Listening to wine
ASPEN Richard Betts has two imperatives about wine, which he lives by and stresses whenever possible.The first is that wine is a grocery, not a luxury. This encapsulates his philosophy that wine should be a normal, even everyday, activity; that wine-drinking should not be the domain solely of the rich and refined; that, while a $1,500 bottle and a $15 bottle may hold different expectations, the ultimate reason for both is the same – enjoyment. “Make sure it’s on your table, lunch and dinner; it’s part of your life,” said Betts. The second rule is that “wine has to speak of its place” – that a wine should reflect its origins, the traditions of the spot where it was made. Betts says, “I get asked all the time, sometimes three times a night: ‘Richard, what’s the best wine you ever had?’ It’s any wine that tastes like it comes from someplace. I want to pick up a glass, stick my nose in it and go someplace.”Betts’ own sense of place, on the other hand, is a bit skewed. Since 2000, the 36-year-old has lived in Aspen, some thousand miles from the closest renowned wine-producing region, in California, and several times that distance from the Old World wineries he most adores.Living in Aspen serves Betts well in his day job. As director of the wine program at The Little Nell, the wine world comes to him. At The Little Nell, he oversees Colorado’s best-stocked cellar, of some 20,000 bottles. Given Aspen’s, and the hotel’s, demographic makeup, he gets to serve and sip with many of the country’s most knowledgeable drinkers and collectors. The annual Food & Wine Magazine Classic – the 25th edition of which runs today through Sunday – puts him at the center of a swirl of winemakers, distributors and enthusiasts, as well as a collection of top chefs and restaurateurs.But in his more recent occupation of winemaker, Betts has to get out into the world. Over the past several years, he has made multiple visits to Australia’s Barossa Valley, the Hermitage rock on France’s Rhone River, and the Napa Valley. He is in search of not only the best grapes, but the know-how that goes with it, the decades or centuries of tradition that have been developed in each region. Betts & Scholl, the label co-owned by Betts, who was certified as a master sommelier in 2003, and Dennis Scholl, an investor and art collector who splits his time between Aspen and Miami, typically works with local growers and makers in the areas they visit.••••
Betts & Scholl was hatched by the two principals while mushroom foraging in 2000. Four years later, the label rolled out its first wine, a 2001 vintage of grenache from the Barossa Valley. There have been six bottlings since , including a California syrah, a red and a white from Hermitage, and a second Barossa Valley grenache, called the Chronique.
The latest product, being unveiled at the Food & Wine Classic, comes under the name Scarpetta – after the Italian term for sopping up spare sauce from a plate with a piece of bread. Made with the owners of Boulder’s Frasca restaurant – chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson, one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs from the class of 2005, and master sommelier Bobby Stuckey, Betts’ predecessor at The Little Nell – the Scarpetta is made from the unsung tocai friulano grapes of northeastern Italy, the region that also inspired Frasca restaurant. Also in the works is another Scarpetta project, a red from Italy’s Barbera region.The Betts & Scholl process begins close to home, with what Betts refers to as his “due diligence.” Normally a dry business term for the investigation undertaken before the acquisition of a company, Betts’ due diligence is a far more enviable task. Mostly, it requires a lot of drinking. But this is imbibing with a purpose. The ultimate aim of these tastings sounds simple – to figure out just what it is he and his partners want to make. Simply saying, “Let’s make an Australian Riesling,” however, doesn’t convey nearly the specificity Betts is aiming toward.”First, you decide what you want to make. What’s the aesthetic for the wine?” said Betts. “That’s important. You have to articulate what you want. You do that and you know where to begin.”For example, with the Barbera, Betts and his fellow makers knew they wanted a “traditional” Barbera. But Barbera hasn’t been a hot producing area; prices have been low; and standards have thus been spotty. So a more precise vision for the wine had to be formulated.”We didn’t want anything dirty. We didn’t want anything cheap,” said Betts. “Barbera’s a place where there’s more than enough dirty, poorly thought out wine. We wanted something clean.”The next step is searching for a grape-grower and winemaker in the chosen region. This is the fun part. “We go and buy every Barbera we can find, absolutely everything, and open them up and serve them blind,” said Betts. “You come up with a true picture of what you really like.
“You have a direction, instead of just flying to Italy, driving to Piedmont, and going to every last winery and knocking on every door. If you go there with an idea of whose work you most admire, you’ve saved yourself months.”Arriving in a region doesn’t mark the end of the due-diligence phase. The tasting and talking continues in wine bars, restaurants and vineyards. “You see if you get tired of it. You see if it resonates with you,” said Betts. Finally, the team zeroes in on a local grower whose grapes are deemed worth working with.••••Betts & Scholl has demonstrated a knack in locating vineyards and in making their wines. Wine Spectator called their series of grenaches “outstanding”; Food & Wine magazine, in 2004, named the company one of the best new wineries in the world. Betts points out that demand far surpasses the relatively modest supply. The label has also revealed idiosyncratic tendencies. There are no chardonnays or cabernets – the two most popular varietals – on their menu. The tocai friulano, Betts points out, is not only obscure, its official recognition is in jeopardy. (There is a dispute in the European Union whether the grape should be recognized under the Hungarian denomination, tokaji.) “It’s what do you think is interesting?” said Betts, who is headed to France later this month to scout out the next wine project. “That’s the common element in everything I do, everything Bobby and Lachlan do. Barbera – that’s not a commercially obvious choice. Grenache is the least commercially obvious varietal. And tocai friulano – it might not even have a name. But talk about doing something you love.”If the varietal selections are beyond the mainstream, the Betts & Scholl system for getting grapes in a vineyard to wine bottles on a table is their own invention. Apart from the partners who collaborate in a particular wine, it is a hands-on operation each step of the way. Between Betts, who specializes in the winemaking decisions, and Scholl, who, with his wife, Debra, handles much of the business end, the team directs the picking and pressing of the grapes, packaging, shipping, distribution and promotion. Scholl, a prominent art collector, arranges to have renowned contemporary artists design the labels; he also handles all of the label’s mail-order business.
The two even have their hands in the actual growing of the grapes. Betts & Scholl has established long-term agreements with growers, which allows them influence in vineyard practices. So no pesticides, herbicides or water is used. “Let this be a natural environment,” said Betts. “If you can make a natural and wild expression and put that in a glass, that’s a great experience for a drinker.”Betts can’t think of another winemaker going to such lengths to control its product. “That’s why this project is so amazing,” he said. “We’re taking it from the dirt to your glass.Betts, who is married and has a 6-year-old daughter, says he is often asked when the company will add an employee, perhaps a sales manager. And he assumes that at some point reality will settle in and he will delegate some responsibilities.”But who else is going to be as passionate as you?” he said. “Who else is going to jump up and down about grenache?”Betts had better find someone to stand in for him, as he has cultivated another passion. Last month, he spent time in Oaxaca, Mexico, looking for growers of the agave plant and makers of mezcal. He hopes to have his first mezcal in the hands of drinkers in 2008.”It’s much more Wild West,” he said of the mezcal business. “You go down there and trek for hours on these roads and find these guys, these families who have palenques, their distillation ramada.”The buzz is better than anything else out there. Alcohol is a downer – except for anything made with agave. And for me, agave also has that intellectual possibility.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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