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Thursday, June 2,2011

The Colorado winemaker that almost wasn't

By Dana Palmie

It is hard to believe that a Boulder Master Sommelier, author of a scratch-and-sniff guide to vino and founder of three game-changing wine labels as well as a mescal company, would be a practicing environmental lawyer today if not for one fateful glass of wine, but such is the story of Richard Betts.

Despite years of work towards a master’s degree in geology, the vivid memory of a trip to Italy caused by a glass of wine during his last week in school caused Betts to shun academia in favor of working his way up from peeling potatoes in anonymous kitchens to becoming sommelier at the prestigious 20,000-bottle cellar at Aspen’s The Little Nell. After earning the rare title of Master Sommelier, Betts was determined to remove stuffiness from the industry and transformed wine into a decidedly more fun animal by co-founding three labels that reflect his passions — and to great success.

“So far we haven’t had to take anything out back and shoot it, which is a plus,” Betts says.

Betts, who now lives in Boulder, attributes his ability to make wine accessible to people beyond traditional connoisseurs to the partnerships he has forged while founding his labels.

“You have to find a partner that has your aesthetic,” Betts says. “You can’t just say, ‘Well, I like blue,’ and look for someone who says that they can help you make blue. You have to find someone who you say, ‘Oh my gosh, you love blue? I love blue. Let’s make blue.’” Betts found such a partner in Dennis Scholl, who helped cement Betts’ reputation as a dynamo winemaker by introducing popular culture into the winemaking process through their line Betts & Scholl.

“Richard and I both love hip-hop, so we would drive around for hours and hours and hours looking for the perfect grapes for the Grenache that Richard had in mind, and we would always play hip-hop music,” says Scholl. “So we decided we would call our first — and still probably the most famous — Grenache ‘The Chronic.’ Now keep in mind that most people who drink fancy wine don’t know what the chronic is — they don’t know Dre.”

Although a legal spat caused the wine to end up being called ‘The Chronique,” no longer was fine wine limited to staid, rich, white guys. Along with a punchy name, the duo drew on Scholl’s extensive knowledge of contemporary art to make its labels as distinct as its attitude — enlisting influential contemporary artists like Mark Grotjahn and Jim Lambie to design the labels. But rewriting the rules didn’t come without some anxiety.

“I called Richard and told him, ‘I’ve looked at 3,000 labels here and nobody is doing what we’re doing.’ And he just said, ‘Well that’s kind of the point,’” Scholl says. “We’ve always erred on the side of going for it, taking a shot, taking a chance.”

Taking chances has certainly paid off. Betts’ newest label, CC:, has revolutionized the industry again by making high-quality wine available at an appealing price.

“CC: has been an overnight success to the tune of tens of thousands of cases — that’s not an easy thing, but we’ve hit a nerve with people that’s really resonated, and that’s exciting,” Betts says. “It’s cool to take a swing at something and have your passions be shared and indulged.”

“Winemaking is something that a lot of us Master Sommeliers want to get into,” says Bobby Stuckey, who worked with Betts to create Scarpetta, a wine inspired by the same region of northern Italy as Stuckey’s Boulder restaurant, Frasca. “Richard was the first one of us to do that successfully, and we probably couldn’t have started it without him.”

Betts knows that when it comes down to it, though, interesting labels and names are not what the wines are fundamentally about, but act as a way of making wine approachable so that anyone can have access to a sensory experience like the one that changed Betts’ life.

“Some of my nicest memories with wine are not academic — in fact, all of my nicest memories aren’t academic at all — so like that glass that changed my path or one of the first times I had this Muscat. I smelled it and I was like 6 years old again and crashed through my grandmother’s front door after school and she was baking gingersnaps, and that smell and her and it was all right there and it’s so nice, it just warms your heart,” Betts says. “It doesn’t always have to be so vivid, but there’s pleasure in every glass.”

Although Betts is no longer involved in the day-to-day operations of the brands he has founded, his momentum in the wine industry shows no signs of slowing down.

“I’m at that point today where everything is changing again,” he says. “Yeah, maybe there is a little pang that change is coming, but it’s also just so many possibilities — that’s the exciting part.”

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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