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Eleven Madison Park's Dustin Wilson on Why Being a Sommelier Is a Lifestyle

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Photo: Francesco Tonelli

Dustin Wilson is the current wine director at New York's three-star Michelin Eleven Madison Park and one of four aspiring Master Sommeliers (he has since passed the exam) that are the subject of a new documentary from Jason Wise called SOMM. In the following interview he talks about whether a wine list can be innovative, the competitiveness of the New York sommelier scene, why being a successful sommelier is more of a lifestyle than it is a job, and how he hopes SOMM will enlighten the general public.

How did you get into wine?
I've worked in restaurants my entire life. Started flipping burgers in high school and then waited tables in college. Junior year I got a job at a steakhouse in Baltimore. I didn't know anything, but had to talk to guests about it. So, originally it piqued my interest because I didn't understand it. I started casually reading about wine and it grabbed me. I enjoyed the topic, and reading about it, and the way you can travel through the glass when you start to understand where it comes from. It was a bug I never got to shake. What's cool is that, as you know, it's one of those things you can dig deeper and deeper into. The rabbit hole seems to never end.

So you move to Colorado and worked your way up from busboy to wine buyer at Frasca, went to the Little Nell in Aspen, and then to RN74 in San Francisco right before heading to New York. What was it like coming from SF to NY?
It's hard to explain. In SF wine is much more fun; in New York wine is taken much more seriously – and I don't mean that in a negative way. In SF we had a great time with our sleeves rolled up in jeans and sneakers slinging the same kind of wines I serve here in a suit and tie in a three-star Michelin dining room. That kind of encapsulates the difference for me. One big difference is that most of the restaurants in SF are serving more domestic wine and CA wine than European wines, and in New York it's flipped. But I was also living in a different world at RN74 than most SF restaurants.

Is New York as competitive, in comparison to SF, as people say it is?
Yes, definitely. You can't just relax in NY; you have to push if you want your program to get noticed. You have to be in the face of the public, and you have to do things to get yourself out there more than you would in SF. But at the same time I love hanging out with other sommeliers around town, and when we do hang we have fun and we drink good wine; it's friendship, it's not about trying to get closer to figure out what they're doing. So there's a weird balance: it's definitely more serious and more competitive but there is a tight knit group of people supportive of each other.

To your point about being out there, a lot of sommeliers are quick to brand themselves as unofficial evangelists for certain regions or wines to try and garner some attention. Nothing wrong with that, but do you feel pressure to push and differentiate yourself?
Definitely. I am lucky that I'm at an amazing restaurant that gets plenty of attention. I don't want to say my job is easy – because it is demanding – but as far as having a program that gets noticed, it's much harder for someone to get their program noticed at a restaurant that's not on everyone's radar than it is for me. So at EMP I'm lucky; it makes life easier, but I do still feel pressure to differentiate myself from other programs and not fall into the mold of being just another wine program. Because the sommelier community is growing and wine programs are getting more attention, you have to find ways to get your program out there, and find ways to give yourself some character. So, yeah, latching on to specific regions, or particular producers, or using social media—all these things play such a huge role in finding success in this business. You have to kind of have it on your mind all of the time.

Do you feel like doing a good job and putting together a great wine list isn't enough to be successful in this business anymore, and that you have to be out and networking and on social media and pushing?
Like you said, it's probably like this with any business, but as our industry grows, and the sommelier community grows, it becomes more cutthroat. These days if you are trying to be a successful sommelier it's more than just a job, it's a complete lifestyle. Everyone I hang out with is a wine person. Most of my time off is doing wine related things like going to tastings and visiting wine regions.

In a restaurant like EMP that is always trying to innovate, how do you mirror that in the wine program? Or is innovation not part of the wine list's role there? I've always felt like that must be a challenge.
It's definitely tough because unlike a chef that can create a myriad of different flavors, and play around with presentation, we are essentially limited to popping a bottle and pouring it into a glass. You have to look at the different aspects of what we can control and play with. Size of bottles has been played around with a lot lately. Thanks to Michael Madrigale and Jordan Salcito, I think that's caught on. Trying to find new producers in interesting regions — and grape varieties that people aren't familiar with — that you are passionate about and can turn people on to is a way to innovate. How you pair food and wine, thinking about that from different points of view, can be a way to innovate. But you can't just say, "I don't like these flavors anymore," and clean the slate and develop five new dishes. You have to instead ask yourself: How can I evolve service and the types of tools we use? How can I evolve the pairings and the types of wines we serve? We try to introduce funky off-the-beaten-path wines, but in a three-star Michelin restaurant it's harder because people are mostly looking for the classics. So, we are trying to think about service in different ways.

Let's talk SOMM. For a lot of people is this sort of validating thing for sommeliers or symbolic of the new attention being paid to sommeliers. What do you think, several weeks after the premiere, the takeaway has been for people?
I think it was amazing because I struck me was the people coming up after and saying, "Wow, I had no idea how much goes into what you guys do for a living." I think that understanding will be the most exciting outcome. It's hard for me to know what the public perception of a sommelier is. Maybe some people know how much work goes into it, but I think a lot of people think that we just drink wine and hang out. So, for me, I am hoping that the film does give the general public some insight so they can understand that, "Hey, this is a legitimate career path and something that can be taken very seriously. And it does take a lot of work and effort to be successful at it, like anything else." Hopefully that will translate into guests giving the sommelier more trust and flexibility when dining in a restaurant, and maybe inspire them to listen to what they have to say a little more. I am hoping that's the takeaway.

Sommelier certification has inspired plenty of debate in the wine world. The movie will likely reignite this. How important is sommelier certification, in your mind, for the new generation coming up?
I guess it depends on what you're going to use if for. When I first got into wine, guys [like Bobby Stuckey] were Master Sommeliers and they were the guys I looked up to and the guys who inspired me. So, that got me on that path from the beginning. What made me continue on that path was the fact that it gave me structure and discipline and focus. I am kind of an ADD guy, so if I don't have something that I have to do, I get distracted. Years ago when I thought I wanted to go back to school to get an MBA, I wanted to feel like I was giving that up to pursue something equally tangible. But do I think you need it? Absolutely not. Wine is one of those things you can learn just as much about from not taking any exams, than taking exams. For some people like me who like the discipline and structure and the challenge, it's great. But if you are asking whether you need it to be whole in this industry ? No, I don't think so.

Region of affection at the moment?
Northern Rh?ne.

Favorite wine lists in New York?
The list I look at a lot and get jealous of: Daniel.

Rest of the country?
Frasca. I still think what those guys are doing is amazing and it's grown so much since I've been there. And to be in the middle of the country, in Boulder, and to have the knowledge they do is pretty cool.

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Eleven Madison Park

11 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10010

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