Richard Betts Aspen’s wine advocate
Master Sommelier Richard Betts of the Little Nell Hotel in Aspen, according to Outside Magazine, has one of the 50 best jobs around.As the director of all things oenological (which is to say, wine director) at the Nell, the magazines May 2008 edition placed Betts right up there with executive chef Ryan Hardy, also at the Nell, along with adventure consultant Chrisina Heyniger, adventure filmmaker John Smithson, and just about anybody in a position of responsibility at Red Bull.And Betts, who at 37 is one of the few people to earn his Master title on his first try, is not likely to disagree with that assessment.I make sure people have fun, he said with a radiant smile. Im your advocate and your enabler who, in choosing a wine for a customer, takes them on a trip through a glass of wine.As for the perception that the motivation is to sell the most expensive wine to every customer, that is not his way, Betts said. His philosophy is that wine is a grocery, its not a luxury. It just belongs on the table.Im going to bring you the best bottle I can, for the least amount of money, and Im going to make you a regular, he continued emphatically. Its not about sticking it to someone, its about having someone fall in love with your place.The job also is a lot of fun, of course, and Betts exudes confidence and competence about wines, food and how best to mix the two.He was featured in the Sommelier Talk column of the July 18, 2007 online edition of Wine Spectator, one of the most respected trade magazines in the wine industry, and in October of that same year the magazine turned him loose with a blog that is still being published.Despite his love of the work he does, and of the 20,000-bottle wine cellar that he is responsible for, he plans to soon leave his post at the Nell.Betts is about to head out on his own (OK, with help from partner Dennis Scholl) with a brand of wines (Betts & Scholl) and, unexpectedly enough, a new mezcal (called Sombra, which means shadow in Spanish).Betts, who has been at the Nell since 2000, will step down as sommelier as of June 16, although he will stay on as a wine consultant, according to Justin Todd of the Nells sales and marketing department. In the future, Betts plans to split his time between Aspen and Boulder.As his last hurrah, Betts will be one of the stars at the 26th Annual Food & Wine Classic, which runs from June 13-15 in Aspen. He will co-host several of the Classics reserve tastings with Andrew Lawlor, director of the Classic Reserve Tasting Program for Food & Wine, scheduled for Friday, Saturday and Sunday.And, it must be mentioned, Betts will host a launch party for his new mezcal line on Thursday night at the Nell.
A few words from his fansBetts is well liked locally, by others in the wine biz as well as residents who have known him through his wine expertise.In a place like this, hes the rock star, said wine broker Jay Fletcher, himself a master sommelier as well as executive director of fine wines for Southern Wine & Spirits. And this place is an icon.Fletcher and Betts together recently taught a sommelier class to 105 students at the St. Regis Hotel, just down the street from the Nell, and Betts has gained a strong local following from other wine classes he has conducted over the past eight years.Aspen residents Melissa Pelham and Jeff Juneau met Betts as customers at the Nell and started taking his wine classes as a way of learning more about a subject they already were passionate about.To have a master sommelier in your back yard, thats a unique experience, said Pelham. You want to take advantage of that … he takes you places where you maybe wouldnt ordinarily go.He obviously also is well regarded by others in his field who are not directly connected to his position as the buyer of wine at The Little Nell, nor as a teacher. How else to explain the fact that he was tapped to be co-host for the reserve tastings by Lawlor, who arguably could have his pick of wine specialists from anywhere in the U.S. and perhaps the world?Hes a great guy, a great taster and no ego, said David Feldstein, of the Atherton Wine Co. in California, who has known Betts for a half-dozen years and likes the wines that Betts and Scholl are producing.I think hes got a great palette for that sort of thing, Feldstein said. Hes making a very honest wine. His palette is very classic. He knows whats right.He said the Betts & Scholl wines are aimed at a kind of a middle of the road market rather than the super wines that might impress wine guru Robert Parker and command stratospheric prices on the shelf of your local liquor store.
