Richard Betts is homeless right now. But you shouldn’t feel sorry for him. The winemaker, master sommelier, and author is living the life. Last week, we caught up with him while he was in South Beach Miami. He and his girlfriend Carla Rzeszewski (April Bloomfield’s former wine director) had just given up their New York apartment, packed their car with wine, books, and booze, and taken off on a two-and-a-half month book tour.
Betts has just released what is perhaps the definitive book on wine: The Essential Scratch & Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert. Think a baby-board book for adults. It’s truly genius. And like most genius ideas, it was born out of a night of drinking good wine.
On a ski trip to Canada four years ago, Betts and his buddies were up late partying. Eventually, it was him and friend Chris Sacca “really getting after it. … We’re drinking good stuff, and we’re laughing about all these crazy wine books, which are tomes of endless maps and stories of gooseberries and all this stuff, and in our haze, we said, the world really needs a scratch-and-sniff wine book.”
Boom. This is when he decided to write and illustrate a wine book.
Now we’re all struck with brilliant ideas from time to time, but not many of us act on them. Betts is the kind of guy who acts. His entire life is one of reinvention and action.
For instance, he began his adult life studying to be an environmental lawyer. He put in years and years of schooling. Worked on Capitol Hill. Put in time at an environmental law firm in Los Angeles. Then he burned out, blew off senior year, and moved to Italy. “I rode bikes, learned to cook, learned to speak Italian,” he says. “It was really special.”
He moved back, finished school, and went to grad school to study geology. Then he spent a summer in a hot lab looking through a microscope. It sucked. “I’m really bad at things I don’t enjoy,” he says. He was readying himself to defend his thesis when he went to a nearby wine shop run by Bobby Stuckey, now a James Beard Award-winning wine director and master sommelier.
“I bought a bottle of wine. It cost 10 bucks. I took some, poured a glass and stuck my nose in it, and it took me back to Italy,” he says. “I remembered the restaurant, where I sat, where my wife sat, what she was wearing. It was so compelling … I had no idea you could have that kind of memory recall from a smell.”
He confided to Stuckey that he didn’t want to be a lawyer, he wanted to do food and wine. Stuckey told him to quit, so Betts did — after defending his thesis.
Boom. This is when he decided to become a cook.
“I jumped off the cliff a week later and moved to Montana,” he laughs.
Once there, he headed to the biggest restaurant in town at the Red Lion Inn and told Klaus, the German master chef in charge, that he wanted to work and learn to cook. “He says all right, sticks an egg pan in my hand, puts some toast in there and says, ‘flip it.'” Betts flipped it and got a job cooking breakfast for the entire hotel, his food and beverage career effectively launched.
“Either you’re a restaurant person or you’re not. There’s a certain finesse you have to have,” he says. “I love it. I think it’s so thrilling. I would get up at 3 a.m., pedal my bike through the snow to get to the hotel and basically open it up, make breakfast for the whole place. It was sink or swim, and it was just thrilling.”
In the darkness of Montana, he began reading up on wine and got ready to move again, this time to sunny Arizona where he could work for better chefs and study wine.
He cooked and tasted wine and began studying like he was preparing to defend another thesis. He took the first sommelier exam, passed it, and ended up stocking a brand new 10,000 bottle wine cellar in a new restaurant where he was suddenly a sommelier.
A few years later, he passed the master sommelier exam — a notoriously difficult test that only 200 people have passed. He is only the ninth person to do so on the first try.
“I woke up the next day and instead of being happy, I was despondent,” he says. “It was confusing. You put so much of yourself into something, you wake up every day and that part of yourself is satisfied, and then suddenly that part of myself had nothing to work out with and chew on. I needed to figure out something for it to do.”
Boom. This is when he became a winemaker.
“Right then and there I decided I was going to make it. I talked with friends, and Dennis Scholl asked what do you want to make?”
Betts didn’t want to do Pinot, that “overindulged princess,” so he decided on Grenache, “Pinot with a little extra sass.”
They started Betts & Scholl in 2004 with 400 cases of Grenache, received a star selection in Food & Wine, and blew up from there. By 2009, they were making four wines and sold out to a company with the resources to grow the label.
Simultaneously, he was working as a sommelier in Aspen and making wine for the Scarpetta label, focusing on the Friuli region in the eastern corner of Italy. “I worked on that for three years and then sold it in 2009. It was an amazing opportunity to make wine on three continents.”
And then — boom —he stripped everything off the table again and headed in a new direction with his scratch-and-sniff book idea leading the way.
“I started a new wine company — My Essential — trying to make good on my feeling that wine is a grocery not a luxury,” says Betts.
The Scratch & Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Maker embodies the idea too, taking wine and breaking it down to one sense — smell. The first step of the book explains: “Know that tasting is actually smelling.” From there, Betts takes you on an aromatic romp through black fruits, red fruits, citrus, stone fruits, oak barrels, vanilla, toast, dill, leather, rocks, butter, funk, and cat pee. Yes, cat pee. By the end — boom — you will understand the basics of wine without having to study one map or slog through the French appellation system.
Betts seems well on his way to realizing his dream of knocking wine off the pedestal. “There’s a lot of joy in it,” he promises. But where he goes next has yet to be determined. He figures they’ve got two months on the road to decide what to do. You can guarantee it will be something special.
Betts will be sharing his joy of wine on Friday afternoon at Butcher & Bee. You can also purchase his wines — and his Sombra Mezcal tequila — at Bottles.
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