Young and in love, sommelier Rocco Esposito fled Italy for Australia at the age of 23 to follow his heart but ended up discovering a much deeper passion: for Australian wine, food, people and Pinot Noir.
Starting out as a barman in Fitzroy Street “to improve his English”, Rocco worked his way up the Melbourne food and wine ladder to eventually take on the role of assistant sommelier at Cecconi’s in Flinders Lane.
After meeting the love of his life, Lisa Pidutti, the couple moved to Beechworth where they started their renowned restaurant, Warden’s Food & Wine. Not only did the cuisine receive rave reviews, but it put Rocco’s wine lists on the map and eventually gained him the lofty title of The Age Sommelier of the Year in 2009.
Now, Rocco is focusing all of his energy on vino, as Director of Wine at Vue De Monde – but for a man who spends his days surrounded by some of the most extravagant food and wine in Australia, this self-proclaimed “simple guy” enjoys nothing more than sitting down to a meal cooked by his mum with bottle of Pinot Noir.
How did you start out as a sommelier? Where was your first job?
I’m from Italy, so I started out like many young Italian boys, as a waiter in a local restaurant. My intention was to become a Maître D or a restaurant manager, but that all changed when I saw a wine being decanted for the first time. I was just 16 and waiting on a big table during a very busy lunch service, when this guy tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to a long name on the wine list. I was underage and wasn’t really meant to serve wine, so I put my thumb on the name in the menu (so I didn’t stuff up) then went to the sommelier to request the wine.
The sommelier looked at me like I was crazy, then went down to the cellar and bought back a 1971 Borolo, cradling it in his hands like a newborn baby. As he slowly decanted it with such respect and ceremony I was instantly bewitched by the craft, the smell – the aroma sent shivers down my spine – and I thought, shit, I’ve got to do this for the rest of my life!
After that I started to read about wines and did a little bit of wine training. When I was 19, after military training, I took my first job as a wine steward. During this time I also studied an intensive course at the Italian Sommelier Association.
When did you lose your Pinot virginity?
As soon as I tasted Pinot I suppose.
Actually, the first time I really noticed Pinot, outside of just your average glass on a daily basis, was when I was hosting a wine dinner at Cecconi’s in Melbourne. It was the 1990 Clos De La Roche from Rousseau. It was a turning point for me, I couldn’t believe that after 10 years the wine still tasted so young and so powerful. That’s really when I started to buy more vintages of Pinot Noir, particularly Burgundy, at auction.
That led to me try a 1945 Romane Conti (thanks to a BYO wine night at work) which was just amazing. I couldn’t believe that wine so old could still give such energy and brightness.
What are the top three Pinots you’ve ever tasted?
Well, definitely the DRC, but the thing about old wines is that they lose their power fairly quickly after opening.
If I had to list the top three Pinot Noirs I have tasted, and could taste again, they would be: the 1990 Clos de la Roche from Armand Rousseau, that was pretty good; the 1990 Chambertin from Armand Rousseau which was very, very good; and I’m also pretty fond of Robert Chevillon.
Of course I could brag on and talk DRC but I can’t afford that, I can only drink what I can afford. Already buying and drinking something like Rousseau is a bit heavy on the pocket, but they are the best wines I have tasted that I would, and could, drink again.
What’s the most expensive Pinot you’ve ever poured?
Well, it would have to be the 1945 Romane Conti.
I am lucky, working at a place like Vue De Monde, because when a guest orders an incredibly good and expensive bottle of wine I get to try it, but when you don’t have the luxury of sitting down and enjoying the wine with your friends or family the experience is not as special.
Is there a particular vintage of Tasmanian Pinot Noir that stands out for you?
The 2010 vintage is a stand out for me, but I also liked the 2005. I have tasted some wines from both vintages that are powerful and aging well, still retaining an elegancy, but if I were to choose just one of them it would be the 2010.
The pronounced notes of the wine itself and the aromatic lift really invites the wine to be poured, then when you do have that first sip there are all of these really wonderful palpable experiences that take a good wine to the next level. The 2010 vintage just has that broader power and finesse.
Who do you admire the most, in the world of wine and food?
It’s not just because I work at Vue De Monde, but I honestly think head chef Shannon Bennett is a guy who needs to be admired for his work, what he’s done and what he’s doing – he just keeps rolling with the punches really, and that’s great.
In terms of wine, I’d have to say I admire my wife and what she’s doing on our property – perhaps put that in capitals. She’s not just the mastermind behind our brand PROJECT Forty Nine, she is also changing the soil on our land, trying to make it more fertile and liveable using organics and biodynamics, which will make our wine a better product overall. In terms of winemakers, I like Nicolas Joly. Again, he embraces the soil and the element of life in his vineyards then transmits that into his wine. With Nicolas Joly it’s not just about the wine, it’s also about the story.
What wines and/or regions are you the most excited about right now?
Perhaps its because I’m from there, but I’m particularly excited about Beechworth as a region. There are a number of people releasing some very good wines from the district.
If I was to look on a world scale Champagne is really interesting me at the moment. There are some smaller growers doing a really great job there.
If you could choose any food or wine in the world to have as your last meal, what would it be?
Definitely something that my mum has cooked – she’s a bloody good cook. Very simple, down-to-earth kinds of flavours. I’m a simple kind of guy really – I’m not that technical you know. She cooks the most delicious southern Italian food, but don’t ask my mum to cook Thai or Vietnamese, she’d be lost!
In terms of wine, yes, I’ll have an Armand Rousseau and a Barolo side by side, but I would definitely have to start with a glass of Champagne.
If you had $1000 to spend on a bottle of wine, what would you buy?
Can I break it up into three? I would buy the 2000 Blanc des Millénaires from Charles Heidsieck, a Chambertin from Rousseau (depending on the vintage), and a Barolo – I’m a pretty predictable kind of guy… I’m sure I’ve exceeded the $1000 budget though…. Oops!
What’s the most embarrassing wine in your cellar right now?
Look, I must say, and I feel bad saying this, I collect a few wines here and there and to be honest, I don’t have anything in my cellar that I don’t like – I’m lucky to have a pretty good cellar.