Posted up in a corner of Durham's Fullsteam brewery, Paula de Pano sips a beer, her long dark hair tucked into a teal knit cap. "This is who I am," she says, motioning to the hat and an oversize sweater she wears, implying that she's more relaxed than her role as a sommelier at Fearrington Village might sug-gest. De Pano joined the Relais & Châteaux inn as beverage and service director in September, replacing Maximilian Kast, who led the wine program there for nearly a decade.
"I never aspired to be a sommelier," she says. Her introduction to the profession came in 2007, when she worked in public relations and marketing for a wine bar in her native Philippines. From there, she enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in New York and, at the suggestion of her teacher, began the intense certification process toward becoming a master sommelier.
"Those who pass the test are instantly recognized among the best in the business," Bianca Bosker once mused in The New Yorker, adding that it's "the wine-world version of being knighted, or made in the mob."
De Pano, who holds the second-highest rank as an advanced sommelier, is less grandiose about her status.
"If you like alcohol, you'll be fine," she says.
As the wine steward at Fearrington, de Pano oversees about fifteen hundred unique labels of wine, in addition to other beverages. That's why she's at Fullsteam on a Monday afternoon, for a conversation to fine-tune a beer on which the two businesses collaborate. For de Pano, it's a hop, not grape, that might be low hanging.
North Carolina claims a burgeoning beer community. According to the North Carolina Brewers Guild, it has the largest number of craft breweries in the South. By comparison, de Pano admits, "The world in North Carolina of wine is so small." This became strikingly clear when she left an earlier position at Fearrington as assistant sommelier to Kast for an illustrious stint at Eleven Madison Park in New York City, where the drink menu requires a table of contents for its 189 pages.
Beyond bottles, of course, there was also a much larger wine community there (including fourteen master sommeliers to North Carolina's one: Fred Dexheimer at Raleigh's Standard Foods). The smaller wine community in North Carolina is partially the result of alcohol laws that limit access to many goods. But this is also, as de Pano puts it, due to "perspective and priority."
"Some people will spend sixty dollars on a shot of whiskey," she says. "That's a really good bottle of wine."
In her role as beverage director, de Pano works to make deft pairings and suggestions, but she also seeks to meet guests where they are and make them feel comfortable. If someone wants a glass of wine similar to the Yellow Tail or Kendall Jackson, she honors that request.
"Drink what you like to drink," de Pano advises. She suggests being as clear as possible with sommeliers or wine shop owners when describing the flavors or characteristics of a wine that you prefer.
"While we all—at least I try to think that way—want to make sure you enjoy your purchase, we are not mind readers," she says.
She also refuses to open bottles tableside, as she is determined to taste each wine and ensure its quality. "I refuse to give a bad wine to anyone," she says. But being a sommelier, de Pano explains, "is not just about wine. It's foremost about service. How do my guests feel?"
Put another way, she believes it's about "taking care of other human beings."