Master sommelier Richard Betts has for years collected plaudits for his approachable style of wine service at the Little Nell in Aspen, Colo., even matching up with art collector Dennis Scholl to form the avant-garde wine label Betts & Scholl.
Now it's time for the hard stuff. This week the Bay Area got its first taste of Sombra, a Oaxaca mezcal devised by Betts and wine negociant Charles Bieler, one of the banditos behind the Three Thieves wines. Made from organically grown Espadin agave, Sombra was meant to show off its roots in a manner similar to the Del Maguey line of single-village mezcals.
"Charles and I come at it from a wine perspective," Betts says, "How do we arrive at a place where this thing really reflects its origin?"
They hunted throughout Mexico's agave-growing areas before finding a distiller in the village of San Luis del Rio who hand-harvests agave off steep slopes at 8,000 feet elevation. Stone-ground agave pinas are roasted in a fire pit for about a week. Then comes an eight-day spontaneous fermentation and two distillations to achieve 90 proof, higher than most agave spirits.
The result is an agave smoke bomb, with saline overtones and rich vegetal notes that evoke a rhum agricole. It's much more aggressive than the Del Maguey - at whose facility Sombra is bottled into hand-blown Oaxacan glass.
With all the attention on Jalisco nowadays, why not a Tequila? Betts was unimpressed by what he calls "the vodkaization of mezcal" from that region's often industrial methods. "I don't think it offers much individuality," he adds.
Let's hope the local Tequila posse doesn't consider them fighting words.