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Uncorked

Three days at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic with master sommelier Richard Betts.

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Need a bottle of bottle of bubbly? Want a refreshing Riesling? Click here for master sommelier Richard Betts’ top 10 picks for affordable wines.

It’s 12:40 on an early-summer afternoon in Aspen, and I’ve just shared a shot of tequila—no lime, no salt—with Richard Betts, the 37-year-old master sommelier of the Little Nell, the swank-without-overdoing-it resort that has earned enough gold awards to plate a church dome. This is not the first drink I’ve shared with Richard Betts today. The first was the elderflower champagne cocktail he handed me about 10 minutes ago. That was quickly followed by a short pour of Tocai Friulano, his own Italian white table wine, which arrived in the country an hour earlier. Over the next couple hours, I’ll sample a French rosé, a Betts & Scholl Australian Grenache (he also makes this one), and a 2005 Marenco Brachetto d’Acqui from Piedmont, Italy, which Betts describes as the most cheerful wine on Planet Earth.

Betts is pouring these wines at a kickoff luncheon for the 2007 Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, the high-altitude hobnob for people who believe in fine dining. (This year’s Classic runs June 13-15.) The Classic, which costs $1,075 to attend, brings celebrity chefs and wine experts together with hard-core foodies for three days of wine tastings, cooking demonstrations, and unabashed self-indulgence. Seated around tables on an outdoor patio at the base of Aspen Mountain are men in cool sunglasses and women with strappy sandals, and people who work in publishing or finance or film or professional football, and everyone, it seems, is scheduling parties into their BlackBerries. There’s the Magnum party and the Celebrity Chef party and the party at Sky Bar. Betts is hosting a party tonight as well—a caviar-and-champagne blowout named by a local paper as the best party you won’t get into.

The luncheon is lovely under the warm mountain sun, and it unfolds slowly over the next two hours. When it ends, when the wine glasses have been emptied and the guests have air-kissed their good-byes to one another, Betts walks up to me and exhales dramatically. “How about a drink?”

If you haven’t guessed already, Richard Betts loves wine. He thinks it’s cool and wonderful and awesome, and his frequent-flyer statement proves it. Over the course of seven weeks leading up to the 2007 Classic, he traveled to Australia to work the harvest on his own wine; to Italy to chat up producers in Piedmont, Brunello, and Campania; to New York to schmooze with his distributors; to Washington to charm some sales reps; back to Aspen for a 24-hour laundry stop; and then to Oaxaca, Mexico, where he is launching a mezcal project, mezcal being another beverage Betts is passionate about, although tequila—a close cousin to mezcal—will do in a pinch. All of this, however, is just a sideline. Betts’ real job is managing the 20,000-bottle, 55-page wine list at the Little Nell, a multimillion-dollar collection that tops out at more than $18,000 for a single bottle. It’s a 1929 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Grand Cru from Richebourg, and the exact price is $18,850.

Betts is uniquely qualified to assess the quality of such wines: He’s one of only 12 people to have aced the famously difficult Master Sommelier Diploma Exam on the first try, putting him in the same league as Paul Roberts, the director of wine and beverage for the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, which owns the renowned French Laundry in Yountville, California, as well as Per Se in New York City. To pass, Betts had to correctly identify six wines in a blind taste test within 25 minutes, including nailing the country, region, grape varietal, and vintage. Becoming a master sommelier is so challenging that even when given a second or third shot at the title, it’s difficult to attain, and to date only 96 Americans have done so. As a result, it’s a close-knit club. In fact, many of the masters are expected to make a showing in Aspen this weekend, including Bobby Stuckey of Frasca in Boulder, who also happens to be Betts’ partner in la Scarpetta, which produces the Tocai we drank earlier.

Betts wasn’t always winding his way toward wine. He grew up in Tucson, graduated from Occidental College in Los Angeles with a bachelor’s degree in geology, then went on to earn a master’s degree in geology from Northern Arizona University. But his life changed the very last week of his master’s program when he bought a bottle of Italian wine from a shop owned, as fate would have it, by Bobby Stuckey. “I’d been in Italy four years earlier,” Betts says. “When I stuck my nose in that glass of wine back home in Arizona I could remember the Italian restaurant where I first drank it. I remembered what my girlfriend was wearing, what we had for dinner, everything. I was completely transported.”

