Master Wine Sommelier Richard Betts went from being a budding geologist to pursuing a law degree, before burning out and deciding to pursue what he loved the most: wine.
"I didn't really know that much about wine, just that I liked to drink it," Betts said of the moment a bottle of Chianti changed his life. "I took it home, pulled the cork and just that first sniff -- the very first smell took me back to a moment that I'd lived almost five years earlier. Just by the smell, I remembered the restaurant I was eating in, what I ate, what my companion ate, what she wore, where she sat and what the waitress did right and wrong. It was so compelling."
After that glass, he quit school and his day job at an environmental law firm, and got a job working in a restaurant.
"I hopped off the cliff," Betts said. "At the time, it was a little bit of a shock to my parents, but they were always very supportive. And you know, it was wonderful. It was a nutty moment."
Just a few short years later, he was the ninth person in history to pass the Master Sommelier test on his first attempt (for some context, it has been called the world's toughest test by Forbes).
His book, "The Essential Scratch N' Sniff Guide To Becoming A Wine Expert," is the world's first scratch n' sniff wine book and recently made it onto The New York Times' bestseller list.
On Thursday, Betts took some time chat with The Huffington Post about his fun relationship with wine and why hitting The New York Times' bestseller list doesn't necessarily equal success.
What was it like changing career paths? How did you know that the topics you had been studying weren't right for you and how did you find the courage to make such a drastic change?
I had a great time doing it, but I was ready to do something else, and I think it's important to feel like you have the freedom to do that. I mean, how many times in life have you heard, "Oh my god, you are so lucky that you get to do this"? In my case, I know that's actually very true. But it's okay to change. The key is not to be afraid. If you ask yourself, "What are you working for?" -- the right answer is happiness. It's not material goods. I do it because it matters to me and I think if we can all answer that question in that fashion, then it's all good, you know?
There seem to be so many rules in wine, and your mantra, “Wine is a grocery, not a luxury,” really turns that on its head. Why was this mantra so important to you?
In Italy, the table is not set until there's wine upon it. It's not like here where we're still defining our relationship with wine and wine's role in our society. We're still a young wine-drinking culture and figuring out for ourselves what that means. So I thought, "Let's look at where people do it very well," which is Europe. They’ve been at it for so long, they’ve figured it out. They live good lives. If you live a good life, largely free of stress with good local food and wine on your table, it just leads to good health. So drink more wine -- it makes your life better.
People can be both attracted to and repelled by the so-called rules of wine. Why do you think we sometimes find it easier to be told what wines are good, rather than decide for ourselves?
It can be an intimidating thing. Anything new to us, you look for instruction. And wine heretofore has been the domain of the snotty old white dude in a tuxedo looking down his nose at you. That's intimidating and it's also wrong. It's not how it's supposed to work. Once we realize that we can just knock it off its pedestal and that it's totally democratic, then you empower yourself to make your own decisions and you have much more fun with it.
You know what? You can have a cheeseburger and a chardonnay. No one tells you who to vote for, right? You decide who you vote for, you decide which flavored floss they're going to use on you at the dentist or what you're going to have for dinner or how to take your coffee. You decide all of that, so feel empowered to do the same with your wine. There are no mistakes, there's only new learning and enjoyment.
In today’s world, we seem to be so absorbed in things that don’t really allow us to use our senses -– particularly our noses. What is it about using our senses and being present in our lives that is so important?
We're a curious people. We want to learn. I'm trying to make sense of every day and every hour. That's gratifying. If all you want to do is knock back [a glass of wine] and it makes you smile, then amen. I'm all for it. But if you do want to use your nose to get in there and really dial into it -- there's a people, a place, a geology, a history, a cuisine and a soil -- it's all there to be learned and appreciated. It's a fascinating story if you want to open the book.
What has your unique journey taught you about success?
To me, success is happiness. Success is not being a Master Sommelier or any of the things I've accomplished. The book is on The New York Times bestseller list -- that's pretty awesome, but that's not necessarily success. The real success is having written a book that I really enjoyed writing, having done this project with two friends who I really love and that we got to work together and drink wine and have fun. Success is the fact that it makes other people happy. If you just drilled it down to experiences, positivity and happiness are the things that equal success. Not titles, not money -- none of that. It's asking are you engaged? Are you having a good time? Are you fostering community? That's what success is about. That's what I'm interested in.
Do you check in with yourself continually to make sure that what you're doing is something you enjoy?
I do, and I do it by virtue of trying to do too much. So I'm always at that edge where you're like, "Oh I gotta do this, I gotta do that." But there are times where you're buried and then you look around and ask, "So how do I get unburied?"
That's when you go, "You know what, I have not been enjoying this part of my life and I'm going to not do this anymore." Or "I'm going to change this behavior and I'm going to do that instead." When you keep your foot on the gas all the time, you figure out what works and what doesn't.
What keeps you mindful?
I try to drink wine everyday, and I try to drink different things all the time. It's my business and that's important, but I also just like the pleasure of it. Not only in exploring a world in your wine as I was talking about, but I also enjoy seeing how the scene's evolving. Never has there been more wine on the planet than today. Every day that passes is a better time to be a wine drinker on planet earth because there's more stuff, and it's better stuff and it's changing all the time. For me, it's super exciting to keep up with what's out there. It's just a thrill.
You're equally as positive on Twitter. How do you stay so optimistic?
[Laughs] Oh, thank you. It's a choice we all make every morning. I really believe that. You wake up in the morning and it's up to you. Either you're going to be happy or you're not. Sure, there are days where I wake up and the head is hanging heavy because I drank a little more than I ought to have last night [laughs] and I'll be a little more cranky, but it's fine. You just laugh at yourself and get through it and move on. To choose the opposite of happiness is to waste a day and waste a moment. And as far as I know, those are limited moments and I'm here to get after it.