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Confessions of a Sommelier

By Robert Firpo-Cappiello
January 12, 2022
Lonely Planet - Paris, Ile-de-France
Lonely Planet
Everything you've always wanted to ask a wine expert.

Guillem Kerambrun, beverage director of the New York City bistro Benoit by Alain Ducasse, uncorks wine-ordering tips, secrets of the trade, and advice for nabbing yourself a bargain bottle.

Q: How did you first get interested in wine?

A: Even as a little boy in France, I was paying atten­tion to beverages. There was an orange juice I didn't like and another I did like because it was balanced, not too sweet, and had some pulp. My father, a true epicurean, instilled my love of wine. When I was 15, a profes­sor at hotel management school helped me hone my knowledge and skills.

Q: What are the perfect food and wine pairings?

A: There is no perfect food and wine pairing. Some diners like to accentuate the acidi­ty or bitterness, while others like to balance the two. The role of the sommelier is to find the bottle that will speak to everyone's palate at the table. We have to cap­ture the moment while taking everyone's tastes and moods into account because, just like coffee, we don't always want the same thing.

READ: "Eat and Drink Your Way Through Louisville's Urban Bourbon Trail"

Q: What great wines do you drink at home?

A: I don't regularly drink premier grands cru classés, but instead I try to select something new at my local wine shop. It's part of continuing to learn.

Q: What are some unexpected challenges in your line of work?

A: When I'm invit­ed to a private dinner, the hosts are sometimes overly stressed about whether the wines they are pouring will impress me. I always let them know that I'm not always drink­ing wine as a profession­al. I sometimes like to dis­connect and enjoy wine in a leisurely manner.

Q: Some people are very nervous about ordering wine. Any tips?

A: People with lim­ited wine knowl­edge can start by telling me what they like to drink at home, and their price range. Anoth­er factor is whether the context of the meal is to impress, with an unbeat­able Bordeaux like Pessac-Léognan or Pierre Seillan's Vérité Sonoma wines, or in leisure mode with friends looking to discover small "star" wines like a Riesling from the Finger Lakes or a Provençal rosé.

READ: "13 Amazing American Food Festivals"

Q: Do you have a favorite cheap wine?

A: One always compares the quality of the drinking experience to the price. I won't name names for fear that my supplier will increase prices with the next vintage, but there are some affordable and superb côtes du rhône wines that I'm really enjoying, one of which I will offer by the glass at Benoit next month.

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Inspiration

Where does Santa Claus go for his post-Christmas vacation?

