How to Study & Taste Wine with Richard Betts MS

photo: Carla & Richard Rza Betts

photo: Carla & Richard Rza Betts

Richard Betts is a Master Sommelier that was the 9th person to pass the test on the first try. Today, he is an entrepreneur & author creating companies around Sombra Mezcal, Astral Tequila, the wines under the label An Approach to Relaxation, My Essential Wines, and The Scratch & Sniff books to learn more about both wine & whiskey.

You can learn more about Richard at YoBetts.com and follow him & his wife, Carla, on their adventures on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.


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How did you approach passing the Master Sommelier exam the first time?

The rhyme and reason for how I passed the test is the same way you pass the test the first time.

For me, that meant myopia. This is what I am doing and then being very competitive with myself. And it means having a vision that I actually get it done the first time.

I don’t want to say that it’s easy. I also don’t want to say that it’s impossible, because it’s definitely possible. It’s definitely not as difficult as it’s made out to be. It’s about how you frame it up. 

The first thing to understand is that any test; if you really look at it, it’s a game. You have to figure out, “How do I play this game well? How do I beat this game?” That’s the first thing to do; dissect it. And a lot of people never even get to that equation.  Like, “this is a measure of me and my worth as a sommelier,” and 99.99% of them won’t necessarily say this out loud but will then go, “this is by extension a measure of my self worth and myself as a human,” and that’s a huge mistake.

It’s a game everyone! So figure out how to beat the game. When you do that you can then frame up how you’re going to prepare.

When I took the SAT in high school, I use this example a lot, I didn’t go re-read Macbeth, in fact I had probably never even read Macbeth. I probably read the Cliff Notes, but I wasn’t a very committed high school student.

So instead I read a book, titled something like, “How to Beat This Test,” and it asked, “How is this test constructed? How is it written? What is it truly a measure of? And how do you get good at these test taking skills?”

That’s what you do!

And the good news, when you are going through The Court of Master Sommeliers program, is that doing those things along the way coincidentally also makes you very very knowledgeable when it comes to wine. That’s a good thing. The SAT doesn’t make you knowledgeable when it comes to English or Math, it just makes you good at taking that test, and so that’s where those things diverge. And that’s important because if you’re going to pass that test you should be knowledgeable about wine.

But also, it’s understanding, “Okay, I have to learn about wine, but how do I learn about it and what’s the construction?”  These days, kids have every question known to man on a note card and they just review these flash card questions.  That’s the best way to fail. I really believe that. You have to figure out,  “Okay, here’s the test, here’s how it’s organized, here’s what these questions tend to look like. Okay, now let’s go back and learn about the story of wine in a way that will actually allow me to answer these questions.”  And for me, that meant breaking it all down, understanding how every country is organized, why is it organized the way its organized, and then with in that organization, what are the wines that they make? What do they look like? How are they regarded by the legislative bodies? The local legislative bodies.  And when you do that you learn the story of wine, which is really cool, but you also have it in a way that is useful to you as a sommelier and you have it prepared in a way that it allows you to answer the questions when they’re asked.

For me that meant taking all of the countries in the world, and I’ll say this in a funny way that makes me sound old, but in the old days it meant books. So I had stacks and stacks and stacks of books. Dozens of thick, unwieldy ones that I reduced to outlines.

So, for example, Italy became five pages or eight pages, or whatever it was, and these are the regions, and this is how they are organized, and these are Gorean laws, and this is whatever, and how everything came to be, and minimum alcohols. It’s not understanding that this has to have this alcohol as a minimum and I’m going to memorize that, no take it further! So, why? Why does it have that number? Instead of just memorizing the number, you gain understanding of why this number. It speaks to ripeness, it speaks to quality, it speaks to all sorts of things.

In the end, I had the entire thing reduced to three little binders. I committed myself to reducing the world of wine to these three binders in the first three months in the ten months between my advanced and my masters. And the next month I got through them all again, and the next three weeks I went through them again, and then two weeks, and then one week, and it’s just repetition, repetition, repetition; once you have everything distilled into the right amount of information.

