Long before he featured as a breakout start in the hugely popular SOMM—the monumental wine documentary chronicling the trials and tribulations of wine's most testing challenge, the Master Sommelier Exam—Dustin Wilson was merely doing his best to get by. He always had an underlying passion for wine. But he didn't know if he had what it took to be a wine professional; therefore, he ventured forth with no deliberate "direction." In fact, his journey would see him cross the contiguous United States not once, but twice.
It all began back in college, when Wilson worked as waiter in a steakhouse in Baltimore. It was there that he developed his interest in wine. He would then move to Colorado, mainly to ski, but his interest stayed. In Boulder he got a job as a busser at Frasca, where Master Sommelier Bobby Stucky plied his trade. And that got him going. Shortly thereafter, he made his way west to Little Nell in Aspen; then he made his way further west to RN74 in San Francisco. After a good stint in the Bay area, he traveled back east, where he landed in New York City as head to the prestigious wine program at three-Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park. (There, alongside Finger Lakes winery Herman Weimer, he created a custom made wine especially for the restaurant.)
While making this impressive, if circuitous, journey, he also managed to pass the Master Sommelier Exam (starring in SOMM) as well as become a winemaker and owner of the wine brand Vallin. Yet, despite the definitive mark he has made in the wine world, Wilson is far from done.
The next step? A foray into the decidedly unsexy and staid world of wine retail.
Christopher Barnes: Dustin, you're very unique—I mean, you're a winemaker, a sommelier, and a movie star. It's like being a model/actor. How did you incorporate all of these different aspects of the wine business?
Dustin Wilson: I think it all kind of came in pieces, and I just kind of followed everything that I'm passionate about in some way shape or form. The movie thing was definitely...I just happened to be in the right place at the right time—that was never a pursuit of mine by any stretch.
The wine bug hit me when I was young, when I was going through college, basically. When I got out I knew I wanted to at least pursue it in some capacity. But I didn't think I would make a career out of it; I just kind of liked it, and wanted to read more about it, and learn a little bit more about it. I ended up working as a sommelier, eventually, and loved it, and just decided to kind of keep going with it. For me it was just something that I really always enjoyed.
Then a lot of the people in the industry that I looked up to were also starting to make wine. There are a handful of sommeliers that were getting into that world. Again, it was something that I never thought I could do. I didn't realize it was even a thing. I was very naïve but also super inspired. At a certain point in time when I had met enough people, and gained enough contacts, and kind of figured out how it could be done, we decided, myself and a couple of guys, to kind of jump into a project and start making something.
Then it just happened to be right around that time, too, of getting through the MS Exam, and studying, that Jason, the director of the film, popped into my life: "Hey, do you want to be a part of this thing?" I was like, "Sure!"
When you're walking down the street, do people recognize you and say, "Are you one of the guys from SOMM?"
Not often. It happens more often when I walk into a wine shop or a restaurant—anything wine related. I was at a tasting over the weekend up in Vermont and ended up running into some people who had seen the movie, so it happens, but usually only in wine capacities, not out on the street.
You have a ways to go before you're in the Tom Cruise...
Yeah, totally. Still working on that.
In terms of the Master Sommelier Exam, how many masters are there now?
There are about 230 worldwide. Here in the U.S., I believe the number is somewhere around 170 or 180, of which I think we're up to close to 20 or so women now—more and more [women] are getting involved each year. Most of them are either here in the U.S. or in England with a couple scattered about the rest of Europe.
That's a pretty small number. There are 750 professional baseball players. There are a third as many Master Sommeliers as there are professional baseball players. That means that it's harder to do what you do than it is to hit a curveball from Clayton Kershaw. How hard is it to become a Master Sommelier?
It's definitely difficult but I think where the difficulty lies is not so much in an innate skill of any sort. It's more the dedication, and discipline, and the time that it requires to put into it before it's possible.
I think with things like sports, for example, guys are pretty talented. They already have a base level, and then they practice. They do their thing for years and years before they get to where they are. For us, it's kind of more juggling the ins and outs of life like school, and then work, and things like that. Our time is very, very crunched—basically, you're spending five, six-plus years keeping all that out of the picture and just focusing on the test which can be difficult for people.
Do you have any concept of how many hours you spent on this?
Grand total will be tough to come up with. When I was really hitting it hard, I would work at the restaurant at evenings, but I would spend my whole day studying. That's a good three, four, five hours. When I was off, it was morning, noon, AND night. I would take breaks to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but hat's pretty much it—it's a solid 10 to 12 hours on days off.
Now that you've reached this level, do people kind of come up to you with a glass and say, "Taste it?"
