In the SevenFifty Daily Supertasters video series, we choose the wines, then challenge some of the industry’s best palates to blind tastings in an effort to glean their extraordinary techniques.
Master Sommelier Dustin Wilson is the cofounder, with Derrick Mize, of Verve Wine, a retail shop with locations in New York City and San Francisco. Originally from Maryland, Wilson moved to Colorado in 2005 after graduating from college in his home state. In addition to pursuing his passion for skiing, he developed a deeper interest in wine while living there and working in Boulder as a sommelier at Frasca Food and Wine under Bobby Stuckey, the renowned Master Somm, who helped inspire Wilson to enroll in the Court of Master Sommeliers certification program.
To further develop his wine knowledge, Wilson took a somm position in 2008 at The Little Nell, a restaurant in Aspen with a more extensive wine program and a greater emphasis on classic regions. Two years later, he made a strategic move to work as a somm under Rajat Parr at RN74 in San Francisco, where he doubled down on his studies along with other somms prepping for the MS certification. He earned his MS in 2011 while still at RN74. From there, Wilson went east and became the wine director of Eleven Madison Park, a three-Michelin-star restaurant in New York City. Wilson also had a featured role in the 2013 documentary SOMM, which chronicled his efforts and those of three other somms to pass the notoriously difficult MS exam. He was later featured in the film’s sequels, SOMM: Into the Bottle and SOMM 3.
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After shooting our Supertasters video with Wilson, SevenFifty Daily spoke with the dynamic Master Somm about the challenges of running a bicoastal retail operation, why it’s so important to educate customers about wine, his best business management advice, and his current obsession with Comando G.
SevenFifty Daily: What has been the most rewarding thing about going from a somm on the floor to a bicoastal retailer?
Dustin Wilson: My “job” now is so much more than just wine. I love how much I’m learning about starting new businesses, managing teams, marketing, finance, building internal culture within the stores, developing our brand, and so much more. While wine is the product, it takes up less than 10 percent of my time these days. The most rewarding thing has been getting out of my comfort zone and growing and learning about all these other aspects of the business.
What’s the biggest challenge you face in running stores on two coasts—as well as an online store?
One of the biggest challenges is coordinating product. Not all the same wines are available on both coasts at the same time, so from a sales and marketing perspective, that makes things a bit tricky. We’re constantly working on how to maximize our efforts, and this certainly makes things complicated sometimes. We’re getting there, though.
How do you use your retail business as a platform to educate customers about wine, and why is that important to you and your business?
My philosophy on wine education is to make it accessible, friendly, and fun to people regardless of their degree of knowledge. When I was in my restaurants, I would teach the servers and captains about wine in one way but would talk about it in a totally different way with the sommeliers. We’d take the same approach with guests in the restaurant, and I believe in that tailored approach. Our goal is to always make it fun, no matter what level you’re at. We use all of our various channels to educate our customers—social media, email, our blog site, and our physical shops, where, in addition to speaking directly with guests when they come in for a bottle, we put on various types of tasting events and parties that allow our guests to interact with wine in different ways that speak to them. Ultimately, we make efforts to take advantage of all of these touch points to educate in a fun way that brings people more value—that’s our goal.
What’s your number one piece of business management advice?
Surround yourself with kick-ass people and know your own personal strengths and weaknesses. Hiring great people that are better than you at important aspects of the business makes all the difference in the world.
What was the epiphany that originally led you to choose wine as your career?
It wasn’t really an epiphany as much as it was that I was just really enjoying wine and wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do with my life at the time, so I decided to follow my heart and my interests—and pour all of my efforts into learning as much as I could about wine and working at the best places that would have me.
If you had to guess, about how many wines would you say you’ve blind-tasted and formally evaluated for professional purposes?
What bottle—or producer—are you particularly excited about right now, and why?
I know it’s a little trendy at the moment, but I’m loving everything from the Comando G team in Sierra de Gredos, Spain. They make super-pretty, perfumed Grenache from old vines planted on decomposed granite and sand soils. They are the Château Rayas of Spain. Delicious!
What’s next for you?
We’re planning another expansion of Verve Wine, going into the Chicago market later this year, where we’ll be opening our largest store to date. The restaurant world is also starting to pull me back into its grasp, so there will be some news on that soon. Beyond that, I’m working really hard on my health, and finding balance and focus in my life, and I’m really loving that pursuit. It’s a challenge to maintain a healthy lifestyle while working in this industry, but I’m finding my ways to make that work, and I find the more I focus on that, the better I become with my work, so it’s an incredible cycle.
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Jen Laskey is the former executive editor of SevenFifty Daily. She is also an award-winning wine, spirits, and lifestyle writer and editor based in New York City, an associate judge for the IWSC, and a WSET-certified advanced somm and Diploma candidate.