Life in a bottle

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Richard Betts is rising high into the exclusive ranks of wine experts. Since moving to Aspen three years ago, the 32-year-old Betts has built and overseen the 20,000-bottle wine list at The Little Nell’s Montagne restaurant, probably the biggest – and to Betts, unquestionably the best – cellar in Colorado. Before moving to Aspen, Betts, at the uncommonly fresh age of 27, was assigned the task of creating from scratch a 10,000-bottle cellar at Janos, a restaurant of renown in Tucson.

Recently, Betts climbed even higher into rarefied oenological space. Over three days in March in San Francisco, he took the level-three test administered by the American chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers. When Betts received word that he had passed, he not only became one of just 112 designated master sommeliers in the world, but earned the Krug Cup, given to those – a tiny crowd of nine, including Betts – who pass the exam on their first attempt.

From that elevated perch, Betts has some words of advice for wine-drinkers: Relax. Have fun. Understand that a $13 bottle of wine can be the source of as much pleasure as a $1,300 bottle. And, above all, don’t be intimidated – by high prices, endless varietals and vintages, or haughty wine servers.

“Approach it with the idea it’s going to be fun, that it’s not a scary subject,” said Betts, who doesn’t have much difficulty generating enthusiasm for interests ranging from college basketball to yoga to esoteric genres of music. “Be open-minded. Try a lot of things.”

Appreciation and an adventuresome nature are critical for Betts. He would much rather pour an offbeat, low-priced wine to drinkers with a high curiosity than serve yet another expensive Chardonnay to diners interested mostly in how much the bottle costs. His nightmare experience, he says, is “conspicuous consumption. People who spend a fortune and have no enthusiasm for the wine itself. I’m not going to get any job offers in Las Vegas saying that – and that’s fine with me.”

At the same time that he cautions not to be overly serious about the subject, Betts also advocates a deep appreciation of wine. Wine, to Betts, is about more than the taste and smell and buzz; there’s even more to it than the high form of social interaction that comes with sharing a bottle. “Every bottle allows you to learn about the history, geology, geography of where it came from, the people,” said Betts, as avid a consumer of wine literature – from current issues of Decanter and Wine Spectator to centuries-old historical reports – as of wine itself. “It’s all in there.”

Betts believes that wine – be it a $9,500 1937 Romanee Conti La Tache or the $6-and-change bottle of Vina Alarba Old Vines Granache Catalyud he enthusiastically recommended to my wife – deserves proper attention. Decrying the “somewhat dreary situation of wine service across the country,” Betts plans to work as an instructor with the Court of Master Sommeliers to raise the standards of the wine experience in America. That means no more wines stored next to the stove, no glasses filled to the top, and an end to what he calls the “Chardonnay track meet – the back-and-forth runs to the cellar for the same innocuous Chardonnay.”

“Wine is a living, breathing thing, and needs to be treated as such,” he said. “You make it a better experience, then people enjoy it more, aren’t so intimidated by it, and they drink more wine. Which is the goal.”

Perhaps the ultimate goal is to nudge wine-drinking in America closer to the European ideal, where a lunchtime glass is ubiquitous, and even common folks can taste the difference between a Tuscan chianti and a Piedmont barolo.

Italian influence

It was a year in Italy that turned Betts on to wine. The Italy experience allowed Betts to overcome a childhood in Tucson, where he recalls that wine typically came “in a bag in a box in the fridge.”

A decade ago, Betts was about to enter his senior year, as a geology major and political science minor, at Los Angeles’ Occidental College, when wanderlust struck. Betts and his girlfriend – now wife – Mona Esposito went to Florence, where Betts had a renaissance of his own. He took art classes, learned Italian and rode a bicycle everywhere. He and Esposito rode the train to Bologna, where Esposito’s Aunt Rina taught them Italian cooking. It was a different way of life, and food played a central part in it.

“We would shop every day for our groceries, in farmer’s markets and corner stores,” he said. “They had the most amazing foods, and it changed seasonally. You got an appreciation of great local food and how it changes. It’s all grown right there, and you appreciate that seasonality and freshness. You don’t get that at City Market or Albertson’s. It’s a better way of life.”

Wine, naturally, was as important as the produce. And it, too, instilled in Betts an appreciation for geography, climate, regional differences.

“We’d drink wine at lunch and dinner every day. It’s just what you do,” said Betts. “In Europe, wine is a grocery, not a luxury. It’s on the table every day, wherever you go. You pour it out of a pitcher, into a tumbler – it’s so charming.

