“We got a little bit of a ‘tiger by the tail’ here,” chuckles Miami venture capitalist/art collector Dennis Scholl as he gets off the phone with his partner, Aspen-based sommelier Richard Betts (Little Nell). He’s referring to the wines they produce under the name Betts & Scholl and the challenges they face attempting to get more and more people to understand the uniqueness of their wines. There are currently seven bottlings (with two more to come), each with its own intriguing label; no cute, fuzzy animals, but genuine works of art created by internationally renowned artists like Anna Gaskell and Liam Gillick. The labels alone make the wine bottles almost collectible in their own right (even as empties).
But of course what matters most is what’s inside, and Scholl likes to talk about how the juice got there; from a well-known grape like Shiraz/Syrah from Australia and California to lesser-known grapes like Grenache and Riesling, also from Australia, and onto a couple of French Rhone varietals like Roussanne and Marsanne. Remember the movie Endless Summer, in which surf bums follow the waves around the world? Betts and Scholl, who started out trying to “make a little wine, then maybe make a little great wine,” have created something similar. After discussing their growing regions of Australia, California and France, says Scholl: “Richard and me sort of looked at each other and said, Endless Harvest!”
The wines are emphatically food wines and are on some great lists at nationally recognized haute palaces like The French Laundry (Napa), Per Se (NYC), Tru (Chicago), Spago (L.A.) and Gary Danko (San Francisco); as well as at Miami’s hottest restaurants, including Michael’s Genuine and Pacific Time. But in order to try them all, and not break the bank (their retail prices range from $29-$79), I opened a bottle every night for a week and paired it with dinner at home. If, as they say, the world was created in seven days, surely a mere mortal can run through seven bottles of wine in that time.
Day One: I started with the 2007 Eden Valley Riesling ($29). With only two whites in their stable, why make wine from Riesling, possibly the most misunderstood grape, especially here in the states? “I didn’t want to make another Chardonnay. I wanted to introduce people to something unexpected,” says Scholl. He calls Australia’s Eden Valley “the best place for Riesling fruit.” This being Sunday evening, I threw a couple of Hebrew National hot dogs on the grill, got out the mustard and buns and warmed up some sauerkraut. That may seem an odd way to start off a tasting of top wines, but Riesling is one of the traditional accompaniments to the Alsatian dish Choucroute Garni, which is basically a bunch of sausages and salted meats served with warm sauerkraut (thus the name). According to Scholl, “You don’t want to drink this icy cold — it can hide the flavor,” so I leave it on the counter for a few minutes. Its aroma of pears starts to fill the room, and the first glass I drink before we eat also tastes like pears, but not simply the fruit, but the pear skins as well, giving the wine a little more backbone, as they say. The hot dogs are ready, and as I look around for my second glass, the wine is almost gone. Perhaps leaving it on the counter within view of my guests was a mistake.
Day Two: After the Riesling, I was drawn to the only other white in the B&S stable, the 2004 Hermitage Blanc ($69). This wine is made from grapes grown in the French Rhone Valley, in a partnership with the illustrious JL Chave, whose family has been making wine in the region since 1480 and whose wines command ultra-premium prices. As I will find with all of the B&S wines, this one needs to breathe. Scholl usually prefers to “dump it in a decanter,” but I let it happen gradually in the glass. There are aromas of mushrooms, coffee and hard candy, and it tastes, after twenty minutes or so, of kiwi, apple and even guanabana. We are sharing some duck pate d’espelette from a region in the Basque country of France known for its pepper. Gil Evans’ “La Nevada” is playing in the background. We were going to go to out for dinner after, but the wine, the music and the company conspires to keep us all in. We admire the golden color of the wine as it opens up and flattens out. A little fleeting sweetness reminiscent of childhood’s blue ices is replaced by a taste of grapes (surprise!) down the throat and then on the finish.