Geologist, lawyer, cookBorn in Syracuse, N.Y., Betts grew up in Tucson, Ariz., after his parents tired of life in New York and headed west. He recalled visiting the Old Tucson movie set and theme park all the time, which may in some ways account for how his life has taken what he admits is a rather serpentine path.He is a 1994 graduate of Occidental College in Los Angeles, Calif., with a bachelors degree in geology and a minor in political science. From there he went on to graduate school at Northern Arizona University in a specialized branch of geology Paleofluvialmorphology as a way to get more scientific learning under his belt before going to law school.I thought I was going to do environmental law, he said recently. That was the plan.Toward that end, he worked in the office of former U.S. Sen. Dennis DiConcini of Ariz., who was implicated in the Savings & Loan scandal of the 1980s and who ultimately resigned from office in 1995.Betts also worked for a time in the nationally known law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in Los Angeles, doing what he called grunt work. It wasnt much fun. You could see the young attorneys werent having too much fun either.But he kept going, working for a small Flagstaff law firm while attending graduate classes that he said were next to the best rocks on earth.It was somewhat earlier, during a trip to Florence, Italy, with his girlfriend, Mona Esposito (who later became his wife) that he had his first intimate encounter with the world that would later occupy his life fine wines and food.Thats where I got bit by the bug, he said, explaining that he learned to cook and to live the totally pedestrian lifestyle of visiting the market every day to cook a splendid meal for that evening.But it was while defending his masters thesis in 1996 that, during a visit to a friends restaurant and wine shop, he experienced an epiphany after opening a bottle of wine. Sticking his nose in the snifter to breathe in the bouquet of the wine, he said, immediately, just from the smell, I was back at a specific dinner in Florence from his vacation four years earlier.Recalling how the details of the dinner, from the taste of the wine to the clothes his girlfriend wore that night, all came flooding back, he said, that was pretty compelling.A short time later, while chatting with friend and wine expert Bobby Stuckey, he described his epiphany and remarked, I dont think I want to go to law school. I think I want to do food and wine.Stuckey, he said, responded instantly: You should. So he did.Although he looked into culinary schools, his friends urged him to get a job in a restaurant to see if it worked for him. When his new wife got a job teaching English as a Second Language for the George Soros Foundation in Missoula, Mont., he went with her and started working at local restaurants.The two decided Montana wasnt for them, though, and soon returned to Arizona, where she pursued work in art history and photography while he became a griardan, which Betts said means the guy on the grill, at Fuegos in Tucson, working with noted chef Alan Zeman. It was at Fuegos that he took his first class toward certification as a sommelier and began his formal training in the world of fine wines.After a year at Fuegos, Betts was hired in 1997 as the first-ever sommelier at Janos, also in Tucson, where he worked with chef and owner Janos Wilder.It was at Janos that Betts started studying wine in depth, first in order to do justice to the 10,000-bottle cellar.I just got lucky, he said of the Janos position, explaining that while he was not exactly a highly trained sommelier at the time Janos hired him, the owner had the inkling that it would be something that would work.He stayed at Janos for roughly two years until he heard that his friend and mentor Bobby Stuckey was planning to leave his job at a place called The Little Nell Hotel in Aspen. He applied, got the job, and the rest is local history.He continued to study and take exams in his field, sometimes forsaking other parts of his life.I get kind of myopic when I do that sort of thing, he said of the tests. I studied for three solid years.In 2003, the year he took the final exam and was declared a Master Sommelier, I didnt ski a day, he said. Its intense. Its not without some sacrifice.His attention also is taken up by his young daughter, Isabella, who is being home-schooled by Mona. But he still managed to pass the final exam the first time he took it, only the ninth candidate ever to do so, he noted proudly.But to be really good at it, you have to care about people, he said of his job. Its very important to me to give back. I help people enjoy their lives. Thats super-important to me. I consider it a gift to be able to do that.
The next chapterIn the next phase of his life, he and his partners will make wines using different grapes from a variety of countries, mostly old vineyards that had been abandoned by earlier winemakers. There will be syrah from Napa Valley in California, hermitage from France, tocai and pinot grigio from Italy, riesling and shiraz from Australia and his favorite grape, grenache, also from Australia.His first vineyard, he said, was in Australia, where he found established grenache vines that had been left behind in favor of more fashionable grapes.There are amazing old vineyards that are just fallow, because nobody wanted grenache, he said. The youngest vineyard I work with now is 84 years old … original root stock stuff … an international treasure.He also is working with a palenquero or mezcal maker from Oaxaca, Mexico, who lives in a village of mezcal makers but is someone who can help me get to my results, without me screwing it up. He said mezcal and tequila, both made from the agave plant, are the only hard liquors he can drink without dire results, which led to his decision to get into the business.For his bottle, he said, he found an old water bottle from the 1800s in upstate New York, and he is having it replicated using recycled glass, with labels printed with soy ink, to make his business as sustainable and green as possible.He is aware of mezcals rather dark reputation in the U.S., he said, adding, Im here to totally change it. It [mezcal] can be one of the finest, most interesting of spirits.But unscrupulous distillers and marketers have used techniques that leave toxins in the liquor, and marketing ploys such as the legend that the worm makes the drink authentic, as selling points without regard to the quality of the liquor itself.His mezcal will have its U.S. debut at the Food & Wine Classic next week, he said, and a shipment of 6,000 bottles has been prepared for the unveiling.Betts also is in a partnership with Stuckey and chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson, who together own La Frasca restaurant in Boulder and who, with Betts help, have started an Italian winemaking and importing label, La Scarpetta.Betts admitted that he is a little nervous about striking out into the mercantile world, but, he noted that, where the mezcal is concerned, Its one thing to read about it in a book. Its another to go out and get your hands dirty. It feels good.So far, he said, Our wines have found a great following, and he is confident the same will happen for the mezcal.Well see how it works out, he said email@example.com
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This summer in Aspen is likely to include indoor and outdoor concerts, maskless gatherings and no state or county-mandated restrictions on social distancing at restaurants or anywhere else.