The art of wine: A Miami Beach collector's passions combine in a line of wines

07/05/2007 3:01 AM

09/23/2008 11:13 AM

If wine and art come together at all in most people's minds, it's probably in the plastic cups of cheap chardonnay poured at gallery openings. For Dennis Scholl, however, they are a sublime pairing that has taken the Miami Beach investor and art collector down a surprising path.

It began with a conversation in the Colorado woods four summers ago with hiking buddy Richard Betts, master sommelier at The Little Nell, a luxurious inn near Aspen, where Scholl and his wife, Debra, have a second home.

Listening to Betts mull over a new project he clearly had doubts about, Scholl asked him what he really wanted to do.

Make wine in Australia, Betts said.

"Gee, that's something Debra and I would do with you," he told his flabbergasted friend.

"He wasn't really promoting the idea. I just asked him what he was passionate about and he told me," Scholl recalls.

And so was born Betts & Scholl. Working with growers and winemakers in Australia's Barossa Valley, California's Napa Valley and France's Rhône region, the company expects to produce about 2,000 cases of grenache, riesling, syrah and Rhône blends this year.

The Scholls, who met as law students at the University of Miami in the late 1970s, are venture capitalists who seek out people with sharp ideas to fund and grow into profitable businesses.

Dennis Scholl's instincts told him a partnership with Betts could make a splash in a romantic but somewhat musty field.

"I felt that Richard had the potential to make the business successful because we were doing something a little different," Scholl says.

"We would shake things up in the wine world, which is very staid. When you go to a wine shop you see the same kind of bottles over and over. Very quiet labels, very important kinds of labels."

Look around the Scholls' two-story Miami Beach home, sparsely furnished to showcase their impressive collection of contemporary art, and you can imagine the next step in his thought process.

"We'll get contemporary artists to do the labels!" he recalls exclaiming to Betts, his face lighting up with almost boyish glee at the memory.

As the newly minted business partners brainstormed about what the labels would look like and which artists might work with them, they agreed on one rule: no hopping kangaroos, no waddling platypuses, in short, "no critter art."

Their first label, an elegant pen-and-ink drawing by New York artist Anna Gaskell for their Barossa Valley grenache, is the antithesis of such kitschy creatures.

Like the five other artists from whom they've commissioned labels -- Liam Gillick, Mark Grotjahn, Isaac Julien, Jim Lambie and Raymond Pettibon -- Gaskell is represented in the Scholls' collection. Their fee for the labels, he says, is a small honorarium and "a bunch of wine."

This relationship between art and wine has stayed comfortably loose. The collector and sommelier don't micro-manage or try to push for images that somehow represent the wines.

"We just wanted to have great contemporary artists on the label," says Scholl.

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