Photograph by Michael Amsler DREAM CATCHER: Mi Sueno owner Rolando Herrera didn't even taste wine his first few years in the business.
Ulises Valdez, Rolando Herrera and Alex Sotelo prove that there's more to the American dream than just dreaming
By Alastair Bland
Winemakers like to joke that in their line of work making a small fortune requires starting with a large one. The overhead costs of producing wine make the whole business a money-losing endeavor, they say, with little chance of striking it rich.
But sometimes the wheel of fortune turns the other direction. Ulises Valdez, Rolando Herrera, Alex Sotelo and several others would have to agree. They owned hardly more than the shirts on their backs when they entered the North Bay wine industry, and today each operates a small kingdom. Valdez is a grape grower, Sotelo a boutique winemaker and Herrera a winemaker and all-around grape handyman. Each of these successful men emigrated from Mexico to the United States, either in dire poverty or weighted by hardship, and each has proven that small fortunes in the wine business can take shape from nothing.
Not One of Those Guys
Ulises Valdez arrived empty-handed in the Dry Creek Valley in 1985. He was there to work, never planned on staying, and intended to eventually return to the village in which he was born, Los Cuachalalates, in Michoacan. It was a corn-based economy where many residents lived modest lives, hunted game for meat and died in the same region in which they were born, though it was not unusual for men to travel north for temporary work in the United States. A few never came home, like Valdez's father, who died of exhaustion after a backbreaking day picking fruit near Bakersfield. Most men, though, returned after several months' absence with fistfuls of cash. They dispensed it to their families or drank it away in bars.
"I didn't want to be one of those guys," says Valdez, a stout-bodied farmer with an eagerness to talk and a readiness to laugh. "I wanted to be better. I told my mom, 'I want to go to America. I want to learn the language and make a living.'"
Yet he would come back, he told her, with enough money to buy a small local business, perhaps a tomato farm, and in 1985, at the age of 16, he stepped on a northbound bus and left home. He arrived in Tijuana 28 hours later, negotiated with a coyote to shuttle him across the border (the going rate then was $325) and made for Sonoma County, where his brother was working alongside several others from their village. In the Dry Creek Valley, Valdez was turned away from his first job possibility when the manager asked how old he and his traveling companions were. When Valdez, who spoke almost no English at the time, revealed that they were all under 18, the man advised the teenagers to go "back" to school. Valdez, who never went beyond third grade in Mexico, walked on with his companions with one lesson learned: lie about your age.
Down the road, the boys managed to find the vineyard at which Valdez's brother was employed. Valdez asked the foreman, "¿Trabajo?" The young men added that they were 18. With that, Valdez walked into his first job in the wine industry.
Valdez, his brother Nicolas Cornejo and several other friends from home pruned vines, thinned the clusters, sprayed them with agents and helped plant new vineyards in a young aspiring wine country called Sonoma. Valdez shacked up with his brother in a trailer north of Cloverdale, sharing the cramped lodging with a family and several kids, all of them Mexicans.
The Valdez brothers moved to Healdsburg within several months. There, they resided in squalid conditions at a junk-strewn car garage and illicit laborer camp, where Valdez occupied a camper shell pickup truck with four other men. They labored by day, shopped at La Luna Market in town, drank beers after work (wine would come later, with Valdez starting on white Zinfandel in the early 1990s) and cooked on a camp stove beneath a corrugated roof awning. They lived on the best thing they knew, meat tacos.
"We were growing grapes, not corn, but otherwise life wasn't much different than back home, because where I came from we had nothing," Valdez remembers. "So if I slept in the camper or outside under the tree, it was the same as in Mexico. I came from nothing."
I Belong Here
As Valdez settled into a life of labor in Sonoma County, Rolando Herrera was finding his feet in the Napa Valley. From the village of El Llano, Michoacan, Herrera spent much of the first decade of his life in the States with his family. They returned home together in 1980, but Herrera saw only an inferior future in Michoacan and, with his father's permission, he returned to Napa in 1982. He was just 15. He promptly got a job as a dishwasher at Auberge Du Soleil. He was promoted to kitchen work and eventually learned such fine arts as soufflé making. All the while he attended high school, honoring a promise he had made to his mother that he would acquire a basic education.