Ditching his plans for law school—he’d hoped to become an environmental lawyer—Betts decided at that moment to pursue a new career in wine. He began working as a cook and then sommelier at Janos—another multiaward-winning restaurant—in Tucson, before landing at the Little Nell in 2000. Once there, he began studying every day for the master exam—tasting, reading, tasting some more. He was ferocious about it. “You have to be,” he says. “It’s a test of will, a test of desire.” But it’s all paid off handsomely. Today, Betts is known as one of the best, a sommelier’s sommelier. And thanks to his rising celebrity, colleagues have a name for him: “Hollywood.”

Despite all this experience and authority, Betts is not one of those snooty wine guys, the kind who can intimidate you with their stiff backs and pinched lips. Betts is more the type to be caught playing air guitar in the mirror after drinking rosé all afternoon.

Which is why I’ve planned to spend the weekend with him. Master sommeliers—like master chefs over the last few years—are fast becoming rock stars among free-spending foodies. The kind of people who know their cheeses and chocolates and sea salts, the kind of people who plunk down a thousand bucks to attend the Food & Wine Classic, are also the kind of people who ask for their “somms” by name. I want to know what it’s like knowing wine and achieving celebrity as a result.

Actually, my quest is more personal than that. I’ve been drinking wine all my life, and I mean that almost literally, having had my first taste of red wine­—a jug burgundy—at the family cabin in Northern California when I was 13. Over the years, I’ve learned a bit about wine. I’ve begun to like older wines. French wines. And somehow—I’m not quite sure of the exact sequence of events—I’ve come to possess a set of Riedel crystal glasses designed only for Pinot Noir, along with a set designed only for Chablis.

But underneath, I sense this is all merely window dressing—that, after all these years, I am not any more knowledgeable or confident about wine than any other American consumer who tends to think everyone else is more knowledgeable and confident about wine than she is. I want to know what true wine sophistication looks like. Is a $1,000 bottle of wine really 100 times better than a $10 bottle? And could I tell the difference?

And so I arranged to hang out with Betts, one of the profession’s most respected sommeliers, on a weekend that has attracted some of the most discriminating drinkers in the world. But now that I’m here and he’s asking me to join him in a glass of white Burgundy as a way of warming up for the kickoff party, which is a way of warming up for his own caviar-and-champagne party and “whatever other kind of trouble we can get into,” I’m starting to wonder if I have the necessary stamina.

As the first evening with Betts unfolds, my concern proves valid. We start with the Food & Wine Classic kickoff, at which, Betts says, we’ll only be drinking beer because the party is sponsored by a famous white Zinfandel maker, and, well, Betts’ derisive frown indicates white Zin is not something we want to risk.

Once the party’s over, we head back to the Little Nell, where Betts jumps into a tailored suit and begins to work the dinner crowd on the floor of Montagna, the restaurant inside the five-star, five-diamond hotel. While you may think selecting wine for rich people would be the ultimate in cush jobs, it’s clear Betts immediately feels pressure to perform. There’s a sommelier from Chicago at this table, a winemaker from California at that table, and, although he’s not supposed to recognize her, Betts bristles as a magazine food critic walks past him to the patio. For several hours, master chefs and wine writers and publishers and other hoity-toities from the food world stream into the restaurant. In terms of celebrity, this all seems relatively mild considering Betts has also poured for international politicians, royalty, and Hollywood icons. But for Betts, this is a crowd of food elites. It’s his crowd and this is his town. He’s gotta be on.

He seats me at a table with a happy, large-bellied wine collector who shares a glass of ’91 Dominus, a California Cab I know nothing about until he delivers a lengthy history of the wine. I ask the collector how much wine he has in his cellar.

“A lot,” he says.

“Like how much?”

“Well, less and less now that I’m drinking more and more.”

“So, how much would you say you have left?”

“A lot,” he says.

