Meeting all of the interesting people in the wine business is one of the best parts of working in this industry. As an Italian friend of mine said it the other night, throughout history wine has been a tool and metaphor for creating social unions. This holds true in my life quite often and in a variety of ways, though in this instance I refer to an event with Master Sommelier Richard Betts a few weeks ago.
Richard Betts lives in Aspen, Colorado where he not only presides over the wine program at the prestigious Little Nell, he also works the floor nightly at Montagna, the Nell’s fine restaurant. Richard Betts also makes wine under the ‘Betts and Scholl’ label in Australia, California, and the Nothern Rhone Valley in France. On October 10th I was lucky enough to attend a lunch event hosted by Richard and his local distributor Vintage Wines at Le Lan, a French Vietnamese fusion spot in the Chicago’s River West district.
Betts and Scholl is built on the concept that Richard Betts and his partner, Miami based art dealer Dennis Scholl, are not bound to any location, grapes, or style of wine because of legacy or proximity that limit the choices of what wines they can make. It is an ambitous project, involving travel to three continents to produce seven wines, though it seems to be for good measure; the wines are all excellent.
The first wine presented, and only non-Rhone varietal, was the 2006 Riesling from Eden Valley in Australia. Eden Valley, settled by German farmers in the nineteenth century, is a relatively cool area of Southern Australia that has a reputation for producing some of the finest Riesling in Australia. The vines are on average 50 years old and contribute to an expressive, yet balanced new world reisling. Though it is far from mainstream in this country, reisling is a sommelier favorite and I am not surprised that Richard Betts’ only Rhone departure is with that unique varietal.
From Eden Valley in Australia we travelled to Lyon, France and then south to the esteemed hill of Hermitage. Richard painted a vivid picture of late afternoon, driving south along the hill as the sun sets, vines beginning to fall under shade. The vines of Hermitage continue to recieve rays of sunshine until finally, hours later, the sun retreats. Perhaps that is why Hermitage is the undisputed prize of the Northern Rhone. In my experience, Hermitage is difficult to find and even harder to afford, and I am not embarrassed to say that I have little expereince with Hermitage Blanc or Rouge. Somehow Richard Betts was able to make both with help form Rhone legend J. L. Chave.
The Betts and Scholl Hermitage Blanc consists of Marsanne and Roussane grapes from four climats, or distinct vineyard areas, on the hill of Hermitage. In producing this particular wine Richard and the Chave family asked, “what else can the hill be?” Because of the low natural acidity of Marsanne and Roussane the key, according to Richard, is in controlling the glycerine, or has he put it, “grace over girth…It’s not what you wear, but how you wear it”. Achieving a wine with weight and ripeness is easy, but finding the elegance is not. No new wood, only foudre, a large neutral oak barrel, is used to develop the wine before bottling. What is in the glass is a pure expression of fruit from Hermitage, with butterscotch, pears and apples, hints of vanilla, luxurious texture and a pepper spice. Elegance achieved.
After the whites, Richard Betts tapped into a Master Sommelier bag of tricks by conducting a blind tasting of 5 wines, all Grenache, and in no particular order. The very experienced group of tasters in attendence quickly picked up that two of the wines stood out as new world expressions of the varietal, and, it just so happens, Betts and Scholl produces two different wines in Australia with Grenache. The ‘O.G.’and the ‘Chronique’, are both made from Barossa Grenache grown on sand. The difference between the two is that the latter comes form an 83 year old vineyard of very deep sand and exhibits increased intensity, ripeness of fruit, and caramel notes. Sand grown Grenache was the central theme of the blind excercise as the other wines, Pignan Rouge 2003, Brunel ‘les Cailloux’ 2004, and Henri Bonneau 1997 were classic expressions of sandy soil Grenache. Sand is not only famous for resisting the the spread of the infamous phyloxera louse, but also limits color extraction and focuses the “signature of the varietal”. I believe that Richard chose these wines as an homage, to display the benchmarks for sand grown Grenache and make a statement about the varietal character of Grenache, which he calls “warm weather Pinot Noir”.
Hermitage Rouge 2001 and 2004 from Betts and Scholl helped shift the gears from the white pepper, cherry, and orange zest of Grenache, to the blackberry, lavender, and black pepper of Syrah. Richard calls Hermitage “Syrah, appealling to the Pinot Noir sensibility”. I would like to see these wines again in 5-10 years as they seem a little unwilling at this stage, though it is unfair to consider such a classic expression and then move on to something called ‘Black Betty’, Betts and Scholl’s Australian Syrah aged in Bordeaux barrels. Black Betty lives up to the name (Bam Belam) as a wine of very deep extraction and intesity, displaying ripe black plum, blackberry, with and purple flower undertones. Because of Betty’s massive expression it was hard for me to believe that there was another wine that could follow. Though somehow the California Syrah did just that.
For the Betts and Scholl California Syrah, Richard Betts called on cult wine makers Deb and Randy Lewis for assistance. The resulting wine, half aged in used Chardonnay barrels, was laden with coffee, caramel, brown sugar, and black fruit. It felt like a decadent dessert though its richness and complexity were appropriately hedged by balanced acidity.
Richard and his wines were the draw that day and both delivered a good show. But the best part of the lunch was the collection of interesting people in attendence from MS Richard Betts, to nameless sommeliers from the Park Hyatt, the Peninsula, and Charlie Trotters. One notable that I will name is the inimitable scholar and professional, Bob Bansberg, the Dean of the University of Chicago Sommeliers. Through casual conversation at our table that day I found out that later that night Bob was to give a speech about Ernest Hemingway at the Hemingway Museum in Oak Park.
(see next post for bio of the amazing Bob Bansberg)
I ventured to Le Lan on the afternoon of October 10th to meet Richard Betts and taste the wines of Betts and Scholl. But the energy of the room that day, maybe an extension of Richard’s ‘hakuna matata’-like aura, took me to another place that highlighted all of the great things about being a wine professional in Chicago; Good food, great wine, interesting conversation, and a sense of community. While it is a real burden to make time for outside wine tastings, lunches, and dinners, certain events justify the sacrifice of time. A visit from Master Sommelier Richard Betts and the audience that he inspires make the sacrifice and effort pay off. Like my Italian friend said, wine is a tool for creating social unions. As a sommelier in a restaurant I see that phenomenon each night. As a member of a vibrant wine community here in Chicago I see that happen in more profound ways.