Day Three: Onto the reds. The 2004 Hermitage Rouge ($69) gets a place at my osso bucco dinner. There are few things that match better with marrow than a great, Syrah-heavy Hermitage wine, and the veal shank has a big marrow bone in the middle of it. The wine has a figgy nose with a licorice and black cherry nose and taste. It has a dry, long finish, perfect for snacking with some good English cheddar. It opens up nicely — creamy and smooth. And then it keeps opening and smoothing out with its long finish that must be paired with food. By the way, the finish of a wine is when you have done your “4 S’s” (sight, swirl, smell, and sip), and then you do the 5th “S,” which is savor. I personally like to add a 6th “S,” which I call Shut Up — when you smilingly enjoy the lasting intricacies of the wine going down your gullet and entering your brain.
Day Four: The 2003 Barossa Valley Grenache ($29) is from Barossa Valley, which Scholl calls “the Napa of Australia.” Strawberry and garnet-colored, it even seems to have a little glow. I had barbecued a whole pig and thought this fruit-forward wine would pair nicely with some leftovers. It has a smooth taste with plum, cherries and then some earthy light licorice on the finish; also some fruit-driven sweetness and smoothness. The smoky pig was served with a little slightly sweet BBQ sauce (no vinegar) and some sweet cole slaw. The sweetness and smokiness of the food bring out the fruit in the wine, including the deep cherry flavor and finish. A great BBQ red from Australia — but of course!
Day Five: 2005 Black Betty Shiraz ($79). Two words: Fru Tee! Deep aromas and flavors of berry fruit and spice (like spiced raw meat, almost metallic), then thyme. As it opens up, there are more spice-box aromas and tastes — plums, lush dried fruit — did I detect corn? This wine has great legs (go ahead, swirl it around and notice how it elegantly clings to the glass) and a chocolate finish. Let the bottle breathe for at least 30 minutes, then allow the wine to breathe a little more in the glass. Sip Slowly. I paired this with a simple roast chicken with a spicy chanterelle and giblet sauce (Shiraz almost always works well with lightly spicy meat sauces) and toasted ‘O’ pasta, and I used this wine to finish the sauce. The great thing about wine and chicken is that you can enjoy your red as long as you make a sauce that works with red wine. Or you can just drink red with chicken and be done with it. “I’m not a big rule person,” says Scholl. “Sometimes I like to bang open a bottle of Grenache and have red snapper. Some chefs, like Allen Susser (Miami’s Chef Allen), understand that, and they’re not afraid to recommend a great red wine with white meat or fish.”
Day Six: 2004 California Syrah ($79). I had some leftover rare Wagyu steak with porcini puree, enoki mushrooms and braised onions (don’t ask). Drinking this wine was like watching a play unfold. It started opening up in 10 minutes, and getting very big. In 10 more minutes, its deep, rich taste broke through and the length of the finish began doubling while staying smooth. Aromas began to fill the room. Tha
t’s a sign of a potent wine, but also one that is evolving in the here and now. The wine begins to get more and more of a lush mouth feel. Add St. Andre cheese to it, and its triple-cream pungency grabs and holds the wine in an almost mythic embrace, almost making the duck liver and truffle pate an afterthought. Toward the end of the bottle (sniff), there’s a sensation of deep boysenberry, and the alcohol, at 14.7%, starts to assert itself. Finally, mushrooms, asparagus, pepper, then sweet black grape and strawberries. This deep purple wine kept opening for hours, and every sip was different from the last.
Day Seven: 2004 ‘The Chronique’ Grenache ($39). It’s not ‘The Chronic,’ but it certainly can cause light-headedness and a feeling of euphoria. It was also voted one of Australia’s top 25 wines, even though it’s not actually sold there. (B&S wines are currently sold only in the U.S. and Canada.) A light, sweet cherry taste, it opens up beautifully with some grilled skirt steak. I smell sweet pipe tobacco and even get a little taste of it on the tongue. The high alcohol (14.8%) needs a little time in the glass to open up, but not too much. Great for just drinking, finally, with nuts like almonds or walnuts, as the finish just keeps going and going. “Open a bottle, drink a little, then leave the rest on your counter — it will not only last for days, but it will keep changing and surprising you,” says Scholl. I can vouch for that.
So after spending seven days eating dinner with Betts & Scholl wines, I had to ask Scholl if he ever drank his wines without food. “My favorite place to drink wine is on the dock in the back of my house. Me and my wife and a bottle of wine and two glasses.” It sounded so simple and relaxed, and so on Day Eight, I rested.