I recently ran into Dustin at Edible’s Brooklyn Uncorked wine tasting event that my friend Meg had organized. I had seen the SOMM documentaries many times, but I also recognized him from a mutual friend’s photos taken during a wine-tasting trip to Corsica. As he poured me a glass of a deliciously layered Santa Barbara chardonnay, I felt like our encounter was a bit whimsical, so I asked if I could interview him.
Dustin is not only a prominent figure and entrepreneur in the wine world, but super humble, easy going and laid back which is such a delight when you meet someone of his stature.
I admire his passion and clear excellence in his understanding of wine, and entrepreneurial drive to leverage his Master Somm title for a new type of wine delivery service. Here’s what we spoke about:
Was there a distinct moment for you that propelled you into a career of working with wine, or was it more of an organic journey?
There really wasn’t an exact moment – it was more of an organic way of finding an eventual career in wine. I’m from Maryland and started working at a steakhouse, and there was no official somm or wine program so I just started to teach myself about the wines I was serving. With all of the one – off tastings my fascination grew and I began to read a lot. The combination of disciplines associated with wine in general I just found to be really appealing – from culture, geography, food, etc. – all of these elements really enable you to essentially travel through the glass. I had no intentions of creating a career in wine, I just followed what I was passionate about and that kept evolving and growing to where I am today.
There are only about 230 master somms in the world – why do you think only 5% of them are women?
I’d say women just weren’t as interested in wine when I was studying 10 years ago, it’s something that seemed to only attract men. But in the past 3-5 years there’s been a huge uptick of women going through the Master Somm exam. The exam is really extensive, there are different levels, and it’s really time consuming because it takes 5 years to complete; essentially every year you complete a different level. So given the process and time to successfully complete, I’d say in the next 5 years we will see more more women passing the exam.
What was the most challenging thing you had to conquer while studying to be a Master Somm?
I’m not the best at time management (laughs) but really it was being able to shove life out of the way completely to focus on studying. The blind tasting* I found to be the hardest – I struggled with that one a lot, and I just had to keep trying to get it right.
Eleven Madison park was just named the best restaurant in the world in April 2017 – though you worked there a few years back, that must have made you proud. What was it like running the wine program there?
Oh wow, EMP was one of the greatest experiences of my career – I don’t mean to sound cheesy but I felt truly honored and lucky to have this experience and work as their wine director and at the time I did so for this restaurant. There are really only 5 restaurants like this in the USA – and at the time that was exactly what I wanted to do. They openly pursued the #1 spot on The World’s Best Restaurant List as a common goal, and the culture at EMP was amazing. Most times the wine program is often left in the shadow of food, so it can be a challenge to standout. I had a team of 6 somms and was really lucky to have such a great team, We thought a lot about what can make a great wine program, and we’d talk every day on ways we could achieve this. We tried hard to get the culture of wine instilled in everyone – we’d do tastings, and talk about the wine with all of the other employees. I was proud and excited for what it turned into – it makes me feel really good to now see the food runners who I worked with during my time there now running wine programs.
So how much would you say your title there as driven by luck? Not to downplay the hard work and ambition, but do you feel there were other factors at play that propelled you into this role?
Getting that job was a combination hard work and luck – I was at the right place at right time – and I can trace that all the way back to working at Frasca in Colorado with Bobby Stuckey (Master Somm and Partner of Frasca Food & Wine in Boulder, CO). I worked hard there and tried to really prove myself, so I credit my time and experience with Bobby a lot get me to where I am today.
How do you find out about who’s doing what in the wine world and where interesting things are happening?
We do a lot of tasting, meet with producers, and travel to places to check out what’s happening in a certain region. Also going to restaurants and talking with the somms there and learning about the wine. Right now I have my eye on Oregon, not so much the Willamette Valley or the Pinots but the producers playing around with grape varieties, so if it feels like there’s something bubbling up in a certain area I’ll want to explore it more. I wonder – are these producers aware of one another are they talking to each other, and I look for the story as to whats happening in a certain place. Right now Spain has a cool thing going on, but I take a lot of mental notes and look for clues to encourage me to explore more and find a story to tell.
The Grand Tour subscribers receive four different bottles each month from the same region in the world, and that region changes every month. How do you decide on what region to feature for your monthly curation of wine?
Haha, we just curate what we think is fun! There’s really not a whole lot of strategy behind it but it’s just what we think is interesting. Seasonality has a lot to do with it, right now we are featuring island wines, but we try to think about what people will want to drink at a certain point in time. In November when its truffle season we will want to feature reds like a Barolo or Barbaresco – because Barolo and truffle is like the best combination ever – or when its time for gift giving we will feature wine like a Chablis or Champagne that we know people like to drink around a certain time of year.
What can subscribers expect from signing up with The Grand Tour by Verve?
They can expect a lot of stories, aside from some really unique wine. We want to educate people in a fun, approachable way, and pass that on. We want to share, and help others feel the same passion that we feel about enjoying and experiencing wine.
* The Master Sommelier exam required the student to taste three red wines and three white wines, to determine the grape, region, and year articulating any identifying traits that will help them solve for the wine in question.
Image credit: Verve Wine