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Master Sommelier Richard Betts on His New Wines, Sombra Mezcal, and Denver

This Boulder-based master sommelier is all about knocking wine off the pedestal and knocking one back in Oaxaca, Mexico where Sombra, his sought-after brand of mezcal, is made. Richard Betts is the sort of wine guy that makes you want to drink more because above all, it's fun. With a forthcoming book to boot, this busy wine and booze pro talked to Eater about his brand new wine projects, his thoughts on Colorado wine, and the boys' club stigma.

You are considered to be one of the best sommeliers in the country; at the same time, you are incredibly friendly and down-to-earth. What is your secret to balancing a high-profile image and day-to-day life? I think that being a wine guy and being nice are not mutually exclusive. It doesn't matter if your doing wine, or finance, or if you're a chef, or collect the mail. It's a better way to be. It's more constructive. You catch more bees with honey and I'm just a happier person when I'm a nice person. Ultimately, I'm comfortable on the inside. When I was working the floor as a sommelier, people would just be so mean sometimes, and not mean to you because of anything you did, it's because they've got some sort of pain on the inside. Instead of taking offense, I just feel bad for those people. I don't know what's going on in their life, but I hope it improves for them.

What is your advice to budding wine professionals? One mistake people make is they think, oh I'll get the certification and the world will be at my doorstep. It's just not true and it's a stupid idea to start with. You should do it because you really dig it. If you really dig something it will show, and then good things happen. It's not formulaic.

Would you recommend going through the court of master sommeliers for everyone that's studying wine? No. It's not a requirement by any stretch of the imagination. Everyone has to think about how they learn and what their goals are. I'm a person who wanted some structure with that particular subject. I'm a very visual learner. I would just draw maps over and over. I didn't do this because I thought I needed a badge, or a pin. It's the same way I do anything. I'll sign up for this test and therefore I'll study. I'll sign up for this race and therefore I'll run. I'm someone that puts pressure on myself and I respond and that's how I learn. If someone is a type of personality that will benefit from the organization, then sure -- do it. Two of my best friends and two of the brightest stars in the wine industry, Rajat Parr and Robert Bohr, don't want anything to do with the court of master sommeliers. To me, they are as good or better as any somm on planet earth.

Among the master sommeliers in North America, 111 are men and 18 are women. Will it always be a boys' club? I don't think it's a boys' club today, I think for sure there are more men than women in it but you're looking at decades of a situation. I think the number of women in wine is swelling daily. Women allegedly have better palates than men anyway. I don't like the term boys' club. The vice president of the whole thing is a woman right now. You've got really prominent women in the court like Laura DePasquale, Alpana Singh, Laura Maniec, Emily Wines. These women are in charge. Those are really historical numbers. I don't think they reflect the current situation.

You have two brand new wine projects- one which drew you to Bordeaux. Why there and why now? It's about getting back to my -ism that wine is a grocery not a luxury. I wanted to create something people could drink everyday. This project is called, St. Glinglin, which is French for, when pigs fly. Bordeaux has become a very fancy expensive thing in people's minds. Great Bordeaux for 20 bucks? Sure, when hell freezes over, when pigs fly. The wines out now are both from the 2010 vintage. One from an appellation called the Côtes de Francs. I think we are making something very special there. The second wine is a Saint-Émilion Grand Cru. All kinds of wines are coming from Saint-Émilion with the most famous bottles being 400 to 800 dollars, and who can afford that? So, we've made something there that's really delicious and the wine you get for 35 dollars retail is an amazing value.

"My Essential" is your second wine project. Where are these wines from? There are two wines in here at the moment. My Essential Red is from California. Convention in our country is to name wines by the grapes, and in the old world it's to name them by the place. You don't say I'm drinking grenache, you say I'm drinking Chatenuef du Pape. I'm asking people to step away from this idea that it has to say cabernet to be good. This is a wine that brings together cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, syrah, a little merlot, and a little petite verdot- grapes that come together in a very synergic way in California. Girth is not hard, but grace is. I don't think they are mutually exclusive but when you bring them together, it makes something very special. Similarly, we are making great wine that will retail for $15.99. My Essential Rosé is from Provence and it retails for $11.99. It's a red grape straight to press. It's pale pink, very floral, it smells red but tastes white, and it's delicious. The label has the grape splotches artwork by Wendy MacNaughton from my kids book for adults, The Scratch and Sniff Guide to Wine Expertise, which will be published this October.

What are your thoughts on Colorado winemaking? It's something I've been watching for the last thirteen years and it's definitely improving. I'm excited to see the enthusiasm on both the production side and the consumption side. Like anywhere, there's good and there's less good. That can be said about California or France. I think those guys are really brave, I'm certainly not that brave. I go and find old vines in established places, as opposed to going in and planting vines. I think that's a commendable thing to do.

When you released Sombra in 2007, it was one of two premium mezcals on the shelves. How has the market evolved? Oh, it's exciting, it now includes several other premium brands. People are doing really interesting work and it's nice that there's room for those to be accommodated, it speaks to growth for the category as a whole. When we first started, people we're like, mezcal? You mean the stuff with the worm. It took a lot of convincing and now people get it. Last year, people drank twice as much Sombra as the year before. That's pretty huge.

You go out to eat a lot. What do you look for as a diner? Honesty and enthusiasm. I look for maturity. There are many fancy meals out there, where you'll have twenty or so courses, and some of those meals can be really great. Sometimes those meals can be really taxing- they'll show you three different foie gras courses and they'll show you three different caviar courses- and that's not interesting to me. You're the chef, pick the good one, and then share it with me. That's where the maturity comes through. You go and dine with Daniel Humm at Eleven Madison Park, or Michel Troisgros, or Daniel Boulud, and while those are all significant meals, they never involve twenty courses. You're not going to have a food hangover the next day. Honesty is being true to the ingredients. Don't serve me a tomato right now, it's the middle of winter in the northern hemisphere, I'm not interested. The best tomato salad to me is never in January, it's always in July - it doesn't need mozzarella, it doesn't need basil, and it doesn't need balsamic. It's just having a great tomato, with some really good olive oil and some salt, and you're done. That's the kind of cooking that's interesting to me. It doesn't have to be stacked, it doesn't have to be complicated. It doesn't have to involve all kinds of strange cooking methods or impressive presentations, just let the ingredients sing. I look for restaurants where it's not about the superstar chef or the superstar sommelier, it's about the superstar guest. When people remember that it's hospitality, everything else just works. Bobby Stuckey. Bobby deserves a huge mention in that capacity. He is all about hospitality.

What disappoints you the most as a diner? When they try too hard. When it's ego-driven. When it's dishonest. Detached. Detached from the ingredients. Detached from just wanting to provide nourishment, and nurture, and, care. When those ingredients aren't there, it can be disappointing.

What do you think about Denver's dining scene? It's exciting. Everything about Denver is exciting right now. It has gotten a lot better. I remember when I moved to Colorado and you could walk around downtown Denver and the tumbleweeds were blowing around. There was that old seed store in LoDo which was immensely cool, but it really spoke to a time and a place. Now, it's vibrant, it's fun, and, I think it's a really inclusive scene. There are lots of young people doing cool stuff, you don't have to spend a million bucks to open a restaurant. It's really, really cool.

Where to drink Richard's wines, hot off the press:
Rioja in Larimer Square
Jax at their LoDo, Boulder, and Fort Collins locations
Basta Wood Fire Eatery and Pizzeria in Boulder
Boulder Wine Merchant

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