Herrera's first job opportunity in the wine industry came in 1985, when he helped chisel rocks and build a stone wall at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars. The winery's owner, Warren Winiarski, became a friend and mentor to Herrera, and after the wall was completed, Winiarski kept Herrera employed through the harvest. The teenager still had school duties to meet; he could only work from 3pm to 11pm, saving a few late hours for homework. School began at 8am every morning.
"I was just trying to survive," says Herrera, now 40 and the owner of Mi Sueno Winery, Herrera Vineyard Management and three houses. There came hard times when Herrera was left homeless; sometimes he slept under the odd bridge, other times in his car. During his restaurant days, he scarfed meals on the job, sometimes uncertain when the next opportunity to eat would arrive. Often, he just pocketed a Snickers bar for lunch; the local 7-Eleven, Herrera recalls, "was a five-star restaurant to me." Through all his hardships, Herrera always had family nearby. In 1986, he and his brother, Jose, who also worked in Napa, secured their own apartment in Carneros. They called Michoacan and invited their parents and siblings to come north. The family reunited.
"Those were wonderful days, to sleep on the floor with your family after having not seen them for so long," remembers Herrera, whose parents today live in Napa County, in one of his homes.
Herrera still worked at Stag's Leap at the time, and he recalls the first time he set foot inside the cellar. "I walked into that big dark room, and just the smell of the oak, the barrels, and all that mystery made me think, 'Wow, this is my home. I belong here.' The rest is history. I loved it from day one."
Except that Herrera refused to drink. He had seen a relative back home suffer from alcohol abuse, and even after several seasons of work as a "cellar rat," a title Herrera enjoyed, he made a point of never drinking. One day in 1989, after Herrera had turned 21, Winiarski pulled him aside. He got quickly to the point: Do you like wine? he asked.
"I said no, that I liked the work but that I didn't like wine," Herrera remembers. "I thought it was alcohol, drugs. Warren looked at me and said, 'How can you expect to be successful in an industry where you don't like the end product?' That's all he said. That was a big slap in my face. All that lunch hour I said to myself, 'He's absolutely right. If I don't do something, I'll be washing floors and cleaning barrels the rest of my life.'"
It was a turning point in his career. Herrera began sipping and tasting this juice which he had previously cast off as "disgusting." He found he had a gifted palate, and critiquing wine came naturally to him. He took a course in sensory evaluation at UC Davis, enlightening him further. At Stag's Leap he became the cellar master, a job that put him in charge of training the staff, while taking executive orders from the winemaker.
Hard-earned money accumulated in his bank account, and at age 22 he did what millions can't do today: He bought a house. By 1995, Herrera's skills were recognized, and he advanced to winemaker's assistant at Chateau Potelle. In 1997, he married his longtime girlfriend, Lorena, and established his own wine label: Mi Sueno, or "My Dream."
The Chicken Is Coming
On the job, Valdez took an acute interest in the finer details of growing grapes. He impressed his employers by asking persistent questions, and he was quickly granted greater responsibilities, like operating the tractor. Valdez scarcely tasted wine, yet, always a farmer at heart, he "fell in love with the vines," he says. Within months of his arrival, he acquired a green card—things were much easier for immigrants then, he says—and his plans to return home lost their immediacy and luster as more appealing prospects of a viable future in America took shape.
In the spring of 1986, he met Jack Florence Jr., whose father ran the vineyard-management operation that had employed Valdez from the first day. Valdez proposed to Florence that they go into business together, convincing Florence by adding that he would work virtually without wages—just small portions to send home to his mother each month—and only take a fair share of the season's profit after the harvest. Until then, his brother would continue to pay the $75 monthly rent for the camper.
Florence agreed, but other workers warned Valdez that the gringo would take advantage of his free labor, then ditch Valdez after he had helped to harvest and deliver the grapes. But Florence was as honest as Valdez was committed; he paid Valdez $5,000 in the fall of 1986, and with that they commenced a partnership that would continue for 17 years under the name of Valdez and Florence Vineyard Management Company.
Valdez returned to Mexico in 1989 to marry his high school girlfriend, Adelina, and together they hustled back. Valdez could legally have gone by plane, but he accompanied his wife in the dark, on foot, as she made the crossing from Tijuana to San Diego. In 1994, the couple pulled together enough money to buy a house in Cloverdale, and an American dream steadily took shape. Valdez continued visiting his mother and relatives back home each year, and he frequently sent money. Providing for his mother, says Valdez, was his life's first priority, though he still tended to his own aspirations. Valdez and Florence gained clients. The pair was growing for quantity, producing high volume, often with no advance contract. They sold to large low-end wineries and received at best ample cash for it. Valdez today recounts his early business with a note of sheepishness.
