Much like Bar Lusconi, formerly in the same spot, Bar Brunello is deliberately free of frills. Save for a few square feet of white subway tile framed by dark grout, à la the cover of Pink Floyd's The Wall, the space is bare and no longer than it is wide. This is Durham's newest wine bar.
There's no exterior signage, but a beautiful marble bar and the enormous wine rack behind it pull me in like a tractor beam. Behind the bar, Esteban Brunello wears a T-shirt of his own design, showing a clenched fist gripping a wine bottle with the word "socialize" underneath. Though we've never met, he calls out a warm, familial "Come in, come in!"—arms open, smile wide.
This welcoming vibe is central to Esteban's business model. "One of my most vivid memories as a kid is lots of family, a plate of food for everybody, and so much happiness. I want to re-create that. I'm Argentinean!" Esteban says, as if the connection is obvious. Deep in beer country, where the craft cocktail is getting more attention, the Triangle has room for a greater wine culture. Bar Brunello nails it with Durham style: homegrown, approachable, genuine, delicious, fun. It's a refreshing take on the stereotypical pretentious, expensive wine lounge.
I belly up to the bar and watch as both new and return customers file in. Telling one from the other is easy. Just as I was, the new customers are taken aback by Esteban's delighted greeting. In a place where Southern hospitality reigns supreme, it's unusual to be out-kinded by someone else.
"He's authentic," says Cara Brunello, Esteban's wife and a Virginia native. Though it becomes obvious that Esteban takes his wines very seriously, Cara clarifies that he doesn't apply the same sensibility to himself. "He wants to have fun. He wants people to exist in the moment. We have an unofficial 'phones down, glasses up' rule. And he really walks that talk."
As a practical example, Bar Brunello does not take reservations. "This is not the place to adhere to a schedule," Esteban tells me. "This is the place to enjoy time and to have an experience with the one you're with. We are constantly attached to deadlines, to our devices, to duties. When do people relax? When do they live?"
Indeed, Bar Brunello serves up a full-on wine experience that is still financially accessible. Prices vary, ranging from eight to sixteen dollars a glass,* with bottles starting at thirty-four. A glass of cider costs from five to fifteen dollars. No matter the price, quality remains consistent.
I start with the driest cider I've ever had—complex, earthy flavors rich with oxidized apple and caramel with a funky Camembert twist. With such intense flavors, the cider is still a palate cleanser, as is the Italian* sparkling wine, Le Vigne d'Alice, I try next. The 85 percent clear prosecco has its own story, and, of course, Esteban tells it well, not unlike a historian, from growth to harvest all the way to the glass. We then move to an easy-drinking but still complex pilsner with a hint of orange, proving that he even takes his beer seriously.
The wines are exceptional, especially when paired with Esteban's excitement, sweetened with his flair for romance. He says things like, "If Riesling was your wife, Scheurebe would be your lover." He then guides me to a smoky, elegantly spicy Shiraz from India and a delicious malbec that, uniquely, has no woody oak notes, as it's made in stainless steel. And it's just eight dollars a glass.
"I tasted twenty-six malbecs before choosing the one that I put on the menu," Esteban says. "When I do choose something at that price point, quality has to be outstanding."
Next, Esteban's pride and utter joy: the orange wines. A refreshing, welcome hybrid of bold, full-bodied reds and light, fruity, fragrant whites, orange wines are made with grapes and, in Spain, macerated orange peels but do not exude an overpowering citrus or orange taste. Acknowledging the wine's growing global popularity, Esteban plans to have the largest orange wine collection in the world right here in the Triangle by mid-March, with more than forty different vintages and producers, beating upscale Fera at Claridge's in London and its more than thirty orange wines.
Esteban finally sets a few glasses of wine in front of me that he has decanted since my arrival. The first is earthy and nutty Vitovska, the most common varietal, made in Georgian qvevri, or terra-cotta pots, in an old-world technique that's been practiced for more than 8,000 years. Another orange wine, the Cardedu Vermentino di Sardegna, has flavors that Esteban helps me place as volcanic rock soil. It's also salty like sea air and a little smoky. In another I taste apricot, and I swoon. A gray varietal pinot grigio is amber-colored with notes of white strawberries and a melon finish. The orange wines don't disappoint.
Then there's the food: decadent double cream Gorgonzola from Milan, pheasant pâté and locally made fig jam, pillowy burrata and prosciutto, salty, citrusy boquerónes (those perfect Spanish anchovies), chicken liver mousse, and cured meats. While the regulations of getting the cured-meat portion of the business up and running have been daunting and tedious, the Brunellos have high hopes it will soon take off. Luckily for Triangle folks, they decided not to hold back the wines while they wait to finish the cured-meat process. The limited menu is still delicious, well thought-out, and most of all, welcoming.
Correction: The original print version mistakenly stated that glasses of wine start at six dollars and that Le Vigne d'Alice is from Bolivia (it is an Italian wine). This article appeared in print with the headline "Orange Is the New Red."