You're not gonna believe this, but I interviewed Santa Claus. It happened like this: About a month ago I was thinking about how much I dislike traveling around the holidays. Call me Scrooge (who, btw, I did not interview—because he is a fictional character), but I just don't like crowds. If I have my way, I take my family somewhere nice after the holidays. I started thinking about who might be an expert on post-Christmas travel and it hit me: Who works harder at Christmastime—or deserves more of a break afterward—than St. Nick? Getting the interview wasn't easy. Apparently there's no 800 number, no website. Jeez, even the Wikipedia entry offers surprisingly little in the way of factual information. But there are benefits to working for an award-winning magazine and website, and it turns out that Mr. Kringle thoroughly enjoyed our "How Not to Be the Ugly American Overseas" and agreed to give me a few spare minutes. (Also, full disclosure: I reminded him that we are the house that leaves him Nutella-stuffed chocolate chip cookies on Christmas Eve.) Here's my interview. Robert Firpo-Cappiello: Thanks so much for speaking with BT—I know this is your busiest time of year. Santa Claus: You know, that "busiest time of year" malarky is hype. We're fairly streamlined up here at the North Pole. Yeah, years ago we sat around nine months out of the year till the "Dear Santa" letters started arriving, then it was a freakin' goat rodeo to fill the orders of the kids who made "Category: Nice." But these days we're monitoring trends via social media, which allows us to start making toys as early as April. RFC: Jolly Old St. Nicholas is on Twitter? SC: Well, I leave Twitter to the younger folks on staff. I do enjoy Pinterest, though. I repinned BT's "Happiness is a direction, not a place" photo badge. I can def relate. RFC: So, Santa Claus, when does your vacation start? SC: We deliver the last toys of the night out in the Pacific, by the International Dateline, then I turn the sleigh north and head back home. Typically my elves are feeding and watering Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon... RFC: You're a Dylan fan? SC: I like his good stuff, yeah. RFC: Please go on. SC: While the elves are taking care of the crew I'm enjoying a cold seltzer and a plate of pierogies on Christmas morning. RFC: What about Rudolph? SC: Rudolph is a fictional character. You knew that, right? RFC: Yes. Of course. SC: Then I crash for what someone once called a "long winter's nap." RFC: Do you take off for vacation on the 26th? SC: Omigosh, no, I won't go near an airport until after New Year's. RFC: And you're willing to share some post-Christmas vacation ideas with BT readers? SC: Happy to make some suggestions. First off is Walt Disney World—in early January the place is pretty quiet after all the holiday hubbub, and hotel rates are much lower than they are in December. RFC: But I'd think you'd get recognized at Walt Disney World—don't people bother you? SC: Wherever I go, people point and shout, "Hey, it's Santa Claus!". I reply, "Yup, it's me, and my elves tell me you ought to be ashamed of yourself!" And we have a good laugh. RFC: Do you always go to Disney? SC: By no means. In fact, last year Mrs. Claus and I had a wonderful getaway to Laguna Beach, down the coast from Los Angeles. It's always a bargain considering that you can stay right on the beach, take a surfing lesson, get some fresh seafood for dinner. RFC: Surfing lesson? SC: Son, when you've successfully wrangled a team of flying antlered ruminants, hanging ten is cake. RFC: Ruminants? SC: Yes, reindeer have four-chambered stomachs. RFC: Gotcha. Any other ideas? SC: Mexico! We've actually been pleasantly surprised at how affordable the all-inclusive resorts on the Riviera Maya can be. For me, all-inclusive is huge. J'adore not having to reach for my wallet when I'm on vacation. You might say, "I gave at the office." Know what I mean? RFC: Ho, ho, ho. Where else? SC: New Orleans is uncrowded and cheaper before Mardi Gras season heats up. And, of course, the Dominican Republic is a great choice for bargain hunters. Mrs. Claus snapped a shot of me riding a horse on the beach in Punta Cana that's just priceless—beard flapping in the breeze and whatnot. RFC: Would you consider pinning that photo on a BT Pinterest board? SC: Don't hold your breath. RFC: Santa, on behalf of our BT audience, I'd like to thank you for your time and your great January vacation ideas! SC: Keep up the good work, BT!

