Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Dreaming of Wine in America - Repost!

This post originally ran back in March of 2009 but as we are just getting in in the new vintage of the El Llano, the 2009 Carneros Chardonnay and doing a dinner with Rolando Herrera I thought it was worth a revisit! Wines have been updated to reflect current price and availability at the time of the post. Cheers!

Wine Dinner Information:
Mi Sueno at the Pluckemin Inn

Mi Sueno, which means “my dream” in Spanish, is the realization of the dream and vision of Rolando Herrera. In what is a great American story, Rolando was born in a small village in Mexico, and looking for a better life, moved to California in 1975. His life in the wine trade began humbly enough as a dishwasher at Auberge du Soliel, then on to line Cook at Mustards’ Grill where he began to appreciate the magic of great food and wine. At the age of 17 he took a summer job working as a laborer building a stone wall for Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, and was then offered a job working the harvest with the provision that he attend school in the afternoons. It was the beginning of a career that included 10 years at Stag’s Leap (the last seven as Cellar Master), assistant wine maker at Chateau Potelle, Winemaker at Vine Cliff and Director of Winemaking at Paul Hobbs. At each step along the way he absorbed his experiences, learning different aspects of winemaking, grape growing and marketing, developing his own vision which evolved into Mi Sueno.

“Each stop played a significant role in refining my style of winemaking. Stag’s Leap was the foundation.  It was here that I learned to appreciate the smell of the grape must and the feeling of being surrounded by barrels of fermenting wine. In addition, Warren taught me the value of attention to detail as well as to respect and enjoy the product we were making. At Chateau Potelle I was introduced to French winemaking techniques, including all-natural fermentation. I also learned that while anyone can make wine, to craft a truly unique and special wine, winemaking becomes more of an art form. My tenure at Vine Cliff provided me, for the first time in my career, a chance to be in complete control of the final product.” 

Eventually Rolando’s brother Ricardo joined him, having spent 10 years developing his talents as Cellar Master at Dominus and Assistant Winemaker at Screaming Eagle. Today they have a vineyard management company, and farm 40 acres of their own vines as well with terrific vineyard sites in Napa, Carneros and the Russian River Valley.

The wines are sold to us by Juan Prieto, owner of Vinifrance Imports, and Juan’s story is just as good as the Herrera’s. His family, solid middle class Cubans, lost everything when Castro and the communists came to power, nationalized private property and took their family business. After many hardships, they were finally able to leave Cuba and made their way to America with little more than the clothes they left with. Through hard work and drive, Juan and his family got him through school with a degree in Psychology which today is where he mainly makes his living. But his love of wine and food drew him to the wine business, and he began to travel, ask questions and learn everything he could. Eventually this led him to winemaker Michael Havens, a great long time friend of mine and Napa Winemaker, who subsequently led him to me about 20 or so years ago to ask advice about getting into the wine business. After giving Juan as many reasons as I could think of for not leaving his bread and butter job to open a wine distribution company, he went ahead and did it anyway. Today he has a great portfolio of artisan growers whose style and approach to winemaking we heartily endorse, making wines we love for their purity, expression, and natural approach, and of course, for their sheer brilliant quality. But he still has his day job!

We both work with on the French supply side with importer Olivier Daubresse, who aside from introducing us to some of our favorite French producers (Pascal Maillard, Guillon, Grivot and many more) has by far the most precise palate I have ever tasted with. With what I would call total recall and utter sensitivity, he is able to discern subtle changes that often the winemakers themselves don’t pick up in their wines. Travelling with Olivier is part and parcel to what I love about this business. I have spent long days the cold cellars in France together working on blends and selecting wines to import where you can see the relationship of respect and open communication between Olivier and his growers (Olivier pulls no punches!). This trust and understanding is based on a pursuit of excellence and results in our ability to source truly great wines (and share them with our clients!). Long, grueling days in cold cellars (I know, tough job!) are rewarded with lingering lunches and dinners, often with the winemakers digging deep in their cellars for magnificent wines in a spirit of sharing, mostly tasted blind, that challenges your senses and truly makes you think about what you are tasting. Vintage, soils, grapes, terroir, winemaking; how did these flavors and nuances arrive at the place and time we are drinking them? Every great wine tells a story of the year and conditions they were grown, the grapes and the soils and climate of the vineyards where they were grown, and the winemaking and care of the winemaker. 

