Downtown Durham’s iconic Bar Brunello announced that it will be closing at the end of the month after four years in operation as what was arguably the most exciting wine bar in North Carolina. In a statement posted to social media owner Esteban Brunello noted that the bar had struggled to find its footing during the pandemic but that “we were dealt a hand we couldn’t overcome.”
Brunello moved from the Bay Area to the Triangle, opening his namesake bar in 2016 to immediate acclaim and earning mentions in Bon Appetit, Forbes, Robb Report, and Wine Enthusiast. The bar became known as much for it’s off-the-wall wine offerings (with what they claimed was the largest orange wine list in the country) as it was for Brunello’s enthusiastic personality. Indy Week listed it as one of the 10 best wine bars in the Triangle last year, and it has consistently earned praise from other local media outlets including Durham Magazine and The News & Observer.
On Facebook, long time bartender Sergio Ramos wrote that “This place was home to me, or at least the closest to what home felt like being 520 miles away from family. Customers became friends and extended family members. Old regulars became mentors.”
For many that’s what Bar Brunello embodied. You were a regular from the moment you walked in the door. Wine novices and wine nerds alike sidled up to the white marble bar; for a wine list that was among the most esoteric, diverse, and, frankly, weird, in the state, no one was ever made to feel intimidated or as if they didn’t belong. The menu always featured flights that were designed to educate customers on a particular style, and the bar consistently championed wines from producers in underrepresented wine regions. On any given night you might find wines from Arizona, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Uruguay, or India.
I met Brunello at a soft opening for the bar and within minutes of talking with him he’d made me a regular, so much so that I’ve even covered shifts behind the bar for him and other staff throughout the year. Bar Brunello was a place I went to learn; Brunello’s knowledge of wine borders on the encyclopedic. It was also a place I went to mourn, or to celebrate, or to just get out of the house for a bit. It was the first place in Durham I took visitors and often the last place I’d end up at after a night on the town.
There was no escaping Bar Brunello or Brunello after only one glass of wine. First-timer’s and regulars alike would often find themselves with several “tastes” of whatever wine Esteban was excited about that day. My stops for “just one glass” so frequently turned into hours spent tasting and chatting that I coined a new term for it — “Sorry, running late. I got Brunello’d.”
My husband and I launched our wine-importing business with a party at Bar Brunello; Brunello helped us unload our very first pallet of wine off the truck and was our first customer. We’ve celebrated birthdays and anniversaries with Brunello, we’ve had dinner parties with him, we even spent a day in Paris gorging ourselves in a bistro and getting far too day-drunk. He is not only my favorite bartender in town, he became family, someone I could trust and turn to in times of need.
In a text message I asked him what he hoped customers remembered about Bar Brunello. He replied, “The good times they shared with us. They shared more with us than maybe we did them.”
He’d spent the day reading through the comments people had left on the Facebook post announcing the bar’s closure. “The words they wrote in the comments made me cry a lot,” he told me.
“But at the same time,” he continued, “we kept it real. Whether liking my craziness or not, Bar Brunello was always honest and passionate about things, not only wine.”
“We hugged our regulars, we created a community, a little family. The first dates, the proposals, wedding receptions, birthdays — that’s what I think people are going to remember.”
The Bar Brunello wine classes will continue, online, as will the winemaking partnership he and Ramos established with Pleb Urban Winery in Asheville. The bar’s extensive wine list will also be up for grabs, with special curated packages for sale on the website later this month. Reservations are also open for patio seating through the end of the month.
As for those coveted Brunello hugs, well those are just one more thing that 2020 and COVID 19 have taken from us.