As the longtime beverage and service director at the luxurious Relais & Châteaux property Fearrington House Inn in Pittsboro, N.C., Philippines-born Paula de Pano is equally skilled at selling the world’s most legendary and expensive wines as she is at championing new producers from lesser-known regions.
“I built relationships with diners, and they trust me to push them out of their comfort zones and try off-the-beaten path wines,” she says. In her first solo wine venture—a soon-to-open wine shop and tasting room in Chapel Hill called Rocks + Acid—she is going a step further and asking her customers to take into consideration the environmental and social impact of the producers behind the bottles they buy.
Named for the terroir-driven, high-acid wines de Pano favors, Rocks + Acid is a “mission-based” wine shop which will operate on a core set of principles, which she refers to as “basic human kindness.”
Sure, it’s important to her that winemakers take a low-intervention approach to winemaking, but she also wants to audit the impact of their environmental and social practices. “I want to cast a spotlight on wines that were intentionally made to be enjoyed by people who care about what they’re drinking,” de Pano says.
Originally from Manila, De Pano came to the U.S. at age 23 to attend the Culinary Institute of America, but quickly pivoted into wine and attained the Advanced Sommelier title from the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas. She moved to North Carolina and since 2010 has worked for the Fearrington House Inn, which holds a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence for its wine list, interrupted by a transformative two-year stint at New York City’s Eleven Madison Park.
Senior editor Kristen Bieler caught up with de Pano—fresh off a 36-hour flight home from Manila where she had spent a month visiting family, her first trip back in three years—to learn about her path into wine, career challenges and what she has planned for her unique new shop.
Wine Spectator: As a Filipino-American who didn’t grow up with wine as a household staple, making wine accessible is important to you. How do you do that?
Paula de Pano: My first glass of wine was Monkey Bay Sauvignon Blanc, and it sparked my curiosity. Everyone starts their path to wine somewhere, and it’s my job to cultivate that curiosity. People new to wine often have a hard time articulating what they want to drink. Sometimes I ask them what kind of candy they like. If you like Sour Patch Kids, you may like a high-acid white; if you prefer dark chocolate, a bolder red wine might be your preference. Wine is intimidating, candy is not intimidating.
WS: You spent two years as a sommelier at the Grand Award–winning Eleven Madison Park in New York City, helping lead one of the top wine programs in the world. What did you take away from that experience?
PD: It made me who I am. Those two years were the ultimate education. My first nine months at EMP were traumatic, and whenever I go back to visit friends at the restaurant, that trauma is triggered. I see photos of myself from that time, and I was skin and bones—I lost 35 pounds in three months. EMP didn’t become number one by being relaxed: It’s an extremely regimented environment, and mistakes are not permitted. It took a long time for me to adjust, but after two years, I had earned the respect of everyone and became the somm of choice on our team. As I begin to manage people myself, I found there were better, less traumatic ways to teach and achieve the same results. But there is much about the perfectionism in wine service at EMP that I have always used to train my teams ever since.
WS: How did you develop the idea for Rocks + Acid?
PD: People often ask me if I’ll be selling drugs! Others assume it will be only natural wine, which is not my focus. I wanted to create a shop that focused on ethically made wines that align with our ethos. Miguel de Leon, another Philippines-born wine professional [currently the wine director at Pinch Chinese in New York City] brought up a great point to me about how most people don’t do the research about the wine producers they are purchasing and it’s on us as responsible retailers to be accountable for the wines we put on our shelves. Just because a hip and well-known sommelier is pedaling a certain producer doesn’t mean it’s an ethical wine.
WS: What is included in your definition of an ethical wine?
PD: Wines that are environmentally sustainable, not necessarily certified organic or biodynamic. We support wines made by real families, not board members. We want to do our part to amplify the voices of women, immigrants, people of color and LGBTQ+ members of this industry, and want to promote producers that share that same social responsibility. We turn our backs on enablers of injustices.
WS: Rocks + Acid is definitely a sommelier’s take on a wine shop. Explain the other ways it will be different from other retail stores.
PD: I want to interact with my customers just as I did as a sommelier and build one-on-one relationships. We will have around 350 different wines, and each will have a QR code with some broad-strokes information and flavor profiles, but the store will have very little organization, so shoppers will be forced to come and talk to me. It’s a risky strategy, but I want our customers to be asking questions: “I heard Rieslings are all sweet—is that true?”
We also have a tasting room with a daily rotating selection of a dozen wines by the glass and will be serving light fare. Our wine classes, hosted twice a week, will be geared towards advanced collectors exploring vintages from single producers, as well as novices understanding different varietals, and we will have many guest sommeliers coming through.
WS: Your neighborhood—the Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill area known as the Triangle—has a fast-growing population of many young professionals. How can the wine industry better convert younger drinkers to wine?
PD: If we can just convert them to have the same enthusiasm and adventurous spirit of beer drinkers! The craft beer scene here is full of young people who are so open to new flavors, new IPAs; they try all kinds of things and have a lot of passion. We have to cultivate that same eagerness and curiosity with wine, and I’ve found it’s about getting unguarded, honest opinions about wine from non-wine professionals. Too many sommeliers live in an elite fine-wine bubble.
WS: What’s your favorite wine region right now?
PD: Australia. I never thought I would say that! I am classically trained to love Champagne and Burgundy. But c’mon, everyone knows those producers, and they are shockingly expensive. I think cool-climate regions in Australia are responsible for some incredible wines today, and it’s exciting to see more of them come to the market, thanks to a few dedicated importers. Producers I am loving right now are Yetti and the Kokonut, William Downie’s Pinot Noirs, the Italian variety–based wines by Chalmers. They are not collectibles, but wines that are meant to be drunk and enjoyed.
WS: Any plans beyond the shop and tasting room?
PD: I want to open a pet shop next door to the wine shop and tasting room. How much fun would that be?