On a crisp early December morning at 712 Market Street, about 200 wine glasses rest atop a long table running down the middle of the room. The dishwasher isn’t working yet, the windows looking out toward Southern Village are covered in heavy paper, and, a few days out from the shop opening, owner Paula de Pano is awaiting the delivery of several chairs.

But the glasses won’t sit empty for long and De Pano, the former beverage director at the Fearrington House and one of the South’s most prestigious sommeliers, has spent years preparing for her dream of opening a wine shop. It’s a dream organized by an unpretentious, ethical, and taste-driven approach to wine—and it has the potential to turn North Carolina wine culture on its head.

Paula De Pano is ready for it.

Rocks+Acid—the shop’s name, spelled out in neon letters above the cash register is a gesture at the shop’s focus on terroir and acid-focused wines—opened for business on December 7, with De Pano and Laura Francis, who also worked at the Fearrington, behind the bar. There’s ample room for drinking and mingling at Rocks+Acid, including at the communal table with seating for 16, and a selection of artisan cheeses for snack pairings; De Pano also has a long list of classes for wine nerds and beginners alike, with guest sommeliers and topics like “champagne and French Fries.”

Two such wine nerds are Sandy Stover and her husband, Keith, who met De Pano eight years ago through her work at the Fearrington where they regularly came to taste the wines.

They’ve since become friends, and Stover speaks enthusiastically about the shop’s accessibility and range.

“Paula and Laura—well, they’re special, they’re just so approachable,” Stover says. “And when you look in that store—first of all, it looks so cool. And then you’ll see the two of them and they’re smiling. Obviously, you’re gonna walk in and be like, yeah, these are not some stuffy people back there smoking a pipe with the lights at a really low level.”

Imagine the usual dank, dark wine shop removed from the urgencies of a given era, and you’ll imagine the opposite of Rocks+Acid, which bills itself as “pro-women, immigrant, POC, and LGBTQ+” and which will donate 10 percent of proceeds the first Wednesday of every month to the nonprofit Inclusive Therapists, a national BIPOC therapy fund.

De Pano—who grew up in Manila in the Philippines and moved to the United States in 2008—knows what it’s like to make her way up in the industry: although wine is largely marketed toward women, the upper echelons of the wine world are still a boys’ club. To wit, De Pano is committed to championing wine by women and minorities, and most of the labels are the fruit of that commitment.

“When I got to New York, it was a sommelier team of seven and I was the only female,” says De Pano, who spent two years as a senior sommelier at New York City’s intensive Eleven Madison Park. “And not only that, I’m coming from North Carolina and I’m an immigrant.”

Rocks+Acid sits between Weaver Street  Market and Al’s Burger Shop and has a spacious, slightly industrial feel (the building used to house a dry cleaner).; in the spring, a large accordion door will be installed, opening the shop to the outdoors. Walking around, I realize how claustrophobic it can often feel to choose a wine from the cramped, fusty shelves of other shops. Here, no shelves bisect the room; instead, floor-to-ceiling shelves line its perimeter, showcasing around 1,400 backlit bottles of wine (eventually, the shop will carry closer to 2,000). Between the tall shelves and the neon sign, the vibe of the room falls somewhere between a hip music venue and a library.

De Pano’s encyclopedic-seeming inventory knowledge matches that library feel. Ask her about a bottle at random and she’ll eagerly tell the story behind its label illustration, the soil in which its grapes were grown, and what kind of cheese you could try it with. It’s a true sommelier’s shop: De Pano prides herself on far-flung relationships with producers located all over the globe whose wine she’s fallen in love with and whose trust she’s earned, and whose labels reflect small, family, or cooperative-driven businesses with ethical practices she feels she can put her weight behind.

“We really want people to be adventurous and open to different flavor profiles and hopefully get out of their comfort zones,” she says, guiding me through the shop’s orange wine section. Picking up a bottle, she holds it up to the light; at the bottom, you can see a bit of sediment swirling. “I know people may not be used to unfiltered, lower SO2 wine,” she says. “But these are really, really fun wines to have. It might be for people who are really into Kombucha if you like that flavor profile. A lot of people think of natural wines as mousy, or dirty smelling. But these are guys that really make a point to do it correctly.”

Most bottles are between $25 and $35—not casual purchases, certainly—but at Rocks+Acid, the act of choosing them comes as an adventure, and with an assurance of responsibility.

“To be able to source these wines takes a lot of work,” De Pano says. “And I always tell people, ‘Yeah, you see the final product, but do you understand how it was made? The labor?’ That’s another thing, too, that I’m very focused on. These are not just family-owned; these are people who treat their workers correctly and they’re environmentally conscious about sustainability efforts.”

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