“And it’s local wine, it goes with local food. In Italy, every 100 kilos the dialect changes, the food and wine change. Having that specificity of locality is really appealing.”

Pleasure was a big part of the equation. “I wasn’t taken with, `I’ve got to study this.’ It was, `This is enjoyable; this is a lifestyle we’re going to make our own.’ When we came back to the States, we brought that life of shopping every day and cooking with us,” said Betts, who doesn’t own a car, and whose lunches at home can span several hours and several bottles of wine.

Changing directions

Returning to the States, Betts finished college and headed to North Arizona University, where he earned a masters in fluvial morphology, the study of ancient river systems. He also worked in law firms, wrote speeches for U.S. Senator Dennis DeConcini, and contemplated a future as a lawyer.

For pleasure, though, he cooked, drank and read about food and wine. Trips to the wine shop became long sessions examining the bottles and identifying the Italian labels with the actual vineyards.

“We’d drink them and it would transport me to a specific time and place and meal and food and what the waitress was wearing,” said Betts.

About to embark on his law schooling, Betts had the transformative moment. It was in Brix, a noted Flagstaff restaurant owned, coincidentally, by Bobby Stuckey, who would later be the wine steward at The Little Nell just before Betts.

“He and I were sitting in his cafe, and I said real plainly, I’m having much more fun cooking and learning about wine than I am with the law or geology,” he recalled. “He said, `Then do it.'”

Betts did it. He blew off law school and went to Missoula, Mont., where Esposito had a position in the linguistics department at the University of Montana. Betts got low-level cooking jobs, eventually becoming breakfast cook at the Doubletree Hotel, single-handedly manning a 40-foot cooking line. After a year, Esposito tired of her job, and Betts figured there were better places to further his culinary ambitions. After contemplating a move to New York or San Francisco, they headed to Tucson, where Betts knew he’d have some access to the top kitchens.

At Fuego – owned by chef Alan Zeeman, considered the grandfather of Southwest cuisine – Betts worked his way up to saucier, and also took on the role of volunteer sommelier. When he heard that Janos Wilder was moving his renowned restaurant Janos, Betts applied for and got the job of filling the new 10,000-bottle wine cellar.

“What an awesome stroke of luck that was – to be sommelier in one of Arizona’s finest restaurants, and get to fill the cellar almost from scratch,” he said. “Usually, you start as an understudy, or with a cellar that’s already built. It’s an amazing treat. Amazing.”

After two years, Betts was ready for another step up the food-and-wine chain. Again, Bobby Stuckey played a role in Betts’ future. When Betts heard that Stuckey was moving to the French Laundry in Napa Valley, Betts stepped into the opening at The Little Nell.

Betts frequently calls his current position at Montagne a dream job. For this, he praises his predecessor Stuckey for building a great wine list, and chef Paul Wade, who arrived just after Betts, for creating wine-friendly cuisine.

Above all, Betts gives credit to the clientele that Montagne attracts. More than a great cellar or menu, Montagne has the climate of adventure that Betts cherishes.

“People come into this atmosphere and they get it,” said Betts, whose own tastes run toward Burgundies, Rhone Valley wines, and “complex and complete,” rather than “just big” wines. “There are wines with context, people with context, who want to have fun with the wines, instead of the same old Chardonnay. It’s great to come here and find people who are into learning, exploring. To have that dialogue, that possibility for exchange, is so special, so unique.

“You can buy any wine if you have the money; you can build a great list if you have the money and the know-how. But you can’t buy the wine-drinkers.”

Continuing education

And you can’t buy expertise; that comes only with night after night, day after day, of drinking wine, reading about wine, talking wine and thinking wine. To prepare for the level-three sommelier exam, Betts not only did his serving and tasting at Montagne and his usual reading load, but also engaged in regular blind-tasting sessions with Aspenite and master sommelier Jay Fletcher.

Blind tasting, in which he examines and identifies six wines in 25 minutes by vintage, grape and region, is one-third of the level-three exam. Part two of the exam is theory, in which testers can ask virtually anything about wine, spirits and beer – history, production, law, consumption. The final portion is service, with candidates walking into a makeshift dining room to work the tables – pairing wines with food, interacting with customers, pouring.

Betts doesn’t see the master sommelier designation as an end, but a beginning. Wine is a continuing way of life, and there are more wines to be discovered, bottles poured and people to educate.

“You don’t pass and quit,” said Betts. “I feel it’s incumbent on me to keep learning. That’s easy, because I love to do it.

“I don’t want to be like the professor who gets tenure and then does nothing until he retires. I want to be the guy that’s always on top of it and always at the forefront of what’s going on.”

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is