Aspen winemakers leave nothing to chance
National recognition came this month to a partnership born in Aspen and based on an appreciation of one of life’s finer pleasures – good wine.The names of Little Nell wine director Richard Betts and venture capitalist Dennis Scholl appear together on the labels of a hot new wine from Australia. The Betts & Scholl grenache, introduced in the spring, topped the list of the 20 best new wines in the October issue of Food & Wine Magazine.”It’s something, isn’t it?” said Scholl, who divides his time between Aspen and Miami Beach. “To have our wine be the Star Selection, we’re very proud of it.”Scholl just wrapped up a 10-day visit to Aspen in which the pair prepared to bottle a 2004 Riesling they will introduce as soon as January. Plans are under way to roll out two varieties of grenache for the 2003 vintage.The partners presented their 2001 grenache locally and to the world at the Food & Wine Magazine Classic in June, stirring interest. The magazine contacted the winemakers about two months ago and asked them to send a bottle to be considered.Scholl said he only learned of the wine’s top honor when he received a call of congratulations from former Little Nell wine director Bobby Stuckey.Betts and Scholl take a hands-on approach to every aspect of the business: establishing relationships with the grape growers, managing the bottling, shipping, importation, distribution and marketing, and even commissioning artists to create unique labels for the bottles.”It’s a total, full-on, from the ground to the table project,” said Betts.As wine director of Montagna at The Little Nell hotel, he often gets to deliver the end product to the customer’s table himself and gauge the reaction firsthand.The Little Nell hired Betts as wine director four and a half years ago from the Tucson restaurant Janos. He has attained master sommelier status, a credential bestowed after an arduous series of examinations.At 33, Betts defies the stereotype of the wine steward as “an old stodgy guy who’s condescending,” as Betts described it. “When you’ve got great young enthusiasm in the field, it makes it much more positive.”Betts met Scholl at Montagna, but the idea to produce wine together was born during an outing in the forest near Aspen late in the summer of 2003, as the two foraged for tasty porcini and chanterelle mushrooms. Betts talked that day about his dream to make a grenache wine, preferably in Australia.Scholl matched Betts’ nose for wine with his own sharp nose for business. He said the experience he gained starting nine or 10 businesses in recent years allowed him to help with infrastructure and production as well as financing.Scholl’s passion for collecting art has found a new application. “We’ve gotten some of the greatest contemporary artists to do labels for us,” he said.The work of New York artist Anna Gaskell can be seen at the Guggenheim and Tate museums, and on the label of the Betts & Scholl grenache. Liam Gillick, whose many-colored sculpture arose from the field adjacent to the Benedict Music Tent this summer, has agreed to create a label for a future wine.For Scholl, making wine is a welcome change from forays into venture capital, real estate and mortgage. “We’re doing this more out of passion than anything else, and enjoying the commingling of wine and art.”Scholl said he makes business decisions with an eye to the individuals involved, and “Richard is a brilliant, brilliant wine guy, one of the smartest wine guys in America,” he said. “The smartest thing I did was to take a brilliant partner.”Betts said grenache was “out of vogue,” but, with a character similar to a pinot noir, it is a personal favorite of his. “It appeals to what I call one’s pinot sensibility,” he said.In Australia Betts was able to locate fine old grenache vineyards with excellent sandy soils and a favorable climate. They began by tasting many grenaches, and he eventually found four or five Australian wines that satisfied his preference of what he wanted to make.The partners signed with the Rockford Winery and winemaker Robert O’Callaghan. The knowledge has passed, master to apprentice, through a succession of winemakers; the lauded 2001 grenache was made under the supervision of O’Callaghan protégé Chris Ringland with Christian Canute observing.Canute will supervise the 2004 wines at the Rusden Winery.Betts has an ability to taste many individual wines and determine how to blend them to create a wine of outstanding quality. In 2001, he started with six wines, eliminated three, then balanced various qualities to “put them together in a proportion that makes sense.”Blending is the key to making appellation wines, according to Betts. “It’s not a linear process. You put them together and something new emerges, or something disappears.”What has emerged in the Betts & Scholl grenache, in the parlance of Betts, is a soft, seductive, round and feminine wine, aromatic and full of allure.Now the partners are readying a new Riesling for bottling in six to eight weeks. Scholl said they will produce only about 100 cases of the dry-style Riesling from the Eden Valley. “It will be pretty dear, pretty hard to come by,” said Scholl.Starting with the 2003 harvest, the Betts & Scholl label will offer two different red grenaches.The partners have had contracts with four growers this year, yielding 15 tons of grapes, aging in separate oak casks. Betts will taste them again on his next trip to Australia to begin the “sensually challenging” task of blending.After the Betts & Scholl 2001 grenache was selected by Food & Wine Magazine as a winner, “the phone’s been ringing off the hook,” said Scholl, and availability is quickly fading.”It was incredible,” said Betts of the honor. “My head’s still spinning from it, to be quite honest.”Betts & Scholl 2001 grenache is sold at Montagna, Cache Cache, Of Grape & Grain, the Grog Shop and soon at the Caribou Club.
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