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Hugo Bensimon is a star sommelier at Grill 23, but he’s not too fancy for champagne and fried chicken

Grill 23's Hugo Bensimon.Handout

Brookline’s Hugo Bensimon, 30, is the beverage manager at sleek steakhouse Grill 23. He oversees its Wine Spectator-approved wine list, including rare bottles from the 1940s that go for over $20,000. These days, he lifts spirits with wine, but before that, he soothed muscles as a physical therapist-in-training until the restaurant world beckoned.

Was there a childhood memory — OK, hopefully not childhood — when you tasted wine, and you knew that this was going to be your career path? What was the tipping point?

I was born in France, and having French parents, they were OK with us tasting wines or being around wine. But it was never really a huge part of my life until I got started in fine dining. I was actually going to school to become a physical therapist, and I was about to apply for a doctoral program when I started to work at a fine-dining place, Atlas, while I was doing my internship.

The fine-dining world led me into a little bit more of the wines. We used to have this gentleman who would come in. In Atlanta, you can bring in your own wines. He used to bring in these side-by-side wines from this specific producer. And they were the same vineyard site, the same kind of appellation, the same producer, but just one white and one red from the same place, and different vintages every time. We started to get to know each other. He would always drop these wines off. He would tell me to open them, taste them, and then kind of build a menu around them. That’s when I started to see the understanding of how wide the range of wine could actually be. One thing led to the next, and instead of applying for my doctorate, I went to go sit the sommelier exams.


Are you glad you did?


I’m very glad I did. I found myself snoozing at my internship, and I found myself being active and excited in the restaurant. The wine thing for me was a path that I didn’t know I wanted to go down, but it was kind of a given path as soon as I went down it.

Tell me about your childhood. What brought you to the United States?

I was born in France, but I moved to the US with my family when I was very little. We moved to New York, and then we moved down to Atlanta. I spent most of my years in Atlanta, and then I moved to Colorado for about five, six years, for my middle school and high school, and then came back to Atlanta for the end of high school and college. [My parents] came here for the reason most people do: the American dream, right? My dad is a hairdresser, so he just he found more great opportunities.

Tell me what role Grill 23, or any big-ticket steakhouse, plays in the food world — especially with COVID?

I mean, I think it’s been open since the early ‘80s. It’s coming up on 40 years. The goal for us is just to stay current with the times and to keep pushing our boundaries. After so many years of being in the industry, it’s very easy to get stagnant. We’re essentially always looking at what’s next, whether that’s updating the wine list with wines that are a little newer in fashion, or using different things in different ingredients and cocktails that you normally wouldn’t see, and things like that. I think that we’ve done a good job. On the beverage side, specifically, we’ve changed our cocktail list pretty much exclusively since last year, with new items throughout. And we’re pushing the boundaries on beers you can’t normally get. We’re highlighting Trillium right now, as something that’s a little bit more local, and showing the roots within the region — but also kind of venturing out to the classics in the world, definitely for wine.


Do you get any strange requests?

I think that people are just happy to be out, which is amazing to see, because the post-COVID realm changed a little bit of people’s view. Going out to restaurants seems to be a little less of a monotonous chore that it used to be before COVID and more of an exciting part of their day, which is great. What are people asking for? I think that they’re just asking to have a good time and not be bottled up at home.

I think that people … have gotten so much more informed, especially on the wine scene, because during COVID, so many people were drinking so much more wine at home, and fewer people were drinking cocktails — or, if there were cocktails, they were really simple cocktails.

So people are just asking to have a good time. On the wine side, I think that they’re a little bit more informed about what they like, because they’ve had the opportunities to pull from these local retailers during COVID. … I think the general audience is a little bit more educated on what they’re drinking, whether it’s grape variety, or producer, or style of wine. I feel like a lot of people are like, ‘Oh, well, we found this bottle of wine that we loved during COVID.’ A lot of people gravitated toward, you know, having a glass of wine at the end of the night.


