Dustin Wilson oversees a Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning wine program at New York's Eleven Madison Park and has just released the first vintage of his own wine label, Vallin. But Wilson, 33, stumbled upon wine accidentally. Employed by restaurants since he was 15 as a busboy, dishwasher and line cook, he found himself waiting tables at a Baltimore steak house during college. The establishment had a wine list, but no sommelier. "I bought a couple books, just so I could be OK at my job," Wilson admits, "and it blossomed from there."
Wilson's résumé is enviable: After stints at Boulder, Colo., restaurant Frasca Food and Wine, Aspen's The Little Nell and RN74 in San Francisco, he landed the coveted role of wine director at the Michelin three-star Eleven Madison Park in October 2011, just a few months after earning the notoriously elusive Master Sommelier diploma—an achievement chronicled in the recent documentary Somm. Wilson sat down with editorial assistant Esther Mobley to discuss how he's transformed the wine list at Eleven Madison Park, why he loves Syrah and what it's like to see himself on film.
Wine Spectator: How did you get started as a sommelier?
Dustin Wilson: I'd wanted to get an MBA and be in the business world, [but] it was working at Frasca under Bobby [Stuckey] where I realized that I could actually pursue wine as a career. [Bobby is] a super-inspiring guy. He lives and breathes hospitality and restaurants and wine, but he's also very business-savvy, and he's an athlete. I was like, "Wow, this guy is legit! I could be like that!" That was where I decided to make it my life.
WS: How have you changed the wine program at Eleven Madison Park?
DW: The list itself has evolved a great deal. Before, there was nothing from the Southern Hemisphere; that whole half of the world didn't exist. Now we've got a pretty good representation of New York wines here. We've got a lot of funky things from southern France, from off-the-beaten-path Loire areas and other backwater regions. I've also tried to expand a couple pages of white wines that are all from funky grapes.
WS: What are you drinking these days with your friends?
DW: I drink a lot of Northern Rhône wine right now. I would say I started really getting into Rhône wines a little over two years ago, while I was working at RN74. I've always liked Burgundy, and it was there, when we started drinking older Chave and older Syrah, and even some Southern Rhône stuff, that I started getting into that world. My buddies and I, when we get together, like to crack open a lot of Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage, Cornas, St.-Joseph. Everything from the Northern Rhône is our favorite thing right now.
WS: What draws you to that region?
DW: Syrah tends to be misunderstood here in the United States. I think people have a hard time categorizing it. It's not Pinot Noir, because it's denser, more tannic, firmer, meatier. But it's not big, juicy, supple and mouthfilling like Cabernet. It's not always fruity; it's meaty and animal and peppery, and it smells like bacon and olives. It's very savory. It's [got] a flavor profile, structure and mouthfeel that people aren't quite sure how to handle.
WS: Why did you choose Santa Barbara for your wine label, Vallin?
DW: California right now is one of the most exciting places in the world, because you're starting to see a big pendulum shift [from] some of the more high-octane, big, powerful, extracted styles of wine. There are a lot of younger winemakers creating wines with a little bit more balance and finesse. Lower alcohol is certainly a hot topic right now, [as well as] trying to find things that showcase more varietal characteristics and some terroir. We like Santa Barbara because it's a wild frontier down there. There's great terroir but not a lot of producers, so you can find really great cool-climate sites. Not to mention it's a beautiful place to visit.
WS: What is it like for you to re-watch Somm?
DW: It's like a trip down memory lane. A lot of nostalgia is involved. So many people take that exam, and it's such an important part of their life. And then that moment when they pass is so memorable. For me, it's very special to be able to actually get to watch it on film and relive that.