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A master sommelier — and a film star

Verve Wine’s Dustin Wilson returns for a third installment of the Somm film series.


For me, becoming a sommelier meant taking part in something much larger than myself. Working with a team of like-minded individuals on a restaurant crew for the greater goal of unforgettable hospitality really excited me.

I was totally ready for the overall restaurant scene, challenging as it was at times. But taking part in a three-part film documentary along the way was completely unexpected.

In 2009, I had just passed the advanced sommelier exam in Anaheim, as did another classmate, Brian McClintic. I began working as a sommelier at the Little Nell in Aspen, and Brian happened to be on the hunt for a job. Luckily, the Little Nell had an opening and Brian immediately moved to Colorado.  When we realized we had a mutual plan to pursue the master sommelier exam, we became study partners. The following year, during one of our many tasting sessions, Brian said he had a friend who wanted to make a film, and asked if he could film our studies. I agreed, not thinking much of it.

Later that year, I headed to Napa to take the rigorous M.S. exam for the first time, passing service on the first try. But the theory portion of the exam — a verbal test in which candidates are asked a series of questions about anything and everything to do with wine — was another story. The theory exam in 2010 was notoriously difficult; only one person out of 60 passed. It was there that I first saw Jason Wise, the director of Somm, who was relentlessly following and filming Ian Cauble, another M.S. candidate.

The theory exam also defeated my good friend Sabato Sagaria, a colleague at the Little Nell. We drowned our disappointment in buckets of tequila and wine at Ana’s Cantina, proceeding to drunkenly execute an epic karaoke rendition of Jay-Z. After our cringe-worthy performance, Jason approached us, along with Ian and some other guys, offering to drive us back to his place to hang out. This was the first time I met Jason — drunk, foolish and totally out of my element. We headed back and hung out for a bit, but nothing further came of it. Not then, anyway.

In the fall of 2010, I moved to San Francisco to become a sommelier at RN74, then in SOMA. Brian also moved to the city to work with a new bar called Treasury. We continued to study intensely, and created a larger tasting group with some industry colleagues. Jason began filming our group, crashing at our apartment and following us around, incessantly filming. Before we knew it, the first documentary was officially in progress. I passed the M.S. exam in Dallas in February 2011 just as the film was wrapping up, and that became part of the story.

In September 2011 I moved to New York, now officially a master sommelier. I accepted the highly sought-after wine director position at Eleven Madison Park. Summer of 2012 came along, and Jason sent me a DVD of his film, titled Somm. “Wow,” I remember thinking to myself. “People might actually watch this.”

The film landed the marquee spot on the opening night of the Napa Valley Film Festival in November 2012 — and then spread like wildfire. By early 2013, it was available on iTunes, Netflix, you name it. In fact, the film found so much success that Jason immediately created a sequel, Somm: Into the Bottle, in which I had a few cameos.

Then this past winter Jason told me he planned to create Somm 3 and proposed we film a tasting. I wanted to make this one super special, so I gathered a group of top sommeliers in New York and put together a blind tasting, a la the infamous Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976 when California wines outshined French wines.

Pinot noir would be the focus. The tasting went incredibly well — so well, in fact, that Jason totally changed the direction of the third film. Just a few weeks later, we were on a plane flying to Paris, ready to meet, taste and film with wine world luminaries Fred Dame, Jancis Robinson and Steven Spurrier — but that’s all I can share for the moment.

After standing on stage for the Somm premiere at the Napa Valley Film Festival, I put in four years at Eleven Madison Park. In 2015, I left to start my own retail business. My vision was to bring wine retail into a new era by elevating the in-store experience and adding a heavy focus on e-commerce, while remaining focused on delicious, handmade wines that reflect the area they come from.

We launched in December of 2016 with a Verve Wine shop in the Tribeca neighborhood of New York and our e-commerce site, vervewine.com.

Then in June of this year we opened the doors to our second location, in San Francisco at 2358 Fillmore Street. And this month I’m thrilled that the third installation of Jason’s film series, Somm 3, will premiere at the Clay Theatre, just a block down the street from our shop, on October 25.

When I first began pursuing wine, I never thought the endgame would look as it does now, but I wouldn’t change a thing. The places the Somm films have taken me, the opportunities I’ve been presented with because of them — and, most of all, the people I’ve met along the way — have changed my life in a way that often finds me at a loss for words.

I’ve loved every bit of this journey — and I look fourward (see what I did there?) to any future collaborations.

Somm 3 premieres in San Francisco on October 25 at a one-night screening at the Clay Theatre at 2261 Fillmore, with a reception beforehand and a Q&A afterward. Advance tickets are available here.