Just as our conversation begins spiraling down, Betts appears once again. He’s like Nancy Reagan at a state dinner. Adept. Timely. Sensitive to the needs of guests. And even though he has a million other things to be doing, he wants to make sure I meet a lot of wine people, because wine people are his people and he knows his people are misunderstood. He knows that sommeliers—who smack of money and snobbery and know-it-all-ism—can scare diners. So he sits me at a table with two of his peers. One is a sommelier with Michael Mina, a chain of high-end restaurants based in San Francisco; the other, a consultant for private collectors. Before spinning away again, Betts pours me—from their bottle—a glass of extremely rare red Burgundy. I know it’s extremely rare red Burgundy because they tell me. The two sommeliers stare at me, forks held aloft, mystified by this strange woman who has suddenly joined their dinner party and started drinking their wine.

Close to 11 p.m., the restaurant closes and the party crowd converges for Betts’ soiree. In one corner of the small, wood-paneled party room, people line up for a taste of his Tocai. In the other, guests knock back little clay cups of mezcal. In between, chef Ryan Hardy from the Little Nell doles out delicate slices of homemade prosciutto. There’s also Champagne and three types of caviar, and lots of talk with architects and yoga instructors and Hollywood types about wine. Within minutes, it seems, the lights grow dim, the party grows hot and loud, and it becomes impossible to navigate from one side of the room to the other because of the sweaty crush of humanity, all of which reminds me of a fraternity party, or, rather, how a fraternity party might be if Champagne and caviar were served and people already had multiple degrees and fashionable clothes, and it was in Aspen, in the summer, and everyone was beautiful and a little drunk.

Late the next morning, I meet up with Betts in a park in downtown Aspen where enormous white tents have been set up on the green lawn, and inside hundreds of wineries are giving out samples. Betts doesn’t waste time with producers we’ve all heard of—the Beringers and Kenwoods and Kendall Jacksons of the world. Instead, he zeroes in on a select few, starting with a ’94 Kalin Cellars Chardonnay. He tastes and spits. I taste and swallow, because I’ve tried spitting and can only dribble.

“Isn’t this terrific?” he asks.

“It’s terrific,” I agree.

He moves on to a Sancerre. “Isn’t this awesome?” he asks.

“It’s awesome,” I agree.

I suppose I should be using my fancy wine-tasting vocabulary to describe the Chardonnay, but I’m with a master. What if I detect butterscotch and the wine is actually more green peppery? Better not to risk it. From now on, my strategy is to agree with everything Betts has to say about what he tastes. If I can figure out why he says it, all the better.

“So, Richard,” I ask, “do you have a particular philosophy when it comes to wine?”

He stops walking and turns to face me. Betts is six feet tall, thin as a gecko, and has the kind of smiling eyes that make you feel that what matters most to you is what matters most to him, a characteristic I suspect contributes a great deal to his success.

“My philosophy?” he asks. “Wine should be fun. That’s the bottom line. People get all freaked out about ordering the right wine”—he rolls his eyes—”but there is no such thing. The right wine is the wine you like. That’s it. So find what you like and go for it. You cool with that?”

I tell him I’m cool with that. But my strategy remains the same.

We continue through the tasting tent, which is warming quickly in the summer heat and is beginning to smell like stale wine, damp grass, and suntan lotion. Betts stops every few feet to talk to someone he knows or someone who wants to know him, usually a distributor or winemaker who’d like a coveted spot on his wine list. As Betts gives each new person his full attention, I wonder how he can be so consistently engaging in the face of such outright solicitousness. I don’t know any of these people and they’re starting to bug me.

After a particularly lengthy conversation with an enthusiastic young woman jingling with turquoise jewelry, he sighs.

“Tell me the truth,” he says. “Is it obvious when I get impatient?”

Not at all, I say, relieved to know he’s human.

“That’s good,” he says. Then he picks up a glass of Italian white. He sips and spits. I sip and swallow.

“Isn’t this awesome?” he asks.

“Yes,” I say. “It’s awesome.”

And it is.

That evening, the tilt-a-whirl at Montagna starts early. When I arrive at 7:30, Betts—still alert and enthusiastic after a long day of tasting—introduces me to a local connoisseur who has brought three bottles from his own collection, all of which are sitting on his dining table wrapped in silver foil. He’s brought them to test the palates of his wine friends, to see if they can correctly identify what’s hidden underneath.