All the time. That's like the thing that everybody wants to see. Everybody loves blind testing. It's hard to go somewhere without someone handing me a glass and saying, "Here you go. What do you think this is?" Having to roll through the whole thing.
I think the goal for everybody is always to try to mess the guy up rather than seeing him actually kill it. I get all kinds of weird things thrown at me. Like the other day, the guys were joking around. They wanted to see my blind taste Vermont grape varieties which I don't even think I know what's grown in Vermont to be honest.
How often when you do these blind testings do you nail it?
Relatively often. Again, it kind of depends. When we're studying, we're prepping for the test, it's all about classic grapes from classic regions, right? If a grape or a particular style of wine isn't necessarily very inherent to a particular region, or doesn't have a lot of history to it in a particular region, or have an innate style to it that is characteristic of a grape kind of place, then it's really not necessarily fair game as we call it. If it's coming from a really classic place and it's a classic grape, I'm usually pretty good with those.
What often happens though is people like to throw in Spanish grape varieties that happened to be grown in New Zealand or something like that—that's where you run into some issues, and you don't always get things right. It gets a little mixed up.
You don't run into issues when somebody gives you a glass and you guess Cabernet but it's actually a Chardonnay. That hasn't happened?
No, not yet. Not yet, no. I think I'm good there. I don't see that happening anytime soon.
That's lucky, right?
In terms of your winemaking, when you got into it, did you have an idea of what you wanted to accomplish?
Yeah. I was working in San Francisco at the time. The very first In Pursuit of Balance tasting happened in San Francisco which was launched by Rajat Parr and Jasmine Hirsch. It was a really cool tasting. All Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from California that was shooting for higher acid, lower alcohol, kind of much more balanced style of Chardonnay and Pinot.
Really, I didn't have much of an affinity for California wine when I moved out to California. In my head everything was kind of the same—all homogeneous. I had kind of grown out of my California phase. But I got re-inspired by California wines quite a bit during my time out there. It was because of tastings like this and getting introduced to a lot of new wines from these new producers who maybe kind of grew up in the wine industry but were just starting their own projects and playing with really interesting grape varieties, stuff from the Jura and whatnot or making wines in this new style that was very kind of counterintuitive to what you'd normally think about when you think California wine.
I was there in a really, really unique time. I always loved drinking Rhône wines, pretty much from everywhere—Cornas, St. Joseph, Côte-Rôtie, all of it—and so did the couple of buddies that I ended up getting involved in the project with.
We thought it was a great time to be able to start producing those types of grape varieties in California, but with that same ethos of going after balance and brighter acidities and kind of a sense of terroir, sense of place, and really showcasing the grape variety, et cetera, rather than the previous styles that were about extraction of power and richness, wines of impact rather than wines of elegance—that was our thought in the beginning.
There were a couple of other guys doing the same thing but not many. We wanted to be a part of this movement that was taking place. We really like those styles of wine, so that's kind of what got us going. We knew we wanted to play with those grapes.
You make the wine. You like the wine. But then you have to market the wine.
That's the hard part.
What are the challenges with marketing and building a brand?
We bootstrapped the whole thing ourselves. We didn't take investors, and we don't have marketing backgrounds. We have no idea what we're really doing in that sense, so we've kind of gone the old school route and made wines that we were and are really, really passionate about—the ones that we love ourselves. I think we just try to expose them to as many people as we can, and hopefully our passion and love for those wines shines through enough that people get engaged and they want to try it. It's really all on us. We just travel around the country, meeting with people in restaurants, meeting with retailers, meeting with as many people as we can to show our wine, sharing the story. And hopefully they like it.
Why do they take it on? What gets people excited about the wine?
I think it's really the whole ethos of balance and whatnot. I think a lot of people, especially wine geeks, really believe that wine is meant for the table, and it's meant to showcase a sense of place. When we tell our story, it hits those triggers with a lot of people because there are a lot of people just like us. Maybe they have a certain idea of what they think California is, so we show them something that's a little bit different, and people get excited about that.
In terms of this whole idea of balance, there was the New York Times Magazine article that was creating these two divisions, the balance group and then the strong, muscular California wine group. What is your feeling? I mean, is that true? Are there two camps?
Yeah, there are definitely two camps. I certainly fall into more of the balance camp, if I have to take a side. At the same time, I don't feel like you necessarily have to. I don't feel like one is necessarily better than the other. I think there's room for everybody and there's room to play. I hate to give the political answer, but I really believe that.
I think it's all about what people who are drinking wine like to drink. I think now that we have a lot more variety in the market, it just makes it a more exciting place to be drinking wine. If there are wines that maybe you weren't into before for a particular reason, now you might be able to taste those same grapes presented with different expressions.
