Blame the Chianti: A Chat with Wine Entrepreneur Richard Betts

Master Sommelier Richard Betts talks about ditching law school for his passion, the clichéd snobby somm, and how his grandma’s ginger snaps changed everything.

By Amy Segreti

It was just an ordinary bottle of Nipozzano Chianti. A one-off. But it put hooks in him.

“I had $10 in my pocket, I bought it… and that was that,” says Richard Betts. It was the week of his grad school thesis defense; he’d planned to attend law school after that. But this bottle flew him back to the time he’d spent living in Florence.

“After that, I blew off law school.”

Betts, an Aquarius who travels frequently, is an intriguing juxtaposition of humble yet outspoken—he wears his modesty like a badge, and it works for him. He’s the guy next door—who also happens to have made wine in Australia, the Rhone Valley and California, and now mezcal in Oaxaca.

He’s the guy jogging around town sporting a 5 o’clock shadow and a Pizzeria Locale sticker on his iPhone. He’ll tell you wine is a “grocery.” His tweets are more “MySpace” than professional. He uses way too many exclamation marks. He is present and vibrant, although he arrives late to my interview. And, let’s just be honest—he’s gorgeous.

We went back even further than that law school moment, than that Italian lifestyle, and talked about how he fell in love with wine.

“I was tasting a sweet wine from Australia, and it took me back to fifth grade, after school, running through my grandmother’s front door—she lived in our guest house—and breathing in the ginger snaps she was baking,” reminisces Betts. “Our sense of smell is so incredible.”

As a master sommelier, Betts could tell you the grape, country and vintage of practically any varietally distinct wine you put in front of him. But Betts didn’t become a master somm “for the badge,” he says, referring to the pin you receive when you pass each of the four rigorous exams exacted by the Court of Master Sommeliers.

The master exam, of course, is the hardest, with a passing rate of only 10%. The exam is $900; only 197 people in the world have been named Master Sommelier since 1973—that’s approximately five passes per year, out of the almost 2,000 who have attempted the feat in 40 years.

“I wanted to learn about wine, and  these were benchmarks that would spur me to work. I’m a person who responds well to pressure,” he says.

I believe him. Just a few weeks before our interview, Betts came to my coworking space, Scrib in Boulder, Colo., to give us much-needed Friday afternoon tastings of his mezcal, Sombra, or “shadow”—“because everyone has a dark side,” he noted. I mentioned to him my Level 1 Certification with the Court and I asked him what level he was.

He replied something to the effect of: I did those a while ago. “Those” being the levels. All of them.

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STEREOTYPE: THE SNOBBY SOMMELIER

I mention to Betts that fellow master sommelier, Bobby Stuckey, co-owner of Frasca Food & Wine in Boulder—with whom Betts co-founded Scarpetta wine in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy—once told me that he finds sommeliers tend to be more cocky than master sommeliers.

“I think that’s just human nature. Trust me, if those people weren’t sommeliers, they’d just be snotty doing something else,” says Betts. “Being a sommelier is a service job; it juxtaposes you with difficult people. It’s not about the superstar sommelier, it’s about the superstar guest. If I could have a sommelier hear one thing, that would be it. I mean, come on—the customer is allowing you to indulge your enthusiasm for wine.”

AUTHENTICITY… OR JUST PLAIN LAZINESS?

We’re talking at Trident Café in Boulder and the subject of authenticity comes up. I used to live in Spain, and I tell him about these times when I had to almost “delete” my palate. I would be in these old, rustic bars where they served wine that had been opened a week ago, or they didn’t chill their whites, but I drank and enjoyed them anyway. Because that’s what I was given, that was the norm, and I felt like there was something beautiful in that. Was there?

Betts sighs. “You know, there is a line to be drawn. I like ‘delete your palate’ when it comes to local tradition—however, there’s a difference between being lazy and being traditional.”

Betts believes that currently the best wine service in the world is in America. And the best espresso, too.

“That machine”—he points to Trident’s $15,000 Synesso espresso miracle-maker—“is the best there is, and we have several here in Boulder right now. That speaks to our opportunity here, our open-mindedness and enthusiasm. Here, you can make yourself what you want to be. And that broad vision counts for why service is better here.”

“In the Old World, wine’s just always been—but it doesn’t mean it’s always good. The Italians make the best glassware, the French make best wine, but America is the place where it all comes together. I’ve been to France, and you might have an amazing wine, but it might have been served poorly by a grumpy guy in a dirty glass,” says Betts.

When Betts talks about traditional wines, he says it’s easy to be romantic, but tradition is often misunderstood. It’s similar to the misunderstanding of the word “terroir.”

“Is terroir an expression of soil, or is it dirty cellar? Sometimes wine smells like a barn; but maybe that dirty-cellar barn is covering the prettier soil-based barn that you can’t smell now.”

THE BUZZ (SHH…)

I’ve been to more wine classes, tastings and wine service demonstrations than I can remember. I’ve traveled through European vineyards, wine museums and entire towns that exist solely for oenophiles and tourists. I love wine, but there seems to be a kind of austerity about it in the business. Love wine—but don’t love it too much. Always, always, always “expectorate.” Be into your job—but not that into it.

Certified sommelier Natalie McLean is one of the few wine writers who has embraced the buzz.

She admits, bravely, in her book, “Red, White and Drunk All Over: A Wine-Soaked Journey from Grape to Glass”: “I love the way a glass of wine makes me feel—invigorated and animated, released from my natural shyness. After a couple of glasses, I’m mellowed, soothed, contemplative.”

She says, though, that when she reads about wine, she gets the “odd impression that it has no alcohol in it.” She surmises that perhaps it’s leftover from the Prohibition era, or because we have a belief that “the body can’t be part of anything intellectual.”

I ask Betts what he thinks about this.

“You know, it’s a delicate balance, the booze business”—I chuckle—“and that’s what it is, and it’s wonderful for many reasons, but it’s also rife with potential pitfalls,” he says.

“It’s a vice, we’re selling a vice. You lose your inhibitions. I was at a booze conference in New Orleans and at Aspen Food & Wine, and I stay largely sober at these things, because you never know who you’re going to see, or who you’ll bump into and want to have a conversation with. In this business one has to take extra measures.”

Betts says he stays pretty focused on his goals. “It’s like, what are you choosing? I’m choosing to help people enjoy their lives, and it might mean I engage in less consumption. I’ve made mistakes too, but I don’t believe in regret, I believe in learning from experience, and doing things better next time.”

ON WORKING YOUR PASSION

Betts tells me that his workday the day before was, apart from an hour in the gym, from 7 a.m. – 11 p.m. last night—but he enjoys it.

The key to that? Work with people with whom you share a common goal—and that you like.

“When you don’t work with like-minded people, work becomes a four-letter word. Work passionately, work endlessly, I’m good with that—but it has to be with people you enjoy working with.”

Since he passed on law school and embedded himself in the wine and spirits world, Betts has had nothing but gratitude.

“I don’t think of weekends as ‘off,’ but I’m ‘on’ doing what I want to do,” he says. “When you do that, it’s never hard.”