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Restaurant Sommelier becomes hip, glam profession

Oct. 7 (Bloomberg) — Richard Betts drifts deftly among tables sprinkled with celebrities, software moguls, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and dozens of serious wine lovers, all clamoring for his guidance on what to pick from the 75-page wine list at Montagna, the restaurant at The Little Nell hotel in Aspen, Colorado.

With his shock of wavy hair, quick smile and infectious enthusiasm for wine, 34-year-old Betts is the embodiment of the new sommelier, impressively knowledgeable but upbeat and easy to talk to. His message: Fine wine is fun.

Forget that old image of the haughty, tail-coated dragon of yesterday's dining rooms, who acted as though he were testing diners' wine credentials before letting them order the best bottles. ``My job here,'' Betts says as he looks around the crowded, buzzing dining room, ``is to help people enjoy their lives. Can I pour you a little more champagne?''

In fact, in the past 10 years, sommelier has become a glamorous profession: The top people — like Larry Stone, 54, of San Francisco's Rubicon, with his trademark bow tie; shaggy- haired Tim Kopec, 40, of New York's Veritas; and genial Daniel Johnnes, 50, of New York's Daniel and formerly of Montrachet — are high-profile figures who jet regularly to wine regions, manage million-dollar wine-buying budgets, socialize with wealthy collectors, orchestrate lavish wine dinners and events and even start their own wine labels.

Social Skills

They usually carry the title of wine director, as Betts does, and put considerable amounts of time into winning over their audience, from wine-shy newbies to jaded collectors. Great sommeliers have become as important to fine restaurants as celebrity chefs, and their restaurants are where you'll find the most interesting cellars and the best wine service.

No precise figure exists for the number of sommeliers in the trade now, but their ranks are growing rapidly throughout the U.S., the U.K. and Asia, as more wine graces diners' tables. In addition, more and more women are becoming sommeliers.

A few — such as Madeline Triffon, 51, who presides over the cellars at Morels, No. VI Chophouse & Lobster Bar and six other Detroit-area restaurants, and Karen King, 51, at The Modern in New York — have been prominent sommeliers for some time.

Entrepreneurial Women

The newest women sommeliers fit a new entrepreneurial mold, using the importance of wine in trendy restaurants to leverage their careers.

Shelley Lindgren, 33, of San Francisco, found the ultimate outlet for her passion for the wine and food of southern Italy as co-owner and wine director of one of the Bay Area's new hot spots, A16, where she does away with the idea that a restaurant has to be expensive to have a great wine list.

Among the 380 wines, only 34 cost more than $100. In Chicago, 28-year-old Alpana Singh, the youngest person ever to gain the prestigious Master Sommelier certification, not only presides over the stellar selection of wines at Everest but also hosts a TV show. The gender shift is by no means an exclusively U.S. phenomenon.

For the past three years, the Japan Sommelier Association has been certifying more women than men. Like many in the under- 40 generation of sommeliers, Betts hadn't planned on a career in wine. He studied political science and geology, spent a year in Italy with his fiancee and, after receiving a master's degree in geology from Northern Arizona University, moved to Montana and thought of going into environmental law.

But when he stuck his nose in a glass of chianti, the wine brought back such strong memories of Italy, he knew he had to throw himself into food and wine with a passion.

Master Sommeliers

After stints as a breakfast cook and then a sommelier in Tucson, Arizona, he took over from Bobby Stuckey, the well-known sommelier at The Little Nell. Along the way, Betts studied for his Master Sommelier certificate, a route taken by many new sommeliers.

Obtaining certification ensures immediate attention, as there are only 120 master sommeliers worldwide. Betts passed on his first try, a feat duplicated by only eight other people in the world, including Rubicon's Stone.

A couple of years ago, needing a new challenge, Betts decided to start his own wine label, following in the footsteps of Johnnes, who imports his own selections, especially Burgundies, and Stone, who makes Napa Valley reds under the Sirita label. Betts was in the right spot: Aspen.

In 2003, while collecting mushrooms near Independence Pass with venture capitalist, art collector and Montagna regular Dennis Scholl, he shared his dream of making small-production artisanal wines

No me-too wines, Betts told him. Scholl bought in. The result is Betts & Scholl wines ( http://www.betts-andscholl.com ), complete with labels featuring edgy contemporary art. The lush, lively 2002 Grenache is the second vintage from old vineyards in Australia's Barossa Valley. The companion white is a savory, dry Australian Riesling. Betts is now looking for other vineyards, this time in the Northern Hemisphere.

Rare Bottles

Like Stone, who still works the floor at Rubicon, Betts isn't forgetting his fans and friends who flock nightly to Montagna. On a tour of the restaurant's 57-degrees-Fahrenheit (14-degrees-Celsius) storage facilities, Betts said he purposely supplements the restaurant's 15,000-bottle cellar with auction purchases of rare bottles with particular customers in mind. ``They don't know it yet, but I know exactly who is going to end up drinking these wines,'' he said as he showed off several recent acquisitions, including 1934 Romanee-Conti and 1899 ChateauLeoville-Poyferre.

A Pro's Advice

If you can't chat with a sommelier before making your wine choices, you can still find your way to a good bottle by analyzing the wine list, Betts says. ``Get an idea of the pricing policy by looking for a familiar label, like a champagne you know well,'' he says. ``If value is there, chances are the rest of the list is fairly priced, too.''

Don't pick the least — or most expensive — wine; instead, go for something in the upper third of the price range, Betts says. And play to the list's strengths: ``If the list is full of Northern Italian reds, chances are those are the best bets — particularly among lesser-known producers, who probably represent good-value `discoveries,''' he says.

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