Inspiration

Locals Know Best: Sacramento, California

There once was a time when Sacramento was, to put it kindly, in a rut. Locals cast their gazes longingly towards San Francisco and Oakland, epicenters of creativity and culture. Then Sacramento State graduates Maritza and Roshaun Davis had an idea: give Sacramento’s creative class an outlet for showcasing their talents and watch them—and the city—thrive. Enter: Unseen Heros, the lifestyles event production company they founded. “In 2008, Sacramento was still trying to find its identity,” says Maritza. “It’s like when you were a teenager and you were awkwardly trying to grow, Sacramento was like a teenager—with braces and awkward with its body.”  Today Sacramento has grown into its own, with no small thanks to Unseen Heroes, which oversees year-round events like  the Saturday midtown farmers market and Gather Oak Park. Both, as they put it, are “events that make people proud of what’s here.” The couple (in life and business) also own shops specializing in California-made goods and curate a rotating pop-up market where they house their offices. Since founding Unseen Heroes in 2008, they’ve made a career out of knowing every nook and cranny of Sacramento. We recently reached them to get their inside tips on where to eat, drink, stay, and hang in the city. *Spoiler alert*: “obnoxiously delicious” ice cream, a poke bar, and unbelievable happy hour deals all factor in.   TABLE FOR TWO: Oak Park is Sacrament's oldest neighborhood, but there are plenty of spots that are under the radar, like the retro-minded Arthur Henry’s, which bills itself as a Supper Club and Ruby Room. Without windows or signs, the only indication that it’s there is its red door. “If you’re in the mafia, this is where you wanna make your deals. There are a lot of dark, fun, strange elements to it,” says Maritza. “I don’t want to give too much away, but if you order dinner there, it’s going to come raw, so be prepared to cook.” They offer a beer and steak special for a remarkable $16 and a bourbon list that’s sure to impress. For every steak in Sacramento there’s a slab of grilled soy meat. Andy Nguyen has an ample variety of wholesome vegetarian and vegan meals—countless permutations of noodles, rice, tofu and vegetables. Meals are generous in size and clock in under $10. If your preferences lean south of the border, La Benbita has what Maritza deems the best margaritas, made with fresh juices. The cantina is known for its festive patio and unbeatable happy hour special: two tacos and a margarita for $13. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, you’ll have a great story to bring home after a visit to Gunther’s. The time-worn ice cream shop is an institution among locals, as evidenced by the fact that despite it being tucked away in a relatively residential area, people flock there in droves. “When you see the line out the door and down the block, you know you’re there,” said Maritza, describing the handmade ice cream and shakes as “obnoxiously delicious.” DINE OUT: Unseen Heroes curates and manages Gather, a culinary event that takes place on the second hursdays of each month from May through October. There are lots of food onsite--tacos, pizza, veggie fare from Mother (also a restaurant), and much touted donuts from Sweet Dozen Donuts (Get a lemon poppy seed donut then try everything else, advises Maritza). There are long communal tables where everyone kicks back and chows down. The rest of the year they curate Midtown Farmers’ Market, a culinary extravaganza in Midtown. Over 90 vendors hawk their wares, from beef jerky and sausages to balsamic vinegar, honey and wine. It's a go-to for a taste of the vibrant local culinary scene.   THE AFTERNOON AGENDA: Not far off the freeway sits JayJay, a gallery founded in 2000 that spotlights a roster of international artists whose work spans all media. “They have a lot of fun pieces and the owners are really hands-on and engaged,” says Maritza. “they’ve been around the area for 40-plus years and they’ve helped curate different large projects. They get their hands on cool artists and they have their finger on the pulse of young up and coming artists.” After you’ve looked at art, taste some. Head down the street to Tupelo. The couple asserts it makes the city’s finest mocha, made with Mexican chocolate. Cap off the afternoon down the street with dinner at Selland’s Market-Cafe, which is known for its elevated comfort food—salads, sandwiches, pizzas—prepared with local seasonal ingredients. At select times, two dinners and a bottle of wine clocks in at $25. Another Martiza-and-Rashaun-approved outing that’s a feast for the eyes and palate is centered in the Curtis Park, quaint with great brownstown galleries. Sol Collective is more of a community center than a gallery, but nevertheless, it’s a destination for unique shows of all media and installations by a lineup of international artists as well as pop-up shops. Additionally, Maritza and Roshaun rave about the classes offered throughout the month that anyone can drop in on: beat-making, art, and, most regularly, yoga. Fortify yourself afterwards with noodles galore at Shoki Ramen, where about $15 will get you a bowl of excellent ramen, a drink and curry on rice. As an added bonus (or, some might say, courtesy), you can order wines here by the half-glass. Wrap up the day at Gunther’s. The old fashioned ice cream shop (See above for Maritza's rave review) is a mere five blocks away.  Some people go to nature to experience a sense of place, others go shopping. Display, owned and run by Maritza and Roshaun, showcases Sacramento’s creative class with its ever-changing inventory of products made by local designers and brands, from gift items, household goods, and lots of fun stuff for kids. More recently, they opened the neighboring Damas, featuring goods and clothing for women, by women. Men have plenty of spots to shop, too, like Get a Clue, a longtime midtown retailer. They specialize in sneakers, denim, shirts, and the like, mostly by local designers. Hungry? Preservation and Co. has plenty of boutique edibles, like a house bloody mary mix, plus tons of sauces, jams and such. STAY: Modern, funky and rich in local lore, Maritza and Roshaun recommend Citizen’s Hotel, not least because  its restaurant and bar, The Grange, has a fantastic happy hour. Steps away are two super-hip spots to eat: Empress Tavern and the very lively Mother Sacramento, a vegetarian haven. Despite its brand name, the Westin Sacramento Hotel, which sits on the Sacramento River, has a lot of character. It’s a short drive away from the hubbub of downtown, and in addition to its affordability, they note that it’s nicely landscaped, so much so that locals hang out there just for the scenery. 