“These are the kind of wines that drive sommeliers crazy,” the connoisseur tells me. At the table with him, two men are already swirling and smelling and puzzling over the mystery red in their glasses. This seems to please the connoisseur, who leans back in his chair and clasps his hands behind his thinning blond hair.

Later, I meet up with Betts and ask him if he was able to correctly guess the wines.

“Of course,” he says. “They were all ’62 Burgundies.”

Oh. Of course.

For the next hour and a half, Betts twirls from table to table, responding to customer requests to say hello or deliver a message or thank him for selecting the perfect wine and making their evening that much more special. With his hazel eyes and groovy Keith Partridge haircut, Betts is an obvious favorite of women, who tend to touch his arm as he talks. But men also hit on Betts, which Betts himself reveals to me while darting up the stairs to avoid a cable television personality who once came on to him.

Midway through the evening, Betts looks at me and tips his head toward the kitchen. I follow him down a short hallway and around a corner to a large stainless-steel door. He unlocks and opens the door, and together we step inside a walk-in cooler stacked floor to ceiling on both sides with roughly $500,000 worth of Champagne and white wine. He closes the door behind us, grabs two Coronas from a box on the floor, and cracks off their metal lids.

“Cheers,” he says. Except for the hum of the motor, it’s silent inside the refrigerator. It’s also white. And very cold.

We clink the bottles together, and Betts begins to tell me, his breath fogging in front of him, that this is where he comes to recharge, to get away from diners, to have a moment of peace in which he isn’t required to smile and shake hands and tell people how nice it is to see them and generally act like a politician running for office. He estimates he’s shaken about 300 hands today alone and, having spent a good chunk of the day with him, I would have to agree. The constant public attention is great, on the one hand. It means people are paying attention to Betts, and if they’re paying attention to Betts, in some small way that means they are also paying attention to wine. But the never-ending attention—both the giving and receiving—combined with late hours and an intense travel schedule, can also be trying, and it’s been hard on his marriage.

Earlier today, I’d met his wife, Mona Esposito, a photographer with the kind of healthy, self-possessed demeanor that comes from living in one of the world’s prettiest places. She confessed to me how difficult it is to have a date with her husband.

“If he says, ‘Let’s meet at 7:30,’ I always plan on 8 or 8:30,” she said. “It’s hard to get him alone.”

I relay the conversation to Betts, and he nods. “Yeah, it’s tough,” he says. Betts takes a pull from his beer and looks at the floor.

As he tells me this, I begin to see that for Betts wine is hardly a frivolous pursuit. He had planned to become an environmental lawyer to help the world become a better place, and, although he went in a different direction, his goal—to improve the world—has not changed. It’s just changed focus. The way he contributes now is by turning people on to this amazing, constantly changing substance that offers both hedonistic release and intellectual stimulation. For him, wine is about giving back, whether he’s making it at one of his four joint ventures in Australia, Italy, France, or Napa; pouring it at the Little Nell; or talking it up in a cooler at the back of a busy restaurant. As he puts it, “I try to help people enjoy their lives more. I’m an enabler.”

We finish our beers and head back to the floor, where the second wave of dinner guests floods the restaurant. The maître d’ tells Betts two local restaurateurs are asking for him.

Now, normally, Betts is the kind of sommelier who sells down to customers. Instead of pushing you toward a $200 bottle, he might suggest an $82 bottle because he wants you to come back. He doesn’t want you to feel fearful and stiffed and like you can’t afford to drink well. “All that sommelier crap,” he says, “that’s just nonsense.”

But that’s on a normal night, with normal people. This weekend, the big-spending foodies are out in droves, and Betts is hardly suggesting wine at all. Instead, this is a crowd that expects him to choose wine for them without any discussion of price beforehand. Betts is supposed to know what they like and how much they can spend—and remarkably, he does.

I accompany Betts to the restaurateurs’ table.

“What sounds fun?” he says, clapping his hands together.

The two men look at each other. “How about white Burgundy?”

“Terrific!” Betts says.

I follow him back to the cooler, where he gives me the background on the men. One is a guy who likes fast cars. “This guy’s all about conspicuous consumption, so he’s going to want something expensive. I’m thinking four figures. I mean, he’s not gonna say he can’t afford it.”

After looking at the wine list, Betts chooses a $595 bottle of Corton-Charlemagne.