Olivier’s personal story begins in the north of France, in a region best known for industry and far from wine country. As he tells it, the French social structure is a somewhat stratified system where upward mobility is difficult in terms of education, employment and career advancement, with layers of tradition and bureaucracy often creating impediments. So like many, Olivier went into the service industry, in his case the wine trade as a Sommelier, where he worked his way up to Wine Director of one of the best restaurants in France. He, like Rolando, found that his spirit was yearning for a better life in a place where his entrepreneurial ambition could be more easily realized, and eventually made his way to America. With stints at Bouley and Daniel in New York, he eventually left to follow his own dream of creating a business to import the small family owned estates he loved. These stories remind me, in a time when there seems to be so much negativity and doubt, of what a great place our country really is, with possibilities that exist here and nowhere else in the world. 

So what does all this have to do with wine? Not much, really, but it does reflect a little on my approach to it in a business sense. While the quality absolutely has to be there, wine is about more than just what's in the bottle, and definitely more than reading the press, checking the scores and ratings and stocking what is popular. It's about choosing to work with people who believe in what they do, who have a passion so strong they are willing to take risks and walk a sometimes difficult path to accomplish their goals. When you surround yourself with people with these characteristics and philosophy, quality usually follows - but on to the wines!

What I love about these wines is that they are a summation of all the experience and talent from the Herrera's years learning their art, and yet they sell for a fraction of the price of the wines from the places where they learned it. In addition, while they have California exuberance, they are also restrained and elegant, balanced, plush and deliciously drinkable. All are extremely limited production and worth getting to know. 

Mi Sueno Chardonnay Carneros 2009 – The grapes for this wine are grown in the cool Carneros region, and the resulting wine is balanced, with good ripeness and lively tropical fruit, creamy vanilla and a clean finish. About 35-40% new oak keeps it in check and allows the delicious fruit to shine through. Incredible value! $32/bottle

Mi Sueno Chardonnay “Sonoma Mountain” 2007 - The Sonoma Mountain is full, rich, but with restraint and only moderate oak, hints of apple, nutmeg and vanilla. Tiny production – excellent quality! $49/bottle

Mi Sueno Carneros Pinot Noir 2009 - This wine was first made by Mi Sueno in 2002 with purchased fruit, but discontinued it until their own vineyards were mature enough to provide the fruit. Planted on white soils with lots of lime it has lovely aromatic of red and dark cherry, lively fresh and mouth filling on the palate - California fruit (but in check), with fresh acidity underneath and a silky, smooth middle and finish. Lovely! Tiny production. $39/bottle

Mi Sueno El Llano 2009 - This is a blend of between 20-35% Syrah with the balance Cabernet Sauvignon, depending on the vintage, from vineyards near Caldwell's in the Coombsville area of Napa. Deep and dark, with cedar components and focused dark fruits both on the nose and palate. Long, solid and balanced, with just enough oak to compliment but not dominate. $49/bottle

Mi Sueno Napa Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 - Although the 2007 vintage was highly regarded for its vigor, depth and cellar-worthy characteristics; 2008 did not fall too far from the same tree!  Three words for you: elgance with decadence. This wine was crafted in the classicly-balanced style that Rolando has been known to make. Showcasing fruit from the Coombsville area of Napa (soon to be an AVA), this Cabernet is sure to grab your palate's attention with its firm, yet approachable tannins followed by its smooth finish. Tiny production, only 5 cases available. $65/bottle

No comments:

Post a Comment