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An Anti-Snob Wine Dinner in Sonoma

A laid-back tasting lesson and dinner with sommelier-turned-winemaker Richard Betts, whose goal is to make his world "more democratic."
Sommelier Richard Betts
Sommelier Richard Betts.
© Dave Lauridsen

Sommelier Richard Betts is holding court at a gathering of friends inside a Modernist glass-and-wood cube, a house perched atop a hill in Sonoma. He has a glass of wine in each hand, both robust reds: Old World in the left, New World in the right. "It's like the difference between going to the cinema and going to the movies," Betts tells the three Silicon Valley couples gathered around the table, ready to taste and compare the two wines along with him.

"Hollywood movies are, like, 'Boom!' " Betts says, nodding at the New World Cab. "But you never know what you're going to get at the cinema. Cinema has twists and turns; it goes somewhere totally different than you expected."

First everyone tries the Old World bottle, a 2010 Saint Glinglin Saint-Émilion that Betts makes in Bordeaux. It's a quintessential red from that region, with a blackberry aroma and an intense, tannic backbone. But while Saint-Émilion reds routinely go for hundreds of dollars, his Saint Glinglin is just $35. The name—Glinglin—roughly translates as "when pigs fly." "Taste the minerality," Betts instructs. "This wine twists and turns a little bit: That's the cinema."

"Ridonkulous!" one guest exclaims.

Next, the group samples the New World red, the 2010 Laurel Glen Counterpoint Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma. Betts points out its fruit-forwardness, expressing the ripeness that California sunshine gives grapes. "This wine is more pleasurable, less complicated," he says. "Blockbuster movie."

Betts is the reason everyone is gathered together here. Only the ninth person (out of hundreds) to ever pass the rigorous Master Sommelier exam on his first try, he made a name for himself at The Little Nell hotel in Aspen, Colorado, where the restaurant is home to one of the country's best wine cellars. Alongside his Saint Glinglin Bordeaux and Bordeaux Blanc, Betts recently began producing a California wine, My Essential Red, in the Santa Ynez Valley. A blend of five varietals, the wine is rich and robust. "I believe in the generosity of the California sun," says Betts. He has also launched Sombra mezcal, beloved by mixologists, and a brand-new tequila, Astral.

Then there's his latest project, a fiendishly clever new book called The Essential Scratch & Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert. The book aims to make anyone a wine expert by posing a series of simple questions: Is a wine earthy or not? Is it funky or not? Does it smell like cardamom or like sage? Betts calls it a children's book for adults, enhanced with illustrations by Wendy MacNaughton and art directed and designed by Crystal English Sacca.

Sacca's husband, the venture capitalist Chris Sacca, introduced Betts to the Silicon Valley crowd, who showed up in force for the wine-tasting party. Betts says their enthusiasm for wine helped inspire the book. The hosts are Tom Conrad and Kate Imbach: He is the chief technical officer at the music-streaming site Pandora; she is the marketing director of Showyou, an app that aggregates the greatest hits from video sites like YouTube.

The digerati here are very much into food. Ryan Sarver, the former director of platform at Twitter, is even working on a new restaurant with F&W Best New Chef 1997 Daniel Patterson of San Francisco's Coi. This party, however, is not about ambitious restaurant food. Instead, Betts is doing the cooking himself, creating a menu of simple dishes that pair beautifully with wine.

To start the meal, Betts fries thin wedges of kabocha squash and sage leaves in a light batter. As soon as he sprinkles them with sea salt and squeezes fresh lemon juice on top, the guests pounce, polishing them off before the tray even makes it out of the kitchen. Betts also tosses butter lettuce leaves, radishes and persimmon with a pumpkin-oil dressing; it's the rare salad that's savory enough to go well with wine. "That doesn't happen with your shriller vinaigrettes," he says.

Guests sit at a long farm table by the pool. Betts brings out Muscovy duck breasts coated with an Asian-accented mix of spices, including star anise and cinnamon, that adds alluring sweetness. "I'm a huge duck fan," he says. "It works for a lot of different people. If you cook chicken, steak lovers are unhappy. Duck has that richness, but it also pleases anyone who prefers poultry to beef. It's flat-out amazing with big red wines like Bordeaux or Syrah. Duck might only work with a few wines, but it works with them really, really well."

The table is lined with bottles from the comparative tasting: cinematic Old World wines, including Betts's Glinglin, and New World blockbusters. Betts asks the group if they have a favorite. But secretly, he hopes there isn't a winner. "I want the wine world to be more democratic," he says. "I want everyone to have a different favorite."

Published October 2013
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