Likewise, maybe there are certain people that really love that big, bombastic style. I think that those wines shouldn't cease to exist just because there's a movement towards this more kind of balanced style. A lot of people still really enjoy those wines with brute power, and extraction, and whatnot. I think they shouldn't be devoid of the opportunity to drink those just because it's not cool anymore.
What is your feeling about New World wine regions such as Chile, Argentina, South Africa? We recently did an interview with Jancis Robinson. Her point was that the New York sommelier community tends to be very homogeneous in its thinking with the focus on traditional French and Italian regions at the expense of areas like South Africa and Chile which she pointed out she felt were really making some terrific interesting wines.
I would say I agree with her. I'm pretty tied into the whole New York sommelier community. I don't know as much about the regions themselves, and the grapes that they grow, and the regulations, and that kind of stuff. To be honest, I just haven't been exposed to all that. Sommeliers, including myself, develop a certain palate that speaks to what we enjoy. I think that until we kind of get exposed to something that really hits us, and impresses us, and makes us excited about something, then we're likely to kind of stay on our original path.
But I'm definitely open to things. I actually tasted a Chardonnay and Pinot Noir producer from the Atacama Valley in the very northern part of Chile where it's like desert—it was super, super impressive. It reminded me of tasting like the Chacra wines from down in Patagonia. It's a super unexpected region, but really, really high quality; and it meets the same sort of personality that I enjoy with wines from California, Oregon, or Europe. That's one that I can remember tasting that I was really taken aback by.
Back to the question, I think that it's definitely a thing. I think that we do need to be really open to trying a lot of things. At the same time, I think producers in those regions are still making wines that don't necessarily fit our palate which is fine. Also, I just haven't been exposed to all that many things either. I don't know how much representation they get here in the New York market. They're certainly not really going after us. I can't remember ever getting hit up by a distributor that focuses exclusively on Chilean or Argentinian wines or something like that.
How does a region like South Africa—where they have more Chenin Blanc planted than anywhere else in the world by a large margin and they have vines that are over 100 years old —get on the map? How do they attract tastemakers to kind of become advocates?
I think in the beginning it's going to take getting a couple of key people to get behind the wines, finding people that are in the industry. Let's say, somebody important in the sommelier community, for example. They need to be exposed to the wine, and to become a believer in it, then decide to help to spread the word. Without getting at least a little bit of buy-in from someone of influence, it's really difficult to kind of push through the market. Unfortunately, as much as we want to think that we all drive our own palates and our own decisions, it's very much not the case. I think there are only a very few people that have the ability to trust their own palate, and taste something, and make a decision to make a stand on something without hearing the influence of people around them. I think having the right couple of influencers is key. I think to get it started, it's only like one, two, three people probably.
Also, there needs to be a lot more exposure to those regions—here in the city, I think I've never really heard of any South African tastings going on. Maybe they're doing them but just not getting to the right people. The regions need to collectively push a little bit harder to gain entrance into these markets because I honestly just don't feel like there's much of a presence of them around to begin with.
You mentioned getting trust and how people find wines, that there are very few people that can really trust their own palates. For many, many years, the palate that counted was Robert M. Parker, Jr. I think Paul Hobbs described him as the most important critic of all time in any genre of criticism. That's kind of going away a little bit—it's becoming less important. Would you agree with that statement?
One hundred percent.
What is going to replace that? In certain stores in New York City, the person selling you wine knows what they're talking about. But let's say you're in Cleveland, or Texas, or somewhere else and the person may not know as much. How does a consumer replace Parker? What replaces Parker?
That's a good question. I would say where I would like to see the industry go and where it might actually go are likely two very different things. Where I would like to see it go is filling in the current void, where retailers, restaurants, et cetera really help their customers and the general public figure out what exactly it is that they like as individuals—it's a much more difficult proposition, but I think there's a lot more value there.
Following the track of what one person says or what even like a couple of people say is a good wine misses out on the beauty of wine. The fun part of wine is being able to explore. If you're only following one person's palate or even just a couple of critics' palates, you're doing yourself a huge disservice by eliminating a huge swath of wines that are out there that might be really amazing experiences for you—you just haven't realized it yet.
I also don't love the idea of someone really finding the wine that they like and then realizing the critic didn't like it, so then they feel like they weren't supposed to like it. That's not cool either. I think if we can find a way to get people to really just understand their own palate and understand what source of wines they really are into and help them to try to navigate into those wines, that will be my ideal scenario.