Inspiration

Locals Know Best: Cleveland

When you think of destinations for music-lovers, Nashville, Detroit, Kansas City, and Austin easily spring to mind. But you’d be remiss if you left Cleveland off that list. Home to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the city, a longtime industrial metropolis that suffered economic decline, devastating pollution, and population flight in the 1970s, is in the throes of a renaissance today. But its old-world character persists. Beyond the roster of tried and true tourist must-sees, like the world-class Cleveland Museum of Art, the shores of Lake Eire and, of course, the house made iconic by “A Christmas Story,” there’s a booming circuit of local restaurants and a vibrant indie arts scene to be explored. We caught up with Greg Harris, President and CEO of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, to give us the lowdown on this magnificent city with a resilient rock’n’roll soul.  EAT YOUR HEART OUT  Cleveland landmarks come in all shapes and sizes and, as it turns out, flavors. Having just celebrated its centennial, West Side Market is arguably something of a food museum, what with its abundance of traditional provisions (think: handmade sausages, cheese, spices and oils) sold alongside countless fruit purveyors and butchers. While locals stock up on groceries, Harris recommends you join the dependably long line for made-to-order crepes.  Cleveland has its fair share of James Beard Award nominees and winners, but it also has a long and solid legacy of old-world ethnic fare, thanks to the many immigrant groups who made their way here when the city was a booming industrial center. In the 1950s, its strong Hungarian and Slovenian populations gave the city Sterle’s Country House, a mecca for Eastern European comfort food. Plus, in a nod to German heritage, polka bands often play. The classic chicken paprikash is Harris’s go-to here. The city’s Polish heritage is on display at Sokolowski’s, which has been family-run since 1923. They offer stuffed cabbage and roster of other standards that, Harris happily notes, you can smell from blocks away.READ: "Locals Know Best: Milwaukee" That Eastern European influence makes its way into the city’s signature barbecue, as evidenced at another one of Harris’s go-to, Mabel’s BBQ, a hip industrial-chic smokehouse with an extensive bourbon list. An old-world pride is also the cornerstone of the local-minded Butcher and Brewery, which Harris recommends for its house-cured meats.  And no visit to a rock’n’roll city would be complete without knocking back a few in a classic dive bar. Cleveland’s most legendary is the Harbor Inn, a local institution that, Harris explains, used to the be gathering spot of merchant seamen. For those with more mondern inclinations, the Velvet Tango Room, a speakeasy-style cocktail den, is a must for craft cocktails.   LONG LIVE ROCK When the President of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame endorses a music club, you know it’s gotta be something special. Harris declares Beachland Ballroom “the finest live music venue in the city. I’ll even add in the country.” Its lineup regularly ranges from rockabilly to punk to Americana and plenty more. The club is the anchor of the Waterloo Arts District, where local businesses are open for a street-party-style walk-about the first Friday of each month.  And then, of course, there’s the Hall of Fame, which is more than just a museum. Harris notes is mission: “to engage, teach, and inspire through the power of rock and roll,” and they're tenacious about that commitment. The museum is open 362 days/year and while music history is the spotlight of most exhibits, today’s talent comes to life in the busy concert schedule. They hosted 40 concerts on the pavilion in front of the museum, which was christened with a 80-foot-long “LONG LIVE ROCK” sign, dedicated in November.   GET CULTURED Here’s an interesting tidbit: In 2006, Cuyahoga County approved a tax on cigarette that would fund Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, an organization that organizes and funds all sorts of programming for the community. “The county collects cigarette tax greater than most cities’ funding,” Harris notes. “It’s fueled a lot of great artists—large and small—through its various arts programs.” It’s a bit of an incubator for young talent, so make sure to check out what events are on when you’re in town. You never know—maybe someday in the future you can say, “I saw her when…”READ: "Locals Know Best: Charleston, South Carolina"  Of course, when it comes to art, the Cleveland Museum of Art is a treasure trove of masterpieces, from Edgar Degas to Edward Hopper, but the city’s galleries should not be overlooked. Harris points to the burgeoning scene at Gordon Square Arts District, which was officially established in 2007 by the area’s theater and the local community development organization. Today, 78th Street Studios, which is set in an old automobile parts factory and dubs itself an “eclectic arts maze,” is one of the District’s anchors. On the third Friday of every month, from 5PM to 9PM, all the resident galleries and studios are open, pop-up shops, and food trucks are onsite, and visitors mingle. According to Harris, it’s “uniquely Cleveland.” In addition to revitalized theaters and an independent movie theater, there’s a broad range of bars and restaurants to choose from. One of Harris’s favorites is Spice, which offers creative updated southern fare made with local ingredients, much of which is grown in the on-site hoop house or the restaurant’s nearby farm. For something a bit more nostalgic, Happy Dog is, first and foremost, “a classic, untouched dive with hot dogs with any toppings,” he explains. It’s also a music venue featuring everything from punk to polka. And if that aforementioned nostalgia is your thing, check out the vintage video games in the basement. It may take you back to your early rock’n’roll memories.   STAY Like so many other cities around the US, Cleveland has seen a remarkable hotel-building boom in the past two years, so much so, that Harris nearly guaratees that savvy travelers can find deals. One particularly cool new spot to check out is the Drury Plaza Hotel, retrofitted into an old Board of Education building. The $52 million project opened in April 2016.  BEER HERE Everywhere you go in the USA these days, you can find local beer. Cleveland’s brewing scene is exceptionally attention-getting, what with several top-rate breweries located in lively areas of the city. Harris calls out Market Garden Brewery, located next to West Side Market. It’s known for its brewpub, which is open until 2.30AM and offers what Harris simply deems “terrific atmosphere.” A 35,000-square-foot production facility, complete with tours and a tasting room, recently opened next door. Harris also gives a nod to Great Lakes Brewing Company, which offers tours Fridays and Saturdays from 12PM to 8PM, and he's looking forward to getting acquainted with the new Platform Beer Company. 

