Seasoned sommelier Paula de Pano left her role as Fearrington Village’s beverage and service director to pursue Rocks + Acid, a business dedicated to terroir-driven wines from around the world
By Hannah Lee
Wine was never readily available to Paula de Pano growing up in the Philippines. Beer and liquor? There was more than enough of that to go around. But wine? For the upper class only.
When she graduated from Ateneo de Manila University and went to work in a wine shop, her whole world changed with a sip of Beringer Chenin Blanc, a white wine from California.
“It was friendly,” she remembers. “I thought it would be bitter, or it would taste just like grape juice. I didn’t have a lot of wine references. Wine was like a froufrou thing in Manila. Thankfully that’s changing.”
Now, 15 years later, Paula wants to reconstruct some of the classism surrounding wine. The seasoned sommelier has plans to open Rocks + Acid wine shop and bar at Southern Village in early spring. She’s made a clear stance since announcing the news last week that her business will be built on the values of diversity, inclusion and education.
Paula grew up in a non-drinking Catholic family who “still thinks that I don’t drink wine, and I just smell the wine,” she says. Naturally, her family was surprised when she moved to New York City to study at The Culinary Institute of America and pursue wine as a full-time career. That’s where she met her now-husband, Christian Tondre, who sparked her competitive side.
“Christian was a block before mine at school, and he got to do his wine course before I did. And we both took school seriously. He ended up having an A-minus for his final grade. Then I did the class and got an A-plus on it,” she smirks.
“She still turns dinner into a contest even now,” Christian laughs.
“Her hunger for knowledge,” Christian adds, is what helped her climb the ranks to advanced sommelier. It’s the second-highest sommelier rank behind master sommelier – only 172 people in America hold the title. Of those, 28 are women. She began her career as a sommelier at Fearrington Village and ended up as its beverage and service director, with a short stint at a Michelin-starred restaurant in New York City, before she left the role in late August.
Of the four sommeliers at Fearrington, she was the only woman.
“I still get looks from 80-year-old women looking at me like, ‘Why are you helping me with wine? Where’s my sommelier?’” she adds. “So it’s very great for me to do this as a female person of color – to be able to open up my own business and showcase that wines are very much like people.”
These experiences helped her mature within the industry, and it opened her eyes to what her true goals are: Show others that anyone can learn about and love a bottle of wine, no matter their background or knowledge.
She hopes to achieve that in the 1,150-square-foot space that has the capacity for about 3,000 bottles, spanning 300-350 labels – the majority of those priced at $20 or less.
In the middle of the shop will be a communal table for tastings, where Paula also hopes to continue teaching wine classes twice a month. Above the table will be a pergola that flows from the outside to the interior space. The team at pod architecture + design is also helping her convert one of the windows into a garage door.
Rocks + Acid will also offer cheese, charcuterie, caviar and a wine supper club to match sellers with wine aficionados. The concept originally had a food focus, with Christian, who joined Hawthorne & Wood’s culinary team earlier this year, at the helm. But the onset of the pandemic changed those plans.
Paula still has high hopes to revisit that idea in the future. For now, she’s happily stocking up on wines at her home in Pittsboro.
“There’s so much wine in our dining room right now, it’s insane,” Christian says. “She’s so excited about bringing in everything for this shop.”