Where we are right now, I think certain people like Parker are losing their influence but not because of people's desire, not because there aren't people of influence anymore—there's actually a lot more of them now. There are a lot of bloggers. There are a lot of independent writers. There are a lot more people discussing wine in general which I think allows the average consumer to kind of pick and choose like a handful of people that they maybe want to follow instead, which I think is better than it was before, but I hope it's just a stepping stone towards people getting a sense of what they like for themselves, and we have the responsibility to help people get there.
How do you feel social media has changed the wine world?
We can talk all day about that. I have various opinions on social media with the wine world. I think that it's done a lot of good because it brings a lot more exposure to certain wines out there to the world that maybe people didn't know about, so that's a really good thing. I think that it's also become kind of cool to like wine and post about wine. I think the average consumer to be putting things on social media that they're enjoying is a new thing and it gets people excited about drinking wine in general.
I have noticed at the same time that we're also experiencing a shift. You had Parker before. Now there are bloggers and whatnot out there. Then there's also people that have developed a huge following of wine consumers—wine drinkers that follow a particular person on social media because they want to see what they're drinking all the time. I think that is a good thing to a certain extent, but, again, you can fall into the same trap of only drinking one style of wine because you're following one person.
Overall, it's a great thing. We just need to be careful of how we use it. What I would love to see is a lot more education being put on social media, especially by people of influence, myself included. I'm not good at it. I'm not knocking anybody. I should spend more time telling a story and educating, whether it's about winemaking, or particular brands, or producers, rather than just taking a photo and saying, "This is awesome." I think that doesn't really do much for people. That's the same thing as basically arbitrarily putting a point on a wine in my eyes.
Let's say you have a cousin who's starting to get into wine; how do you approach that person and educate them? What sort of tools would you give that person to help them find their own path?
The best thing you can do is taste. Explore as much as possible. Explore different grapes, explore different regions, reading about them as you go—that tops tasting. A lot of people fall into this trap where they find a particular wine that they like and then only buy that wine or style; they stick with Pinot Noir or Cabernet or wines from California and Oregon. They don't test other corners of the world. Tasting lots of different places, and lots of different grapes, and keeping track of all the different things that you like is a good start.
Then, read. Once you find a handful that you're really into, read more about those regions and understand who the best producers are, and why. Then look for those wines and try to get into them—that is probably the most organic way of developing a palate.
Would you recommend picking a region and tasting its wines? Or picking a grape varietal and tasting that varietal from different places? When you talk about drinking a lot, is there a methodology that you would suggest?
I don't think so. I think just go out and just start tasting a lot and drinking a lot because either way you'd go about it I think you'd end up in the same place. I think as long as you're willing to just kind of throw caution to the wind a little bit and just try stuff, I think that's the best place that you could be.
You're doing a retail project now.
That's unusual because mostly you hear about the sommeliers who are becoming winemakers and you don't hear about retail that often. It's kind of a sad stepchild to the restaurants and the winemaking piece. Why retail? How did you decide on retail?
It's really not quite as glamorous as the restaurant side of the industry—that's for sure. For that same reason, I think that there's a lot to be done in retail. I think it is an interesting little world, and it hasn't really been pushed or improved upon in quite a long time because it's not a typical path.
I worked in restaurants for the last 20 years. While I love restaurants, and will always love restaurants, I want to try something new. I worked in restaurants since I was a kid. I worked pretty much every position: front of the house, back of the house, you name it. I was cook. I was dishwasher. I ran food. I was a sommelier. I was the captain, maître d'. I like that because it really helps you understand the entire restaurant world.
I like making wine and I like working with distributors. Hopefully I'll like the retail side of the business. I like kind of dabbling in every aspect of the business because, one, I think it's fun, but it also gives you a much more holistic view as to what the industry is like overall and how it can be improved and what kind of things you can do.
For me, I think it's a venture into the unknown. It's a challenge. That's kind of exciting for me, especially the fact that not a lot of sommeliers go that route—I'm hoping to kind of pave the way a little bit, and do something really interesting, and cool hopefully. Then I can't honestly say that it's not at least without a little bit of a lifestyle change as well. Working until the wee hours of the morning, it's not all fun. You get to a certain point where that needs to change, too.
What are you going to do that's innovative? How are you going to change the traditional retail model?
As I was mentioning earlier, I believe the best way to get people excited about wine is to really help them decide what it is that they like. Our goal is we really want to invest a lot of time, a lot of energy, and probably a lot of money into taking care of our customers and really hoping to taste with them, and to educate them, and get them to a place where they trust us to guide them to choose the right wines for them. It's not about what I like. It's not about what a critic likes or whatever. It's about really taking the time to understand the customer, figuring out their palate and then being able to open the door to a lot of wines that we think that they'll really be into.