Where do you shop for wine?

I think TJ [Douglas] at the Urban Grape does a really good job. It’s right down the street from Grill 23. I think they have a lovely selection of wines. And the Wine Press near my house. I’m traveling all the time, and I try to go to wine shops in local areas, just because the different wines and different markets are really kind of amazing to see. A lot of my drinking is at Grill 23, tasting wines, so I drink less and less at home.

What do you drink at home?

I typically drink a lot of white wine. I drink much more white than I do red. If we’re talking about wine, I drink a lot of Chablis, and white burgundy is my realm. Usually that and Champagne. I usually can’t ever keep a bottle of champagne at home because it gets drunk too fast. If I’m having cocktails, I keep it pretty simple: I do Campari and soda with lime because it’s easy. It’s like an Aperol Spritz but a little bit more bitter. And then, if I’m feeling fancy, I like to make Paper Planes at home. I use rye whiskey because I like the spice that the rye gives to the cocktail. And it’s equal parts rye, Amaro Nonino, which is a little softer in style and not as bitter, lemon juice, and Aperol.


What are your favorite pairings?

I really like pairing champagne with fried things. Fried chicken and champagne is one of my favorite things in the world. In the world of wine, you really focus on wine pairings and flavor pairings. But I think that the champagne and fried chicken thing gives you another element that you can’t get out of wine pairings, and texture. I’ve typically found myself drinking a lot of dry rosé from France with charcuterie. I like the freshness and crisp of the rosé with something like cured meat; it works really well. And I think the ultimate pairing for me is red Burgundy or Syrah with pizza. Pepperoni pizza and northern Rhône Syrah is pretty amazing.

What are some wine-and-food-pairing fiascos? What would you never do?

We see this at Grill: A lot of people drink reds with oysters, and it hurts me so much — the nature of what you do with oysters and that crisp freshness. You drink something that’s a richer, heavier red wine with that? For me, that’s the biggest faux pas.

This may be a plebeian question: Who’s buying these beautiful $20,000 bottles of wine?

Within the $5,000 to $10,000 bottles. I think that people are buying those, and I think they’re special occasion wines or also people who really know about wine. … You can’t find them, or they’re very rare, or if you can find them, they’re usually double or triple the price. And then the $20,000 bottles of wine are definitely statement pieces. They’re pieces of history and things you’ll never see again. And I would say, yes, people buy them. The people buying those wines are real collectors who know the value of those wines, and half of the reason that they drink them is just because they can drink them at an affordable price at a restaurant — and that is very hard to find nowadays.

I mean, I’ll give you an example of one of our wines. So one of the wines that we serve is Domaine de La Romanée-Conti. I think we have a couple of bottles anywhere from $10,000 to $14,000. And those wines are selling at auction now for $18,000 to $25,000. So if you can find it for $10,000 less at a restaurant, and you’re a collector who purchases these wines anyway, I think that’s where we really start to see a lot of those high-end sales.

Where do you drink or eat when you’re not working? What are your favorite off-the-clock spots?

Ivory Pearl is probably one of my favorites, right by my house. It’s a seafood place that focuses on really amazing cocktails from the guys who own Blossom Bar and Baldwin Bar. I really love Sarma in Somerville; it’s probably one of my favorite spots. My wife and I try to find a different place every month. Hojoko is another great go-to of mine; sake and fried chicken and sushi are some of my favorite things.

Favorite takeout spot?

Ooh. We love Mahaniyom. It’s one of my favorite restaurants in the city. It’s this small Thai place right down the street from Blossom Bar. I think it’s the greatest Thai food I’ve ever had. And, if you’re getting sushi, FuGakyu is a really amazing sushi spot. For pizza, we do Stoked or Prairie Fire.

Favorite $20 bottle of wine?

Everything in Chablis from basic to high-end is a great bottle to start with: crisp, not too much oak on it, a true crowd-pleaser.

Interview has been edited and condensed.

Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.