the wine retail business in Annapolis, Md.