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.