Richard Betts is just drinking mezcal and dreaming up his next great wine idea

richard_bettsWhat does one of the top wine experts in North America do when he’s taking a year off from the business? Drink mezcal. Lots and lots of mezcal.

Meet Richard Betts, one of 118 North American Master Sommeliers (from the prestigious Court of Master Sommeliers). He’s a Boulder guy training for a marathon, taking a break from the industry and making a few thousand cases of super smoked up tequila to hold him over.

“I tend to wake up every day excited about what I am doing — with a lot of ideas,” Betts says.

It’s a little easier to do that when waking up means doing so with a beautiful family in a gorgeous Boulder home just a few blocks from the mountainous open space along Mapleton Avenue. Betts sets his own schedule, often winding up at the dining room table, networking, creating and dreaming.

He seems as relaxed as they come — an impression aided by the fact that he’d just returned home from a massage prior to our interview — and has even chopped his trademark shoulder-length hair recently.

Using his time off, he’s just trying to hone in on his next great venture. Yes, Betts is a creative type, with a background in the wine business as diverse as the grape varieties of Italy. To think, he was destined for a career in law before one bottle derailed his plans in 1996.

“I walked across the street after a long day at the lab. Just picked a bottle. It took me back to a specific meal (from when he lived in Italy),” he recalls of his days working toward a masters in geology at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona. “That was really compelling. The next day I’m describing it to the guy at the wine shop, who happens to be Bobby Stuckey (yes, that Bobby Stuckey).”

“I don’t want to go to law school. I want to do something in wine,” he told Stuckey.

“Well, then you should,” Stuckey replied.

“I will.”

Turns out he is the type of guy who sets a goal and just reaches it. Soon, Betts was managing a 10,000-bottle cellar for acclaimed chef Janos Wilder. Then, he moved to Colorado in 2000 for a life of outdoors, skiing and everything else that comes with living in Aspen. Only he decided to spend an entire season not skiing.

He opted to study meticulously to become a Master Sommelier while serving as wine director for Montagna at the Little Nell. He passed the test on his first try in 2003. “I did it because I am a great procrastinator,” he says. “I’m about hitting it hard. Then you get to enjoy it; I do better with pressure. I just got into a spring marathon; I’m not in great shape now, but I will be.

“I do that to apply pressure.”

His marathon training will take him a few months, an expedited program that many couldn’t handle. Then again, he studied for the Master Somm test in just one year, a process that takes many three or more. “You wake up and study; minimum of an hour every day,” he recalls. “I didn’t ski a single day. My office is at the base of Aspen mountain and I ski for free, and I like to ski. But I didn’t ski a day. That’s what it is. This is my goal, that’s what I am doing.”

That tenacious approach aided in his meteoric rise in the wine business. During his eight-year stint at the Little Nell, he started dabbling in winemaking, a process that placated his creative juices. In the years since, he developed a worldwide wine label in Betts & Scholl; an extremely marketable Napa brand, CC Wine, that features a fantastic label for which he developed the concept while recovering from a hangover; and joined forces with Stuckey in the Scarpetta Wine project.

The CC brand that he developed while working for mega booze importer/producer Castle Brands (which also now owns Betts & Scholl; Betts also sold his interest in Scarpetta), embraced his well-worn philosophy that wine should be a grocery item, not a luxury one. Meaning, of course, there should be value in a bottle, enough so that it’s purchased with the regularity of a loaf of bread.

He can do that with more than just wine.

Being a man who loves pretty aromas and flavors, it was easy for him to move into the world of spirits where he got the bug to make mezcal. Again with the same philosophy.

“I think about what I want to do in wine and spirits,” Betts says. “I want to create groceries for people. I want to help people smile on a random Tuesday night.”

Sombra_Margarita_large-300x300With his latest venture, Sombra, he can do that with a blast of smoke. Mezcal is a type of tequila that requires the smoking of the piña in an agave plant, producing an aromatic and smokey flavor profile. Good mezcal retails for $50 or much more. His, of course, is on the market for about $35.

“At the time, people didn’t know what that was,” he says. “Is that the stuff with the worm that I threw up in Tijuana? Yeah, but it doesn’t have to be that. It’s the original tequila. It’s what it used to be before it neutered itself. …

“We just want to get it into people’s hands to check it out. This is special. Don’t go buy that $38 over-hyped by some rapper Patron. Patron’s fine — I don’t mean to pick on anybody — but when you can have this that really speaks the the people, the place, the geography.”

He sounds like he’s talking about wine, perhaps because he is taking the same approach in the tequila world. He and his business partner opted to grow their heritage agave at 9,000 feet in the Oaxacan Sierra of Mexico, mainly because they just loved the flavor profile the high altitude produced.

Like wine, he refers to many of its aromas and flavors as “pretty.”

They are picky about the roast, making sure there is balance in the final product. “There’s some much info there and you want the smoke to be part of the whole, but you don’t want it to dominate. The other things that share the stage are amazingly beautiful.We’re very hyper about treating it like wine.”

Ah, wine. Yes, Betts is expecting to head back, officially, into the wine business this spring, although his intentions are not clear. He has a scratch-and-sniff wine education book in the works, and it’s obvious he’s itching to make vino again. He does own some land in Bordeaux, after all, which would be a nice spot to make wine after successfully doing the same in Australia, Napa and Europe.

It’s a safe bet that the wine will taste like the land and probably won’t cost too much, either.

“It needs to taste like the place from which it comes. That’s intellectual value that over-arches everything,” he says. “Then value matters, a lot. I’d say that second. And everyone has to decide what that means to themselves. That’s an intensely personal question and answer.”