“$595?” I ask.

“Yeah, that’s pretty lenient. They’ll get it next time around.”

Betts empties the wine into a decanter and then pours me a taste before bringing the decanter to the table. The wine is a delicious blend of vanilla, butter, and almonds, with a touch of mango and warm pear.

I’m sorry. I don’t normally talk this way. But spend a few days with wine people, spend a few days sipping and swirling and changing your wine glass with each new pour, and you too will descend into a kind of sublime geekiness. And you’ll love it.

At nine the next morning, just when I think the fun meter can’t go any higher, I arrive at the first in a day-long series of reserve tastings. Sommeliers will tell you, only half jokingly, that the average American opens a bottle of wine 28 impatient minutes after purchasing it. The people I’m sitting with in this seminar room are not your average Americans; they are the kind of people who purchase a bottle of wine and then visit it for years in the cool quiet of their wine cellars until, well…that’s what they’re here to find out.

Here at the reserve wine tastings, participants plunk down a few hundred bucks for a few tiny tastes—which none of them finish—of an exceedingly rare wine. The series of tastings helps serious collectors answer such vexing, lie-awake-at-night questions as, “Will my ’82 Torremilanos Gran Reserva continue to mature into a stately old gentleman, or has it become a feral beast that must be unleashed?”

Although he closed the restaurant last night at two a.m., and then got into some kind of playful trouble—he doesn’t elaborate—until four, Betts is already sipping and spitting and writing notes about the 10 mini-pours of Pommery Champagne sitting in front of him. Betts manages to keep up with the long hours and never-ending alcohol by keeping up an avid trail-running regimen—avid as in 10 or 15 or 20 miles in Aspen’s thin air as often as he can. “It’s always better to get up early and run than it is to sleep in,” he says, “even if you feel like you’re gonna puke.”

I ask if he ran this morning. “No,” he says, his eyes bloodshot. “And I’m bummed. But hey.” He raises a glass. “It’s Champagne!”

The first tasting gets under way and, although it’s Champagne we’re talking about, the atmosphere in the room is as muted as a graduate chemistry seminar. Betts and the other expert panelists speak. The collectors—mostly male and middle-aged—jot notes. And whenever a new wine is introduced, everyone pauses to quietly sip and swirl and ponder. And so it goes all day in seminar after seminar.

“Number four has not completely unfurled. You can’t see the petals yet.”

“Number seven is starting to show its bass notes.”

“The fruit is quiet, but this baby’s got broad shoulders. It’ll be great in 10 years.”

Most of the panelists talk like you expect wine people to talk. They use words like “elegant” and “precocious” and “charming.” But Betts, who’s wearing a cotton candy-pink shirt, takes the Wine for Dummies approach.

“Hey now!” he says.

“This is yummy!”

“Yee-haw! This one totally gets the Red Dress Award. It’s intellectually satisfying, if you want to go there, but if not, hey, that’s cool. Knock it back. Enjoy. It’s a beautiful thing.”

A woman at the front of the room looks at Betts and then back at her glass. “Ewwww,” she says. “I want what he’s having.”

The guy sitting next to me, a golfer type with a sunburn and a slouch, listens to this exchange. He’s clearly not impressed by Betts’ pink shirt and cool demeanor and the fact that women seem to like him.

“I think that guy’s missing things.”

“Why don’t you ask him a question,” I suggest.

He waves his hand in front of his chest, as if he couldn’t possibly be bothered.

Then he looks down at his lineup of 10 glasses. Unlike the other tasters in the room, he’s drained every one except the last three. He frowns. “Have we discussed these?”

“Yes,” I say. “We just finished.”

“Oh.”

Although the man is drunk and drooly and a little annoying, I also find his presence somewhat reassuring. Out of all the people here, he alone seems to remember that wine is not just fruit and earth and wood and minerals; it’s also an intoxicant.

The sniffs and sips continue for hours, and by the end of the day I’ve tasted 40 different wines—a personal best. I’ve learned I don’t like the scaffoldlike structure of a ’91 California Cab, which, as an aside, smells a bit like marijuana; that I really like the elegance of ’62 Grand Cru Champagne; and that I may have hit the saturation point. For the first time ever, I’ve grown tired of all the winespeak, all the talk about tannins and terroir and maceration and malolactic fermentation, and the discussions of French oak versus American oak, and whether it’s a good or a bad thing to detect dill in your red wine. Even the descriptors—menthol, cassis, stargazer lilies—have worn thin. They’re all just words. They’ve lost their meaning and appeal.

