Wine books make you tremble in your boots? All that jargon. All those names to learn. All the erudition to wade through?
Well, here’s one that your inner 3-year-old should enjoy: “The Essential Scratch & Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert.” The author is Richard Betts, a master sommelier but no snob, whose Twitter feed boasts the motto “Wine is a grocery, not a luxury.”
The book, which premieres this week, is just 22 pages. Easy peasy. But how exactly does scratching and sniffing lead the reader to newfound confidence about wine choices?
Betts confides that when he was growing up, he rarely encountered anything beyond wines from a box and that only on special occasions. It wasn’t until he dropped out of Occidental College to follow a girlfriend to Italy that he discovered wine as part of everyday life. Poured out of a pitcher and into a tumbler, it showed up at every meal.
Cut to some years later and a glass of Chianti that brings back all those memories. He decides against law school and follows his heart into wine, working his way up in the restaurant business to become wine director at the Little Nell in Aspen, Colo.
He left that a few years ago and now writes, tweets, and makes wine in California and France under the label My Essential Wine Co. He also has a premium brand of mezcal called Sombra.
OK. But how did he ever come up with the idea for the book? Late one night on a ski trip in Canada, he and a friend where joking around, drinking great wine, and out popped the idea that what the world really needed was a scratch and sniff wine book.
Cue uproarious laughter.
And then he found himself writing just that. He liked the idea that such a book could be accessible and inclusive—and fun. “Scratch and sniff as an opening salvo holds a lot of appeal,” he says. “You can actually use it to teach people something.”
Betts points out that all we actually taste is sweet, sour, salty and bitter. “Everything else we experience comes from our sense of smell. And we can break that down into three specific areas that define all wine: fruit, earth and wood, oak in particular."
Earth is the toughest one to explain, he says, but as soon as he invites people to recall the smell of potting soil or river mud from a camping trip, they get it. For fruit, it’s red fruit or black fruit. For oak, if it’s American it smells one way, French another way.
The end game is to help the reader discover the wines he or she will love. Betts calls it mapping your desires. And to do that, you decide first whether you want to drink red or white. If it’s red, do you want red fruit or black fruit. Scratch and sniff to find out you prefer strawberries over blackberries. And so you take the red fruit direction.
Do you want oak or don’t you? Sniff the American and the French oak. If you like vanilla, choose the American oak path. The last question relates to earthiness. “If you like earth, let’s go for the funky stuff,” he says, laughing.
Red fruit, American oak and earth lead directly to. . . Rioja!