And all of that happened by spending one hour per day on the theory. Which is nothing.

I bet I waste more than an hour a day looking at Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter.  And if you just redirect that stuff to your notes, make it the first thing you do when you get up; that’s what I did. An hour per day and you can nail the theory.

It’s the same thing with tasting. You go out with your peers and taste.

You work on service every night, but you know what we’ve taught you, what we expect service to be, so there is really no excuse for not passing service and not understanding it. You have the answers before you go in, so just practice it.

It’s that myopia and understanding that this is a game, and how you are going to beat it.

Then there is the other part. This is the piece of advice that I give everyone; I get asked all the time. You have to figure out how to have your best day. And this is the piece that very very few people understand.  It usually bewilders them when I say it. You have to figure out how to be the best you. I know what makes the best Richard. At that time in my life it meant, go for a run, listen to loud music, and pound a beer. Those are three things. So I’ll have burnt off all of this aggression, I’ll put myself in a calm place, and at that point you could throw anything at me and I wasn’t going to be flustered.

That’s what I encourage people to do. If we think about it, when do we feel best, and if you do that, you’re going to come up with an answer that’s going to put you in the right place.

I took my exam in San Francisco. I went for a run around the city while listening to loud music, got a tall boy of Heineken, sat in a square with the bums, pounded it out of a brown paper bag and then went to prepare to pass the Master Sommelier exam.

And that’s what I did. For some people it’s yoga, some people it’s meditation, for some it’s, I don’t know what, maybe its looking at Twitter, but whatever it is you do to be your best person, that’s the most important piece.

First, if you get invited to the exam at all, you’re in a good place. You’re a good sommelier and you know a lot. Once you’re there, understand that you’ve been working, you’ve been studying. I think at that point the candidates are the best sommeliers in the world. No one is as tuned up as they are in that moment. So, have the confidence, be cool, and just relax. That’s the best way to do it.

When you’re talking about studying an hour per day, is that an hour after you’ve reduced all of your notes into the essential?

First off, if you do an hour a day everyday, that’s 365 hours divided by 24 hours which is only 15 days, which seems absurd.

But, I’ll use an athletic analogy.

I have a friend, Tyler Hamilton, who’s a pro cyclist who one a gold medal in Athens. I trained with him for a while and we’d do these exercises of 30 / 30 / 30 / 30. So 30 seconds on as hard as you can, 30 seconds off, and you repeat this ten times. In the end, you’ve done three hundred seconds really hard, which translates to five minutes at this very, very high level. And you couldn’t have done that if I said go for five minutes at this level. What you would have achieved would have been a whole lot less. And it’s the same thing with studying. Make this one quality hour.

From the outset, if you start at zero, that hour is going to be spent reading on say Piedmont, taking notes on what you read. The next day it’s going to be Tuscany, which might take two days. But that hour at the outset is gathering notes. And then once you’ve gathered all of your notes, that hour is spent refining those notes. And then once you’ve refined your notes into those notebooks I spoke of, then your hour becomes reviewing those notes. So, Germany, you have to know certain towns and which rivers they sit upon. I would draw a map of Germany, and then I would draw in the rivers, and would put dots where the towns lay. I had this strange amoeba like form with these squiggle lines and dots. Then I’d Xerox that thing a hundred times, and when I woke up in the morning I’d fill in the names of the rivers and the names of the towns and do it every single day. It’s that sort of thing.

I’d do it for Champagne, do it for Portugal and so on and so forth. And I’m a very much a visual learner, so that worked for me, but everyone is different.  So, it starts with collection, then you refine it, then it becomes repetition.

That’s what that hour is. 

What are some of the methods for tasting, whether it’s blind tasting, or tasting wines that are new to you?

So, for the purpose of this question I‘m going to limit it to objective tasting not subjective tasting. This isn’t whether I like the wine or not, it’s about evaluating the wine.

