Articles

From Vino to Agave with Richard Betts

One of the best sommeliers I know in the business is also one of the nicest – but just how Richard Betts manages to combine serious mezcal with marathoning (let alone being a dad!) is a mystery. I first met Richard nine years ago, when he had just passed the Master Sommelier exam AND won the coveted Krug Cup in the process. Passing the MS exam normally requires years of practice and attempts, but Betts did it on the first try – he’s like that. Richard designed the award-winning wine program at Aspen’s beloved Little Nell and has mentored many an aspiring wino in the business. I knew he was my kind of brainy, law-school avoidin’, accidental sommelier from the start. But I especially like the ways that Richard has taken his many years of “working the floor” and reinvented his career. When restaurant hours no longer seem as appealing, what’s a somm to do?

Betts is a great example of successful transition. When you spend years and years evaluating wines made by others, it’s natural to want to try your hand at making your own. Betts & Scholl, a partnership with art collector Dennis Scholl, was Richard’s first foray into winemaking with vineyard sources from Hermitage to the Barossa. This is a man who’s logged a lot of airport time. The wine business is very much about relationships – access to high-caliber fruit is often predicated on who you know and frankly, whether they like you or not. Richard’s a likable guy, and likability is a helpful career tool. Other wine projects include Scarpetta and CC, which make a triumvirate of cool brands that have established Richard’s breadth as a businessman. Betts & Scholl was recently sold, but rumor has it that Richard has a new wine project debuting this summer. So stay tuned for that development. It’ll be great juice.

Apart from wine, Richard has also become something of an expert in the world of mezcal. Far from an Entourage, Justin Timberlake vanity tequila play, Betts’s foray into fermented maguey (the agave from which both tequila and other types of mezcal are made) is a thoughtful one. Sourced from high-altitude areas in Oaxaca, his “Sombra” mezcal is made in the traditional fire-pit method using native yeasts. This slower, more labor-intensive process results in a smoky-smooth spirit that is light-years away from industrial stuff with worms, or worse, floating in the bottle. I have always claimed that I “hate” tequila, but sipping some Sombra appeals to my sommelier side; it speaks to a sense of place and tradition in the way that the best wines do. Terroir is the character of a place shining in a glass, and it’s nice when the people behind the glass shine too. Check out these wines and Sombra, they’re worth your time and dime.

Below are three of Richard’s suggested recipes for mezcal-based cocktails – que las tome con cuidado!

THE OAXACAN
2-1/2 oz 2008 Betts & Scholl Eden Valley Riesling
3/4 oz Sombra
1/2 oz Canton Ginger Liqueur
2 dashes of Bitter Truth Orange Bitters

Add everything to a mixing glass, then add ice.
Stir and strain into a chilled coupe.
Garnish with grated nutmeg.

A BEER AND A SMOKE
1-1/2 oz Sombra
3/4 oz lime juice
pinch of celery salt
4 dashes of Cholula
pinch of kosher salt
grated lime zest
grated orange zest
12 oz of lager: Corona, Pacifico, etc.

Rim a pilsner glass with celery salt and ground pepper.
Add the Sombra, lime juice and spices.
Top with beer and garnish with freshly grated orange and lime zest

EL COLONIAL
1-1/2 oz Sombra Mezcal
3/4 oz Lustau Palo Cortado Sherry
1/4 oz Rothman & Winter Allspice Liqueur
1/4 oz Brizzard White Crème de Cacao

Add everything to a mixing glass, then add ice.
Stir and strain into a chilled coupe (no garnish).