N A U Q & A V i v a c i t y I n V i n o
Richard Betts, ’96 M.A., master sommelier at the Little Nell resort in Aspen, Colo., is a whirlwind of energy. When he’s not continent- jumping or winemaking, he is sharing his passion for the grape with others
by Krista Perkins, ’98
Tell us about the many hats you wear. I am really lucky to be involved in the wine industry at many levels. I started as a sommelier; essentially, I am [helping] people enjoy their lives through wine. I also get the unparalleled experience of tasting great wine every night as we present the best wines in the world.
My job at the Little Nell is seasonal, so half the year I am free to do other things. [After] finishing my master sommelier process in 2003, I found I wasn’t so much happy as immediately bored! I decided I wanted to do something more with wine, so my partner and I created our own label, Betts & Scholl. It was a neat opportunity after reading all about it and knowing exactly where the wine comes from. To take it a step farther and see all these places—not just understanding that yeast plus sugar equals CO2 and alcohol—but to actually get dirty, test the theory and try to make something fun for ourselves. The wine- making is very complementary, as it makes me better at my job as a sommelier.
Last fall I was only home a total of nine days in three months. I have driven and flown around 100,000 miles, making wine on three continents. Now I’m ready to hang out for a little bit and get charged up and share my experiences from other places with my guests at the Nell. I will dive in and work for the next four months, and in April I will be excited to go shovel grapes in Australia where the grapes don’t talk back. It is amazing—I won the job lottery.
In a nutshell, tell us your personal philosophy on wine and food. Wine is a grocery, not a luxury. It belongs on your table at lunch, at dinner, every single day. Wine is what pairs best with food. It doesn’t have to be fancy and you don’t have to pour it into a fancy glass.
Tell us about becoming a master sommelier. The court of master sommeliers is the world’s only certifying body for sommeliers. There are four levels of examination. You have to learn about the world’s wine, spirits and food, and develop a certain ability to share that with people.
You start with theory, an oral exam where three masters ask anything they want about what you can eat, drink or smoke. In the service portion, masters are guests at a restaurant, and at each table you have to do something different. The “guest” is asking difficult questions. It is an opportunity to show that you are an advocate for your guests, which I think is the essence of the program. Finally, and most intimidating, is blind tasting. Six glasses of wine are set in front of you and you are given 25 minutes to deduce what the wine is, what it’s made from, where it was made, when it was made, etc. You have to smell, taste, feel and get them all right. While it is hard, I believe every- body can do it. Everywhere I go people put a glass of wine in front of me and ask me to identify it. I do humor them, but it’s not a parlor trick. Being able to really taste wine allows you to understand the world of wine a little better.
What’s next for you? I am starting a project with mescal, a very poorly understood spirit. I have been captivated by it for a long time and decided I wanted to try it myself. I went to Oaxaca, Mexico, and saw true artisans doing their craft. I also visited a number of distilleries and found a guy to work with in the Oaxaca Sierras.
Also, with fellow NAU alum Bobby Stuckey, I am working on another wine label called Scarpetta.
Is there something you learned at NAU that you use every day? I use my geology background all the time, considering vineyards and differences in grapes and places. More importantly, I learned the scientific method and how to be an investigator. That is what graduate school was about. I never once had to lean on my thesis for my job, but I wouldn’t trade the process for anything. I also learned a lot about myself.
Spring 2008 I naualumni.com