Inspiration

Small-town must-see: Pottstown, PA's new carousel

It’s no secret that Budget Travel loves small-town America. Our annual Coolest Small Towns contest has celebrated 110 exceptional communities around the U.S. over the past 11 years, and we’re always on the lookout for “small-town must-sees.” Our latest must-see is the newly opened carousel in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, a historic town on the Schuykill River about 40 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Offering $2 rides, the carousel is a beautiful example (literally and figuratively) of what a community can accomplish when it works toward a common goal. Pottstown’s carousel is a large-scale lesson in “reuse, recycle”: The building that houses it was once home to Pottstown Metal Weld and has been renovated to play host to the spectacular Derek Scott Saylor Memorial Carousel, which itself is a rebuilt retro gem dating back to 1905. The carousel’s animals were hand-carved at cost by Ed Roth, a Disney carousel carver, and were painted by volunteers over the course of several years. Pottstown defrayed the cost of the carousel by seeking out sponsorships ($4,000 per animal) and holding a variety of fundraising events. And for those who might see a community carousel as an exclusively “feel-good” venture, those involved in the project note that the carousel, initially valued at about $25,000 prior to renovation, is now worth more than $1 million. The new carousel is part of Pottstown’s Tourism & Recreation District (or TREC), which includes a wide array of cool attractions such as the Colebrookdale Railroad’s Secret Valley Line, the Schuykill River Trail, and the Schuykill River Heritage Area’s “River of Revolutions” exhibit. (Pottstown's proximity to Philadelphia, the birthplace of American independence, makes the town an absolute feast for history buffs and students learning about our country's founding.) I’d like to thank my friend Evan Brandt, from the Pottstown Mercury newspaper (pottsmerc.com), for bringing the awesome carousel to our attention. Got a small-town must-see to recommend? Email us at info@budgettravel.com!