Wine service wow

Meet wine expert Rocco Esposito

By Jane Faulkner
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Wardens Food and Wine, Beechworth, North East Victoria

Wardens Food and Wine, Beechworth, North East Victoria [©Wardens Food and Wine]

Wardens Food and Wine, Beechworth, North East Victoria


It all began with an elderly waiter and a bottle of barolo. Rocco Esposito watched intently as that man, elegant in his crisp white waisted-jacket, meticulously decanted the nebbiolo over a candle. It was pure ritual. It was all about the allure and respect of the wine.

And it was Italy in the early-90s and a fresh-faced and somewhat naive Rocco, then just 19, almost laughed at the ceremony taking place before him. 

“Back then I wasn’t a big fan of wine and this older gentleman was really very angry with me. He said: ‘you have no idea how much work has gone behind this label to make this wine’. It was a light bulb moment for me.”

While Rocco doesn’t remember the vintage, he remembers the wine; a Borgogno barolo. He was hooked.

Rocco started buying wine and tasting extensively, discovering wonderful varieties initially from his region of Puglia such as aglicanico, negro amaro and greco di tufo and then beyond into other regions such as Chianti.

Next came the wine courses and the young waiter-turned-wine-lover joined the Italian sommeliers association where he was exposed to even more wonderful wines but this time from across Europe especially Germany, Austria and France. Those nuances and differences were as exciting as the names such as Chablis, Gevrey Chambertin, the Moselle and Wachau. 

Fast forward to the 2000s.  It’s been some years since Rocco with wife Lisa Pidutti opened their much-lauded and thoroughly convivial Mediterranean outpost in Beechworth known as Wardens Food and Wine (Ed: this closed in October 2011). Not long after, another accolade: Rocco nabbed the Wine Service Award in The Age Good Food Guide. A great coup for any wine person and a bonus that a country restaurant was duly recognised.
 “I was shocked as it was completely unexpected,” says the (then) 33-year-old.  Maybe so, but nonetheless well-deserving. Scour Warden’s wine list or the large wine wall to the left of the main door’s entrance and amongst the usual suspects of shiraz and chardonnay, albeit mighty fine Australian and French examples, there’s more rousing stuff too such as nebbiolo from here and Piedmont, greganico and German riesling.

It soon becomes obvious that the man who put this together not only knows his vinous stuff but loves it too. 

In a relatively short time, Rocco became a specialist not only in Italian varieties but wines from all over and is especially supportive of the winemakers around Beechworth and the north east region generally, where he and his wife retain a property.

Yet it’s extraordinary to think that when he came here in 1998, he barely spoke any English. By reading wine books, magazines, watching the news and working alongside the embracing Bortolotto family, first at their St Kilda restaurant then at Cecconi’s when it originally opened at Crown Casino, this determined fellow mastered the language and at the same time, garnered an appreciation of the rewarding but tough hospitality industry.

No doubt his English also improved as he kept having conversations and coffee with the lovely girl from the Bulgari shop next door. Yes, that was Lisa, now wife and business partner. She especially has an artistic eye for detail that showed in the restaurant’s understated yet stylish decor.

Wardens was once a corner country pub (aren’t they all?). It’s a majestic old building and in its heyday people milled around first thing in the morning as Rocco made excellent espresso, something the local winemakers were particularly pleased about. This is where they came for their morning heart-starter taken with a dose of harmless gossip.

As for wine, well, a wine list is rather redundant if what’s on offer doesn’t complement the food.  Rocco understands that better than most, and insists that wine should highlight but not dominate the food. Or vice-versa.

What next?

“Hospitality will always be our thing,” said Rocco. “It can be challenging work and hard but it's in my blood.” 

Jane Faulkner is a wine writer and the country co-ordinator of The Age Good Food Guide. She judged the wine service award.

NOTE: Warden's is now closed, and Rocco Esposito is currently Wine Director at Shannon Bennett's acclaimed Vue de Monde restaurant in Melbourne, rated one of the best restaurants in Australia. He contributes regular wine articles to



  • Beechworth (VIC)
  • North East Victoria (VIC)

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