"Honestly, these weren't very good grapes. We were just selling to the big places like Gallo for $400 per ton," he says.
Yet the work was valuable practice, and in the course of training vines to produce to the max, Valdez also learned how to train vines to produce the best, and his professional ambitions steadily graduated until he became interested in growing grapes for discerning boutique winemakers who, at that time, would pay $4,000 or more per ton.
In the fall of 2001 Valdez, who by now had four kids, leased 30 acres on the Russian River. The land was planted with apple trees, but he recognized the potential of the dark rich soil, and he replaced the orchard with Pinot Noir vines. He negotiated in advance with Mark Aubert to buy the grapes.
"He was a little wary, because here was this Mexican guy, like 31 years old," Valdez remembers.
But Aubert took the plunge, and when the small inaugural harvest arrived in the fall of 2004, he made a wine whose barrel sample received a rare 98 points from Wine Spectator magazine. That same fall, Valdez purchased Zinfandel grapes from Rockpile Road and Lancel Creek vineyards to use in the launch of his own label, Valdez Family Winery. His friend Kent Rosenblum offered some tank time at Rosenblum's Alameda facility, where winemaker Jeff Cohn conducted the making of two single-vineyard Zinfandels that would be released in 2006. Hobbs made the Sauvignon Blanc, and Rolando Herrera made Valdez Family Winery's inaugural Pinot Noir. Since those first releases, Valdez Family wines have scored well into the 90s in Wine Spectator, and in 2007, the magazine lauded Valdez with a four-page feature.
"I told my family, 'We're still eating beans, but the chicken is coming.'"
Just for the Summer
In July of 1991, Alex Sotelo arrived in the San Fernando Valley. The bleak sky and nauseating heat came as a shock to the 18-year-old. The young Mexican, who had heard so much about this land of opportunities and riches, saw squalor and poverty in Southern California the likes of which he had never seen at home. It was near here, 15 years prior, amid these fields and shanties, that a young man with a family back home in rural Michoacan died of exhaustion after a brutal day of picking strawberries. Now things were just as bad. The laborers lived in cheerless shacks, bunking together and enjoying little privacy or other basic comforts of home.
Sotelo abandoned the San Fernando Valley after just two disheartening days and traveled onward to the Napa Valley, where his two uncles shared an apartment. The pair had been living here for a decade, working in vineyards, and they helped their nephew quickly find a job with Gary Morisoli in Rutherford, where Sotelo pruned vines.
"It was hard work," says the tall and lean 36-year-old. "I had never worked in agriculture. I was a city boy, but I wanted to prove to myself that I could do this work as well or better than any other person."
In fact, Sotelo had options that most other Latin American immigrants did not have. He was not driven by necessity or hunger when he crossed the border; he was here by choice, and he planned on returning after a month or two to resume life in Zacatecas. He had been in college when he left, was firmly en route to becoming a schoolteacher, and this journey to California was meant to be just a summertime vacation.
With a mind toward challenging himself, Sotelo began taking English classes at Napa Valley College while he looked for a place to rent. Sotelo declined his uncles' offer to stay on at their place, and two weeks after his arrival he found an available room in a small apartment crowded with male laborers. Sotelo paid the rent through vineyard work, and making ends meet was a fine adventure for the city kid.
As the summer wore on toward fall, though, the notion of remaining in the United States took hold, and Sotelo put off school and stayed in Napa, working at Gary Morisoli through the harvest. The money as a laborer was good enough that he found enough extra to send home on occasion, and by now Sotelo had fallen for the Napa Valley. He saw California as "a land of such opportunity," and every day, he recalls, he was struck dumb by the dramatic beauty of the place. His intention of returning to Zacatecas to pursue an academic life began to blur and fade.
Sotelo climbed the ladder of responsibility. He remained two years at Gary Morisoli Vineyard before Robert Pecota Winery gave him a job as vineyard foreman, a position that included tasks within the wine cellar and, occasionally, the tasting room. Here, Sotelo was shocked by the wanton waste of money that tourists splurged on mere grapes.
