Cuisine Scene: At Pleasanton’s Pairings Cellars, matchmaking rules menu
By Lou Fancher
Dana and John Campanella’s Pairings Cellars, a Pleasanton wine bar and restaurant launched in July 2016 and rooted firmly in a “sip, savor, social” motto, honors matchmaking in many forms.
There are boutique wines, craft beers and dishes featuring made-from-scratch sauces and seasonings; industrial steel pipe-wood-cement design that offers a 26-foot-wide invitation to the outdoors when the front accordion-style door is fully open; and acoustic instrument and vocal performers whose music enhances, but never overpowers, customers’ conversations.
There is the pairing of Livermore-based owners whose combined backgrounds include 15 years in real estate and small business entrepreneurship (Dana) and 36 years in the technology business (John). And inevitably, there is Dana’s Portuguese heritage and John’s childhood memories of cooking spaghetti and meatballs with Grandma as a member of a large, Italian family in Brooklyn, New York, and New Jersey.
“We took all of that experience and put it into Pairings,” says John, whose responsibilities are primarily acted out in the kitchen. Escoffier school-trained, he says he believes in certification.
“I’m going after every culinary certification. I’ve been cooking for over 25 years. Here, I create menus, cook five days a week, do all the ordering and work with the distributors 98 percent of the time,” he said.
At home, he practices, or, as he says, “I do crazy stuff.”
“Crazy stuff” at home results in a garlic, jalapeño, dill sauce that John says is “off-the-charts-delicious,” or endive salads so stunning Dana takes photos.
“Everyone should have a personal chef,” she says. “Even getting up on weekends and having him make pancakes is the kind of meal I love.”
Crazy stuff at the restaurant rises from high-level culinary training and savvy selectivity but allows for whims. Gouda Stuffed Lamb & Turkey Sliders are customers’ hands-down favorite.
“Those were a surprise. If you eat them with a buttery chardonnay, the flavors explode. I change the menu every six weeks, but those will never leave the menu,” John says.
Steak tartare, ceviche, butternut squash flatbread, firecracker chicken with house-made sambal chili plum sauce and honey sriracha aioli complete the current top-five list.
Dana is CFO, overseeing the front of the house, finances, the bar, a wine list that includes more than 100 specialties and booking talent and special events that include winemaker dinners often featuring local wines paired with a meal.
Expectedly, she is working to earn WEST certification, the Wine & Spirit Education Trust qualifications globally recognized throughout the industry. Son-in-law Eric Junkerman is the general manager and brings human resource experience to Pairings.
“He’s involved in choosing the wines,” says Dana. “We look for mostly family-owned wineries where they make small batches. Having 20 different wines for flights allows people to try different wines. People ask why Livermore wines aren’t on the regular menu. Frankly, you can go down the street and get them. We offer special experiences.”
Harder to pin down are the motivations that caused the couple to launch “encore” careers. Is it as simple as joyful visits to wineries in Calaveras County, pleasure in cooking by taste to the “eureka” moment or wanting people to have a place to set aside their cell phones and really talk to each other? “Yes and no” is the answer.
“This took four to five years of planning,” says John. “Even before that, we had researched for years. My work took me to Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia — to little hole-in-the-wall places for dim sum, sushi, Asian fusion.”
Dana learned the deep history and unique practices behind winemaking. They fell in love with applying a corporate mindset — integrity across everything, including environment, product, service, marketing and more — to dining.
More than anything, John says they work to maintain the kind of place they like to visit. Hanging out for hours, sipping, savoring and socializing.