The way you do that, be it blind or not, is to have a method. A method that you repeat every single time allows you to relate one wine to another. If you evaluate one wine with one method, and then the next day you evaluate another wine with another method, you can’t relate those two wines to each other because you’ve used different processes and different vocabulary. While you may have learned a little bit about those wines, you haven’ t learned nearly as much as you possibly could have if you used a single method. Then you can actually use those words to relate one wine to the next.

So, what is high acidity?

Well, you’re saying that the level of acidity in a wine is high, but that only matters if you can relate it to all the other wines of the world. There isn’t like a number and if it is above this number, it’s high. It’s how it relates.

If you’ve only had Chardonnay, and you say, “Wow, this is acidic. It has high acidity.” Well, no. It’s not. If you relate it to Sauvignon Blanc, you’re like, “Oh that’s what high acidity is!” If you relate it to Viognier, you’re like, “Oh, that’s what really low acidity is.” And so on and so forth. It’s a long way of saying that you have to have a method and you have to apply that method every single time and in exactly the same way.

If you have a method, the other ingredient you need is context.

It comes back to you having to taste all of the wines of the world to understand how they relate to each other. That’s how you hone in what’s high alcohol, what’s medium alcohol, what’s medium minus acidity, what are medium tannins, what does that feel like? Well, you know how to measure by your method and you know the answer by having context. The second part is really fun because you get to go drink a lot of wine.

That’s the key. That’s how you make objective observations. 

In terms of wines, I think that it’s important to look at wines that have been around for a reasonable amount of time. These days, one of the reasons why wine is so fantastic is because there has never been more good wine in the world at any time. Another reason is that it allows for so much interpretation and new ideas, but new ideas only make sense if you have context.

I see a lot of young tasters that don’t have any context, and they’re like, “Bordeaux is the greatest thing in the world”, and I’m like, “is it”?

I don’t know that you know enough to really say that, and I don’t mean that in a disparaging way, but you could say, “I’m really enjoying this wine”, but don’t say it’s the greatest thing in the world because you haven’t had everything.

Regretfully, it’s getting harder and harder for people to build that context because there are more and more people interested, so there is less and less of the classic wines for people to taste. Add to that, since there are more people crowding into wine in a good way, it’s made these things more expensive. So, to really understand what is Bordeaux, you’ve got to drink a lot of really expensive stuff. That’s hard. To understand what Burgundy is all about you have to drink a lot of really expensive, really rare stuff, and that’s really hard! I sympathize with that.

When I was coming through this, I was probably part of the last group of somms that had really unfettered access to all of this stuff, so I had a much easier time getting there, but that doesn’t mean you’re absolved from the duty of getting there today. You have to develop that context.

These wines that resemble vinegar more than they do wine, that are taking hold, and they are splashy and wild, and have lots of personality, they are really interesting in many ways. But I always shudder when I see someone hanging their hat on it as the greatest thing in the world when they haven’t got the context to make that statement as an authority. I don’t mean this as an authoritative figure, I just mean for yourself. Truly understand for yourself, because that’s the pleasure of wine, it’s really all about you, but if you haven’t developed yourself, then you’re selling yourself short. 

Here’s two ways to access wines like these:

1) Go to trade shows and taste every single example of what you’re trying to learn more about. For example, if you want to learn about Sangiovese, go taste all only those wines. Don’t talk to anyone, simply go table to table and just try wines. These are rare chances when there may be 50 different expressions of Sangiovese open and you get to taste them side-by-side for not a lot of money.

2) At home, buy ten bottles of wine that look similar. So, buy a Gruner Veltliner, a Chablis, a Vouvray, an Alsatian Riesling, Austrian Riesling, Albarino, Pinot Grigio, etc. Write on the bottom of a glass what each is, pour ten glasses, mix them up, walk out of the room, come back in, and smell again and parse the differences. Do that everyday for a week and you’ll start to notice differences.  What are the two or three different things that set each wine apart? That’s how you get good at this.