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A spirit for the mind at Aspen Food & Wine

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesWinemakers and mezcaleros Richard Betts, left, and Charles Bieler, both former Aspenites, have modeled their Sombra mezcal after a fine wine.
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ASPEN – Richard Betts is wine guy through and through: a master sommelier, vintner of the Betts & Scholl label, former director of the wine program at the Little Nell, and a speaker at five reserve wine tastings at the Food & Wine Classic.But the 38-year-old, who moved to Boulder last year, has no trouble working up enthusiasm for one beverage not made of grapes: mezcal, the Mexican spirit made from the agave plant.”It’s the only thing that’s an upper, not a downer,” he said. “If it’s made from agave, it’s an upper.”Betts has been working on raising the profile of mezcal even higher. Three years ago, he and fellow winemaker/former Aspenite Charles Bieler traveled to San Luis del Rio, in Mexico’s Oaxaca state, the epicenter of mezcal distilling. It was rough roads they journeyed: After three flights, they drove two-plus hours to a dirt road marked only by an empty palapa, then 12 miles up into the Oaxacan Sierra, to a mountainous town of 175 people, occasional electricity and one telephone. It was worth the journey: On arrival, the two were treated to the sight of “agave growing on the mountains for as far as the eye can see. A beautiful thing to behold,” Betts said.Now they have emerged from San Luis del Rio with Sombra, an artisan mezcal produced in collaboration with part-time Aspenite Dennis Scholl, Betts’ partner in wine. Sombra had a soft introduction at last year’s Classic; it has since been slowly rolled out through much of the country, and is available all over Aspen.Betts and Bieler took a winemaker’s approach to their mezcal. Sombra is a single-estate spirit – all of the agave they use comes from San Luis del Rio; it is all of the espadin variety. “Both Charles and I are coming from a winemaking perspective: How do you make something that tastes great, that feels right, that goes down easily?” Betts said. “That aesthetic we bring to the wine invades the mezcal.”Betts and Bieler did their due diligence in researching the agave and the distilling methods, and finding the locals most knowledgeable in the process of making mezcal. They drank mezcal from other regions – or tequila, as it is known when made from the blue agave plant in the state of Jalisco. They became convinced that San Luis del Rio was the right spot.”Oaxaca’s the place,” Betts said. “It’s the most interesting, just like for Pinot Noir, Burgundy’s the place. You just follow your nose, and what smells good.”As for their methodology, they decided not to add water – a common step to make mezcal more drinkable – on the theory that water resulted in a loss of character, or “information,” as Betts calls it.Betts is a believer that wine can take people on a journey, that the taste and scent connect drinkers to places, the land, past experiences. He thinks he has made a mezcal that stimulates the mind in a similar way.”Alcohol needs to be fun,” he said. “But it also has to have intellectual value. No alcoholic beverage has intellectual value like wine does. That’s how I got into it in the first place. And that’s how I got into mezcal. It lets you enjoy that sense of sight and place. It’s an opportunity to take you to a place, show you something. That’s cool.”Betts is taking on numerous roles at this weekend’s Classic. On Saturday, he endures a marathon of speaking at four consecutive reserve tastings. He’ll surely be talking up and pouring Sombra every chance he gets. And he came up with an idea for a fundraiser while he’s here: For two nights, he is among a trio of sommeliers, plus Daniel Humm, chef of New York’s Eleven Madison Park, serving dinners to raise money for For the Forest, a local organization fighting the pine beetle infestation of Aspen’s trees. The dinners, at the home of For the Forest co-founder Jerry Murdock, have sold out, generating $100,000.Of his various roles, however, Betts has a favorite.”That’s my best title – mezcalero,” he said. “That’s awesome.”stewart@aspentimes.com


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