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."
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.