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Sommelier Talk: Richard Betts

A former geologist becomes Grand-Award winning Montagna at the Little Nell's sommelier and an accomplished winemaker

James Molesworth
Posted: July 18, 2007

Richard Betts, 36, was born in Syracuse, N.Y., but grew up in Tucson, Ariz. And he's taken an off-the-beaten path to the wine business, graduating from Occidental College in Los Angeles with a bachelor's degree in geology in 1994 before going on to earn a master's degree in Paleofluvialmorphology [a specialized branch of geology] from Northern Arizona University in 1996.

Betts first took notice of wine while spending time in Florence, Italy, in 1992, but it wasn't until 1996 that he decided to pursue a career in wine, first working as a cook and then accepting a job as sommelier at Janos in Tucson. He spent two years as sommelier at Janos, building up the wine program there before moving in 2000 to take the sommelier position at Montagna at the Little Nell in Aspen, Colo., a Wine Spectator Grand Award winner since 1997. Today Betts also partners with Dennis Scholl in their Betts & Scholl label, which produces wines from Australia and France's Rhône Valley. He also assists fellow sommelier Bobby Stuckey and chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson, both of Boulder, Colo.'s Frasca restaurant, with their own wine label, La Scarpetta, which produces and imports Italian wines.

Wine Spectator: When did you first realize you wanted to work in the wine business?
Richard Betts: In my last week of grad school, defending thesis, I had a glass of vino that vividly recalled a specific dinner many years earlier in Italy and that was it! I blew off law school and got a job cooking for two years before my first sommelier job at Janos.

WS: At Montagna at the Little Nell, what is the hardest dish on the dinner menu to pair with wine, and what do you pair with it?
RB: Our chef, Ryan Hardy, has a farm and is really into all of the great and seasonal vegetables, so there have come some challenging dishes such as a spring nettle and artichoke soup. It's a deep and soulful soup but it also has an astringent tannic factor of its own.

This sharply narrows the range of possible vinous partners. Being a big believer in what grows together goes together, I look to Austria or southern Italy for a partner, bearing in mind the nettles and artichokes respectively. I find particular affinity with a really lovely white from the island of Ischia—the 2002 Pietratorcia Scheria Bianco is a blend of Biancolella and Fiano that I really dig. It is floral and earthy, bright but structured, and seems to echo the flavors of the soup. It's also very Italian inasmuch as it pairs with anything on the table with a smile.

WS: What is your go-to wine-and-food pairing?
RB: My go-to food-and-wine pairing: Always eat what you like and drink what you like. I am a big believer in making it fun, helping people enjoy their time and the role of the sommelier is to do just this. You have to be good at reading people and some people will really want to get into the perfect wine for each dish and I'm into doing that. But I'm also into making people smile.

So you get the "I'm having beef, she's having lamb and he's having fish. What should we drink?" question, and it's just all about finding something in a style that they will enjoy, perhaps similar to their old stand-bys but with a twist. Thus it is familiar and new and fun!

If we, as sommeliers, feel as though we need to force ourselves upon our guests, we are not doing our job. Our job is as enablers, to help people have fun!

WS: How do you emphasize value on the wine list at Montagna at the Little Nell?
RB: As for value, this is tough, because our restaurant is on arguably one of the most expensive pieces of real estate on planet Earth. People, regretfully, tend to assume it is expensive. The good news is that the hotel is committed to value and with that, we have perhaps one of, if not the, highest "cost-of-goods-sold" percentage in the industry. This translates to us not marking wine up according to the standard of the industry. Our wines are often a third less than other places, if they can be found elsewhere at all.

However, this also requires a bit of knowledge or desire to engage the sommeliers because it is often not obvious. This is to say that a $200 or $5,000 bottle may be a whole lot more elsewhere even though that may look like a lot of money. Similarly, if you want to have an awesome bottle for $30, we can do this too—let us take you to Cahors, [France,] or Sardegna, [Italy,] or the moon! There is so much amazing wine out there to be had if you trust [us].

WS: What is your favorite wine region?
RB: Favorite regions? Well it is no secret that I drink my weight in French wine all too often but, with that said, I really enjoy wine the world over. There is, however, one prerequisite to make it to the table, or at least a second glass. This is that the wine tastes like the place from whence it has come. When I pick up a glass and stick my nose in it, I want to take a trip. I want to go somewhere. This is the intellectual value of wine, the ability of this singular alcoholic beverage to communicate to us a grape, a place, its geography, geology, history, people, cuisine, and so on and so forth. Nothing else can do this like wine.

If, however, the wine cannot do this then I am not interested. If we see wines becoming more and more similar, this is disturbing. Eventually you won't be able to tell the difference between Italy and Australia or anywhere in between, and at that point we will only need one red, one white, a rosé and a sparkler because they are all the same. And then you will find me with a mezcal margarita! I triumph the individuality, no matter from where it comes.

WS: Do you see wines becoming more and more similar these days? Or do you see more diversity?
RB: I am totally optimistic about the state of the wine world. There is no doubt that certain wines are made to please specific palates and approach a style that can sometimes be viewed as uniform. This is often the lowest common denominator. However, the world of wine is expanding in new places and being renewed in many places that have had long histories but have not been recognized for some time. Much of this wine is better in quality than it has ever been and it is distinctive. That's awesome! From Arizona to Greece, the wines have never been better.

WS: With your wine label, Betts & Scholl, how do you reconcile producing both Australian reds from the Barossa Valley and Syrah from the Northern Rhône? Aren't they stylistically opposite?
RB: As for reconciling all the places I work, the approach, actually, is exactly the same in each place. It is like making a great tomato salad. You pick the tomato at its peak and slice it, great olive oil and salt and you're done. You just let it be. Same with the wine, if you have great grapes from a great terroir, they will have something to say. This is the intellectual value I spoke of earlier. Then all I have to do is get out of the way—just oil and salt. No spinning cones, dyes, reverse osmosis, too much oak or any of the other smoke and mirrors. You just let them be and have a palate that appreciates what they all have to say!

WS: How many bottles do you have in your own personal cellar, and what are some of your favorites?
RB: My cellar has about 250 bottles in three EuroCaves in the house. The good news about the wine business—one of many points—is that you are always trying so many things. So when it comes to buying, you get to focus on the most special things to keep. I do buy a ton of wine from the Rhône, Burgundy and very traditional producers in Italy.

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