Shifting Gears

How Dustin Wilson’s Restaurant Roles Set Him Up for Success as a Retailer

Calling on his customer service experience and industry connections were just the first step

Dustin Wilson
Photo by Lana Bortolot.

It’s hard not to ask Dustin Wilson about Somm, the 2013 documentary that tracked his journey—and those of three other candidates—to the Master Sommelier exam and yielded considerably more than 15 minutes of fame. It’s a question he good-naturedly fields, saying simply, “It was an amazing experience,” and then quickly moving on to talk about geography, skiing, and popping corks with some of the industry’s top sommeliers.

His leading role in the film was just one of a few star turns that helped propel Wilson forward in his career. The 38-year-old worked at Frasca Food & Wine in Boulder, Colorado, under the tutelage of Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey and at Aspen’s Little Nell, before he headed to San Francisco to work at the recently closed RN74 with Rajat Parr—all within a 10-year period.

It was during his tenure as a sommelier at RN74, in 2011, that he studied for and passed the MS exam. Six months later, he was on the floor as the wine director of Manhattan’s Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park. Four years after that, late in 2016, Wilson shifted gears dramatically, leaving the floor to open Verve, a fine-wine store in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood, with veteran wine merchant Derrick Mize. The shop recently celebrated its first anniversary, and Wilson has yet to catch his breath.

Setting Out

Wilson’s goals unfolded in stages, he explains, with each job giving him more insight into the next. The store was entirely new territory. “[It] was a really fun opportunity for me to get out of my comfort zone a little bit,” he says, “and get into a world I really didn’t know a lot about—and get to run.”

A native of Maryland, Wilson originally fell into the hospitality field, working in restaurants to pay the bills while he sorted out his interests. He first studied business, then switched to geography at Towson University in his home state. An avid skier, he often found himself studying maps and weather patterns to get a better understanding of why it snowed more in certain areas. “Staring at maps all day, and mountain ranges [was] fascinating because I could tie it into my interest in skiing,” he says. He decided to take an extended gap year on Colorado’s slopes to help clear his head before he settled on a career path. While there, he discovered his love for winean extension, he says, of his interest in geography. During his time in Colorado, his passion developed into a full obsession, and while working at Frasca, he found a ready mentor in Stuckey, who encouraged him to enroll in the Court of Master Sommeliers program.

Says Stuckey, “I knew Dustin had the [discipline], and that he would get through it, because he had a really great work ethic and set himself up for success.”

But Wilson knew that to pass the exam he’d have to work with a much larger wine program than Frasca’s, with exposure to more of the classics. That drove him to The Little Nell (where Stuckey is an alum), and then to RN74, the latter he describes as a strategic move. “RN74 offered me the opportunity to work in a bigger city in a bigger community of wine people with sommeliers who were all studying and preparing for the same exam,” Wilson says, noting that Parr’s philosophy of opening great wines and putting them in context—showing examples of exceptional Burgundies or first-growth Bordeaux—“offered an alternative point of view on wine.”

Parr, now a partner at Domaine de la Côte winery in Lompoc, California, recalls Wilson as “extremely passionate and open—and ready to taste with an open mind.” He says that “even though [Wilson] was almost an MS, he had a lot of humility and [desire] to learn.”

New Goals

But even when he passed the exam, Wilson was left with a goal not yet achieved. “I knew in the back of my mind,” he says, “that I wanted to run a program in a two- to three-star Michelin environment.”

He was interviewing for a position at Meadowood Napa Valley when Stuckey called him about an opportunity at Eleven Madison Park. At the time, Wilson wasn’t keen on returning to the East Coast. Meadowood, he says, had all the features he was seeking, while Eleven Madison Park had only one star at the time (it now has three). But on Stuckey’s advice, he flew to New York for an interview and to spend some time on the floor there.

“You could tell there was this energy about them, that they were on the rise and something special was happening,” says Wilson. “It became much more clear that I’d be an idiot to not go for the job or at least try really hard.” A week later, he was the restaurant’s wine director.

