Taking The Snobbery Out Of Studying Wine

Talking about wine can be a bit intimidating, rife with terms like tannin and terroir. Master Sommelier Richard Betts is on a mission to help people enjoy wine as a grocery, not a luxury. Betts talks with NPR's Jennifer Ludden about his book, The Essential Scratch and Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:

It's almost New Year's Eve, when the bubbly flows freely as friends and family gather to reflect on the year that was, and raise a glass to the one to come. But it can be tricky to select the right bottle to present to your host or to accompany your own meal, especially if terms like tannin and terroir can make the whole endeavor feel intimidating.

Enter Richard Betts. He is a master sommelier - another of those intimidating terms. But he's on a mission to take the snobbery out of oenology. His new book is "The Essential Scratch and Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert." And he joins me from member station KGNU in Boulder, Colo. Richard Betts, welcome.

RICHARD BETTS: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

LUDDEN: Your basic message is that wine is a grocery, not a luxury. What do you mean?

BETTS: I took some time away from school, and moved to Italy. But I think the most impactful part of that year was shopping for your groceries on a daily basis, and setting the table. And when you set the table there, the table is never set unless there is wine upon it. And it's just a part of everyday life.

LUDDEN: So you came away from your trip to Italy with this idea that wine is something everyone can enjoy, not just this elite crop of master sommeliers - as you are. How does one who doesn't have your education go about, then, picking a bottle that we're going to like?

BETTS: I mean, the first thing to do is to trust yourself. Only you know what you like. So basically, if you like it, that's the right answer.

LUDDEN: So you make it easy. You divide the smells - the tastes, really, in four main groups. What are they?

BETTS: Fruits, wood, earth and then this sort of catch-all, other; with fruit, earth and wood being the predominant three categories. And if we look at, let's just say red wines, for example. We can break red wine and red wine grapes into two groups when it comes to fruit. They're either predominantly red-fruited or they're predominantly black-fruited.

LUDDEN: OK, and I have your book open here to that page.

BETTS: Do it, yeah.

LUDDEN: I'm going to scratch here. OK, I'm on the red side, scratching.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCRATCHING)

LUDDEN: I'm going to smell. Oh...

(LAUGHTER)

LUDDEN: That's really nice. It's like a...

BETTS: Isn't it fun?

(LAUGHTER)

LUDDEN: I'm not sure what it is.

BETTS: But you recognize it as red. And then when you keep flipping the pages, you get to the wood piece, and you understand what does wood smell like? And we say, oh, it's aged in oak. Well, what does that actually mean? Yes, it was aged in an oak barrel, but what does the barrel do to it? It imparts a flavor.

LUDDEN: You've got cinnamon here, vanilla, nutmeg and some other things.

BETTS: And all those things occur in French oak. And if you add coconut and dill to the mix, then you have American oak. And so, the last piece being - and then I'll walk you through an example of the last of the three main pieces being the earth. And when I say earthy, that's the hardest thing for people to get their heads around. But really, it's anything of the earth.

So, you know, you're in D.C. And I've been there in the summer and oh, my God, it's so hot. But after it rains there in the summer, that pavement has that specific smell. You know, it's an amazing smell, and that counts as earth. It's anything where the grapes are communicating to you the place where they're grown.

LUDDEN: Which all gets translated into the way that they taste.

BETTS: Exactly. So once you have the fruit, the wood and the earth, you use the map that we've created in the back, to make your decisions. And this is where it comes to trusting yourself.

LUDDEN: OK, I've got your map here. Let's go red, all right.

BETTS: Right, so you start with a red hemisphere up. And the first question is the fruit question. And if you say, OK, I want a red-fruited wine tonight, not a black-fruited wine. OK, so you bear left on the map there.

LUDDEN: Uh-huh, and then we go up to oak.

BETTS: To the wood question: Do you want it, or don't you? Well, let's assume that you do. OK, so you go towards the oak, and then you have the little bifurcation there; where you have to say OK, do you want French oak, or do you want American oak?

LUDDEN: Let's go with the American oak.

BETTS: So you've got red fruits. You've got American oak. And then the last question is: Do you want earthy, or don't you? Well, let's assume, yeah, I want it earthy; I wanted it a little bit funky tonight. And that points you to what you should drink, which in this case is Tempranillo and Garnacha from Spain, as you would find in a place called Rioja.

LUDDEN: Hah.

BETTS: And it works like that for all the wines in the world.

LUDDEN: You talk about wine-speak; give me an example.

BETTS: You know, we're going to get into the differences between the way the Sirah expresses schist as opposed to expressing granite. And is it granite on a south-facing slope, or perhaps it's an eastern facing slope? And, you know, it's almost like some contemporary art. You have to know the story to appreciate what's happening. And that's fine at that ultra-geeky level, but that's not the level I'm most interested in. You know, I don't want everyone to have to know the story. You know, I'm here to help people, and I do that by not, you know, talking about obtuse soil types on strange slopes in the middle of nowhere that...

(LAUGHTER)

BETTS: ...you know, are only made by, you know, three guys, right?

LUDDEN: We're almost to the New Year, let's talk sparkling wine. And you say it doesn't have to be champagne.

BETTS: I probably drink as much Cava from Raventos i Blanc, or Prosecco from Bisol, in Italy, as I do champagne. You can take a handful of these bottles to a party or even just take them home, and it won't set you back like champagne does. But it does share the same cheer and the same conviviality, and the same sense of celebration. So I'm a big believer.

LUDDEN: Richard Betts is the author of "The Essential Scratch and Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert." Thank you so much, and Happy New Year.

BETTS: Happy New Year, I appreciate it.

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