After a two-year stint at Eleven Madison Park in NYC, Paula de Pano headed to Pittsboro, North Carolina, to take over the wine program at the Fearrington House Inn from Maximilian Kast. De Pano was familiar with the program already, having trained with Kast when she’d graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 2010. In a little over a year since she’s been back, she’s trimmed the list back a bit (it’s now at 1,500 wines) and bulked up sales, putting extra energy into staff training as well as wine pairings with chef Colin Bedford’s farm-to-table cuisine.
My goal when I took over was to bring down inventory and up sales. We saw the effects in six months. In the restaurant, a lot of wine had accumulated, and we were simply running out of space, so I did a fire sale. We also pulled out a lot of wines for wine pairings and extended more training to servers—since then, our glass sales are definitely up. Especially with the wine pairings: the somms got more involved explaining how the wine pairings work, and people were interested. And we really collaborate with the chefs: I put four wines in front of them, and we taste the dish, the wines, and the dish and wine together to find the best match. Then, with the somms, I go through the pairing point by point.
Expanding the Classics
It sounds cliché, but I bulked up on riesling, Champagne and Burgundy. I was fortunate enough to inherit a wine list I’d worked with, so I already knew its strengths—the smaller regions of Italy, Spain, even South Africa and South America—I knew I didn’t need to expand those. We were lacking in classic regions. You have to understand: We’re in Pittsboro, North Carolina; we don’t have the buying power other cities do. Sales happen in larger direct-import markets; I have to really fight for every Champagne and Burgundy, and I have to negotiate. Like Moncuit Champagne—the grand cru is finally here in the market. We used to sell more prosecco, but when I took in the Moncuit, I was so excited that I put a blurb on the wine list and put it at a really competitive price. People order it now to start their meal, instead of prosecco.
The Friendly Grape
Every month we give two somms a budget to spend on what they want to sell; a somm here bought six bottles of the Relic [Napa Valley Malbec]. He sold it hard, and it went over really well. People respond well to malbec; it doesn’t matter where it’s from. We put in a Cahors a few months back and that did well, too. People see the grape and they are okay with it. And cabernet sauvignon is pretty expensive now, so guests are looking for an alternative. Especially younger people on their first foray into wine—you see them in the dining room and they are slightly uncomfortable, but they are comfortable with malbec. It’s a friendly grape.
Pinot Noir with an Accent
People who buy cabernet sauvignon tend to be older; pinot drinkers are more the thirty-five-to-forty crowd. [With pinot,] a lot of people start off looking for domestics, but I always ask if they prefer US, New Zealand or France. When they hear “France,” it’s like, “Oh! French pinot noir! Let’s do that.” It’s a good way to introduce them to Burgundy, but then it’s a fight of price. “Why is XYZ Burgundy more expensive?” they’ll ask. You have to answer them without giving the history of Burgundy; only some will be willing to go for the Burgundy.
Swapping Sancerre for Chenin
I haven’t gotten many requests for sauvignon blanc by the bottle. It used to be Sancerre, all the way, but I haven’t seen it move as it did three or four years ago; I used to run through a case a month. If people ask for sauvignon blanc, I generally steer them toward chenin. It’s underrated and hasn’t caught up with pricing of Sancerre. I like to keep chenin at around $50. Taille aux Loups Montlouis Remus sees a little oak, so if they want California sauvignon blanc, which tends to have some oak to it, this works: It’s older oak, but the wine has that softer style.
I offer one white Burgundy and one Oregon chardonnay by the glass, and it’s the Oregon [Gothic 2014 Willamette Ophelia] that moves. A table will end up having four glasses, and I’ll tell them, ‘I’m going to just charge you for the bottle,’ and they’ll say, ‘Great, can I have another glass?’
Taurasi Instead of Barolo
I’m seeing a lot of interest in the southern portions of Italy—Sicily, Puglia, Campania. There are a lot of people into Taurasi—I had a guest say, “I really like Barolos but can’t afford them.” He drank Taurasi instead. He’s not the only one; I’ve had enough guests ask for it that I had to bring in a couple bottles. In general, we’re finding people are really interested in trying new things. I do classes here, and I had full class for Ligurian white wines, and another for Priorat wines—places you might not think people would be so excited about.
is W&S’s editor at large and covers the wines of the Mediterranean and Central and Eastern Europe for the magazine.