The summer before Rolando Herrera began his senior year at high school, he got a job at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, where his job was to break rocks for a stone wall around founder Warren Winiarski’s home.
Today, he’s the owner and winemaker at Mi Sueño Winery, who is helping put Petit Verdot on the map.
One of the six red grapes permitted in Bordeaux, Petit Verdot has traditionally played a supporting role in making something great. It produces wines with an inky appearance and has typically been used in miniscule quantities to bring more color to blends.
But like many underdogs, when Petit Verdot is recognized and cherished, it can be a star in its own right. In the United States and other parts of the New World, where there are far fewer restrictions on what wines can be planted and bottled, Petit Verdot is now beginning its journey to greater recognition and acclaim.
Underdogs given a chance
Herrera’s family came to Napa from Michoacán, Mexico, in 1975, when he was still a child. They returned home five years later, but Herrera missed his friends and the beauty of Napa and came back to live with his brother at the age of 15. He attended high school during the day and worked as a dishwasher and line cook at night to support himself.
And then came the job at Stag’s Leap. It was a minor task, but his strong work ethic made an impression. On his last day of work, when Herrera approached Winiarski to thank him for the opportunity, they got to talking, and Winiarski eventually offered him a job working the second shift during harvest.
“I said, ‘What’s harvest?’” Herrera recalled. Even having grown up in Napa, he knew nothing about the burgeoning wine industry that was building up around him.
He quickly learned. “From the first moment I set foot in Stag’s Leap wine cellar, I knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life,” Herrera said, who secured a permanent job in the cellar after finishing that year’s harvest. He loved everything — the tanks, the barrels, the smells. “At that time, I felt like I had reached the ultimate. I was on top of the world. I was at a great winery and great company, and I was getting paid cellar wages, which were a lot better than dishwasher wages.”
Herrera eventually became cellarmaster — a position he initially turned down because he didn’t think he was ready. “I owe it to Warren Winiarski and my friends around there that they saw something in me that I didn’t see back then,” he said. He started attending tastings with Winiarski and building his palate, and took courses on viticulture and enology at Napa Valley College and the University of California, Davis.
In 1994, he made the difficult decision to leave Stag’s Leap for his first winemaking position, working as an assistant at Napa’s Chateau Potelle. He went on to work at Vine Cliff in Yountville and as a vineyard and winemaking consultant with the iconic Paul Hobbs. Along with his wife, Lorena, he founded his own brand, Mi Sueño, my dream, in Spanish, in 1997. Although he still consults with a handful of clients, Mi Sueño and his smaller collection of Herrera Wines have been his full-time focus since 2004.
As acclaim for his wines built — Mi Sueño has even been served at the White House — Herrera could have just focused on Cabernet Sauvignon, the obvious choice for Napa. But he sees something in other Bordeaux grapes that makes him want to give them a chance — just as someone took a chance on him so many years ago.
”“As more people get to taste 100% Petit Verdot, I think more people will take a chance on planting it and growing it. It’s only going to get more popular.”Rolando Herreraowner of Mi Sueño Winery
The lure of Petit Verdot
Herrera was initially an avowed skeptic of these grapes, finding Petit Verdot, Malbec, and Cabernet Franc too harsh or green. Then, on a visit to one of Hobbs’ wine clients in Chile, he found himself uninterested in anything he tried — except for a Malbec. “That opened a new world for me. I thought, ‘We must be doing something wrong. Why doesn’t our Malbec in California taste like this?’” he says.
The next time he developed a vineyard in Napa, he planted Malbec, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot alongside the Cabernet Sauvignon. As he suspected, the problem was not in the winery. Although the grape can produce very astringent wines if not made properly, “Making great Petit Verdot starts in the vineyard more so than with any other variety,” he said. “It’s a little more temperamental and a little more challenging to ripen.” It requires the right soil and microclimate, careful canopy management, and a fair dose of patience to make sure it actually gets ripe.
Herrera loved the experience of nurturing Petit Verdot in the field. He also appreciated the purity, structure, and chewy tannins in the resulting wine. The future of this grape is nothing but bright in his eyes. “As more people get to taste 100% Petit Verdot, I think more people will take a chance on planting it and growing it,” he said. “It’s only going to get more popular.”
He’s not the only one expressing confidence in its future: Petit Verdot is popping up well beyond Napa. There are plantings in Lake County, Paso Robles, southern Oregon, Washington State, Idaho, Chile, Argentina, and Israel. Sommelier Amy Racine, beverage director for JF Restaurants in New York and Los Angeles, fields few requests from people looking for single-variety Petit Verdot right now. However, she believes that will change.
During the pandemic, people became much more educated about food and wine. Their curiosity and willingness to try new things was also heightened, which bodes well for this wine. “What we’re noticing at a lot of the restaurants is people are coming in and saying, ‘I love Chablis, but I want to try something new.’”
With a little coaching, “You can turn people that are the Bordeaux drinkers on to Petit Verdot pretty easily,” she said. It’s usually more affordable but retains the intense flavor and big tannins that people associate with Bordeaux. “If there’s a good push from wineries and marketers and sommeliers on the floor, I think Petit Verdot could definitely become something people are asking for more when they’re looking at a wine list.”
When that happens, it may have its own moment to rise from rock breaking to starring in its own story.
6 Petit Verdots to try:
Coiled is one of Idaho’s most highly-regarded wineries, and this wine is a great demonstration of why the brand continues to win accolades. With plenty of black fruit and floral flavors, plus generous structure and tannins, it is one to enjoy now or age.
Spangler Vineyards, located in Oregon’s Umpqua Valley, makes a Petit Verdot that opens with aromas of dark cherries and lilac and finishes with lingering flavors of blackberry and coconut.
Obsidian Wine Co. is located in Napa but draws beautiful fruit from Lake County to make exceptional wines. The winery’s Petit Verdot smells of blueberry, coffee, and black olive and adds licorice and black currant on the palate.