He recalls being nervous walking into the restaurant on his first day. “I felt like I had the experience I needed and had good wine knowledge … I had all the tools, but this was the first time I was put into a spotlight position where I was kind of onstage—not just in front of the restaurant and guests but the wine world of New York. I could feel the eyes on me.”

With time, Wilson says, he got over his jitters and found joy in exploring new wines and gradually putting his stamp on the wine list. Taking his cue from his mentors, he pushed learning and tasting. “[Every week] we talked about our philosophy and what we were trying to say with our wine program—that was a continuous conversation,” he says. “There was very definitely a powerful wine culture there, … and we kept growing and growing that.”

Eleven Madison Park’s current wine director, Cedric Nicaise, who credits Wilson for setting him up to succeed him, says his former boss was not only “able to take a great wine program and make it even better” but elevated service on a personal level. “He is able to balance an incredible amount of knowledge with the ability to disarm guests with his humility,” says Nicaise. ”He makes service look effortless and fun … and is able to convey his passion to his guests.”  

From the Floor to the Store

Wilson says he thought Eleven Madison Park would be his last job on the floor, either because he’d be a “lifer” or because he’d leave for something completely different. An ongoing yearning for a greater amount of personal time, as well as the pressure of the city’s intense competitive environment, caused him to think outside the restaurant box. When he met his Verve cofounder, he realized that together, he and Mize could fill a gap they both saw in New York by creating a high-quality shop that combined a great walk-in experience with a robust online presence.

“For me, it seemed like a big opportunity,” says Wilson. He lets out a laugh and adds, “Frankly, if I’d known anything about the business, maybe I would’ve thought twice about it.”

They created a business plan and financial pro forma and talked to “a zillion people,” including former business school professors. “I just got as many experienced eyes on it as possible,” Wilson says, “and then we tweaked and tweaked for about eight months before even approaching investors.”

Even then, their plans didn’t immediately take off. Wilson and Mize hit the streets and got used to hearing no about potential locations. They kept running into local zoning problems with potential spaces—for example, new liquor licenses cannot be issued within 200 feet of a school or place of worship in New York City, or within 500 feet of an existing licensee. Wilson watched the clock tick and his nest egg dwindle. Then the partners found a former wine shop on Hubert Street and bought its liquor retail license, solving what had been one of their most difficult hurdles.

A year later, the store has five full-time employees. Wilson doesn’t know precisely how many SKUs it has, but he says the e-commerce site offers more than 200 producers. In their new venture, he and Mize wear—and swap—lots of hats, but for the most part, Mize handles the back office while Wilson tends to customers and handles marketing, sales, education, and the website.

Wilson says he’s still learning about all the ways in which retail differs from restaurants, noting that restaurants can craft their voice through creativity and artistry, whereas “in retail, customers start to drive more of your decision making.”

However, he says, “the one thing we try to keep fairly constant is a pretty tight [selection] of smaller, family-owned, well-made wines, true to their terroir and grape producers.”

Wilson says that though little prepared him for his new role as a store owner, each step in his career gave him an entry into the next. He says that acquiring knowledge about business, geography, and then enology and wine service, and surrounding himself with a community of like-minded associates has been critical to his career. He also credits years of building relationships in the hospitality industry with helping him pitch investors and eventually secure funding for Verve.

“I think the connections [I made] in the wine world really helped prepare me for a much easier experience [in retail] than someone [who’d] randomly decide to do this,” he says, “and I’m super grateful for that.”

Retail, he adds, is “super fun, but just not as sexy as being in a restaurant. If you like taking care of people and you love being around a lot of wine, it’s a great move.”

Lana Bortolot has written on food and wine for Dow Jones, Wine Enthusiast, Saveur, and other magazines of the wine and spirits trade. She reported on community development and arts and culture for the Wall Street Journal and New York Post and on design for Entrepreneur magazine. She holds the Wine & Spirit Education Trust’s Level 3 Advanced Certification and is working on the Level 4 Diploma. Having covered most European wine regions and a few in South America, she is always looking to add a new wine-stained stamp to her passport.

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