Betts, however, does not seem similarly depleted. “Meet me upstairs for a shot of mezcal before the dinner rush?” he asks.

No thanks, I say. I don’t want any mezcal. I don’t want any wine. What I really want is a nap.

By Sunday morning, the town of Aspen is decidedly quieter. I go for a run by a creek and pass hearty young men on mountain bikes and couples walking their golden retrievers and others generally enjoying life outdoors in the clear, high-mountain air. Mornings like this in Aspen are so stupendously lovely you can forget, for a time, that Aspen is also a land of air kisses and May-December marriages and bank accounts bigger than God’s. Yesterday, while waiting for Betts in the lobby of the hotel, I had overheard one woman ask another what she did in the off-season.

“First, I went to California,” she said. “And then around the world.”

“Sounds nice,” her friend replied.

I waited to hear a tantalizing tidbit about Bangkok or Peru or the Azores, but that was it; the conversation was over.

I try to remind myself that the Aspen crowd is one small slice of the wine world. For most people, wine doesn’t exist to be analyzed and evaluated, compared and described. It exists to be drunk. But I also like that wine, if you let it, can teach you about geography and culture and history and language and tradition. And, frankly, you can get all this whether you spend $10 or $100 or $1,000 a bottle. I suppose this makes wine the ultimate democracy. You can choose to vote on a winner or not, but your needs will still likely be met.

I follow Betts into the last reserve tasting of the weekend: a 25-year Bordeaux retrospective that will culminate with a taste of ’82 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, which, if you can get it, goes for about $1,400 a bottle. Though I’m wined-out, I’m anxious to taste this gem, mostly because everyone else here is anxious to taste this gem, and they seem to know a lot more about wine than I do. When asked who in the audience has ’82 Bordeaux in their collection, more than half the attendees raise their hands.

The tasting gets under way and it’s basically a repeat of yesterday’s. The wines are sexy, veggie, weedy, and romantic. I continue to take notes out of habit, not because I’d actually consider buying any of the wines. What I’m waiting for is that ’82 Mouton. I need to know what an expensive, universally agreed-upon winner of a wine tastes like.

An hour later, after all the anticipation, the experts at the front of the room turn their attention to the pièce de résistance—the revered ’82 Mouton-Rothschild. I pick up the glass. I swirl it. I stick my nose in it. I detect bits of cedar. And then, I taste. I wait for stars to explode behind my eyes or hidden philosophies to reveal themselves. But the wine is so jagged and tannic that all the saliva immediately disappears from my mouth and I can’t think why I would ever spend $14 on a bottle, let alone $1,400. Of course, I don’t confess any of this out loud.

The experts, in contrast, start gushing about the Mouton’s muscularity and how it will continue to live and grow and impress for years inside the bottle. Their rapture is unanimous, if a bit mystifying. All around me, people are nodding their heads.

Then the seminar leader asks Betts to comment on the wine. He sighs, picks up his glass, and simply shakes his head.

“Mouton-Schmooton,” he says. “Whatever. I know people are into this wine, but I find it off-putting. It’s too astringent. There’s not enough fat. Sorry, but I’m just not into it.”

At which point I want to stand and cheer. Not because Betts has just confirmed my own opinion of the wine—well, maybe because of that—but because if Betts can be comfortable staring down his peers and the entire wine industry and saying that he doesn’t like such a revered bottle, then so should I and everybody else.

Sommeliers spend years developing their sense memory, memorizing data about grapes and regions and vintages, and assembling an ever-growing mental list of wine pairings for different meals and varying budgets. And because of all this, I’m beginning to realize that wine knowledge is not a sign of sophistication; it’s merely a sign of knowledge.

Taste, on the other hand, that’s a different matter.

Mouton-Schmooton, indeed.

Shari Caudron is a Denver-based writer and author of Who Are You People?, which won a 2007 Colorado Book Award. E-mail her at [email protected].

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