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.