"I thought it was craziness for people to do what they do, to come into the valley and pay thousands and thousands of dollars for wine," he says. "I thought, 'Gosh, why are people here so crazy about wine?'"
But his work in the cellar opened his eyes. He tasted wine every day and found he was good at perceiving sensory details.
"I had a gift to taste wine, probably better than some of the people in the winery. This was a shock to me," he says. "It was a discovery into my own self."
Sotelo was promoted to cellar master, which served as a stepping-stone toward winery lab work. Here, he talked to the winemakers themselves, asking persistent questions about the science, art and business of making wine, and he satisfied much of his curiosity through reading books off the shelves. Soon, these sources of information were exhausted, and Sotelo signed up for classes at Napa Valley College and at UC Davis, where he studied enology.
In 1998, he was promoted to assistant winemaker at Robert Pecota Winery. He bought a house in Napa in 1999, and in 2002, he founded his own label, Alex Sotelo Cellars. The first wines were released in 2004, and production today totals some 4,000 cases.
People Like the Story
Herrera's career accelerated right alongside Sotelo's. In 1998, Herrera became the winemaker at Vine Cliff, and on the side he began to build his Mi Sueno label. He launched Herrera Vineyard Management in 2005, and the company, which he co-owns with his brother Ricardo, manages most of the vineyards used by the Mi Sueno label, now 6,000 cases strong and growing. The brand includes a red blend named after his village of El Llano.
Under his separate namesake label, Herrera honors his children and has named wines after three of them—Esmerelda, Rolando Jr. and Rebecca. Each wine is a vineyard designate made with the very best grapes from the 80 acres that Herrera manages, and each is meant to represent the individual personalities of his children. With six kids, Herrera has three wines to go. The concept is a stretch of the imagination, he concedes, "But people like the story."
For Valdez, there are some aspects of the wine country good life that he is reluctant to embrace. "There is a lot of bullshit here," he says with amused conviction. "When people say they taste crushed rock and manure in a wine, it's a lot of bullshit, and when they ask what kind of meat we can or can't eat with our Zin, it's bullshit. I'm not a bullshitter."
Yet Valdez, too, denotes some symbolic interpretation to his Zinfandel. He feels that the variety, with its strong fruit and pepper notes and its easy boldness, aptly stands for the working class. "I feel like Zin is for people like me," he says, "people who aren't wearing a suit and tie."
Valdez and his longtime business partner Jack Florence Jr. parted ways in 2003, but Valdez and Sons Vineyard Management (Valdez clearly has career plans for his children) continued on and is now in high demand throughout the North Bay. Even Rolando Herrera, who insists on growing and tending his own grapes as a means of assuring quality wine, buys a portion of his Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Valdez's vineyards. Valdez and Sons employs roughly 70 workers, and Valdez himself still toils right alongside them, just as he did as a nearly penniless stranger more than 20 years ago. He calls his workers the "wheels" of his winery.
"I might be the engine, but without my workers, we won't move anywhere."
One of Valdez's greatest peeves is the common terminology reserved for discussing immigrants. "I can't understand calling people 'aliens,' and I can't stand it. When you're drinking a bottle of $300 Napa Cabernet and saying, 'I love all that crushed rock and flowers,' well, who do you think made that wine? Those people you call 'aliens.' They aren't from Mars. They're from Mexico."
Today, roughly 12 million undocumented laborers, most from Latin America, dwell under the radar as they harvest the food that feeds America. Though border jumping, not to mention attaining citizenship, has grown more difficult since the 1980s, many of these laborers move back and forth, visiting family at home and working U.S. fields for cash. Some, like Valdez's father, die on the job. Last year in California alone, three farmworkers died on the job of heat stress.
Ulises Valdez's mother died in Mexico in 2007. He has not returned home since, yet he says he'll never forget his roots. "I'm not a rich guy, and I still have dreams and goals," he says. "So far, I've reached every single one, but nothing will ever change who I am or where I came from."
Alex Sotelo also lives a life between two nations, and he recently spent three weeks in Mexico with his family. Yet he, too, is committed to a future in the Napa wine country. "When I think of how I once thought of the wine business, it's really funny," he smiles. "It was just a job to me. I was just going to go home, and I thought this wine thing was all just craziness.
"Now I'm a part of it."
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