How to Pass the Master Sommelier Exam
Plus More Tips from Verve Wine Co-Founder Dustin Wilson
It’s not easy to remove the intimidation factor from wine. Save for sommeliers and connoisseurs, most people get a little squirmy when it comes to talking about wine — a fact that makes wine buying a challenge. Dustin Wilson, master sommelier and co-founder of Verve Wine, wants to make wine more accessible to everyone.
With both an online and brick and mortar presence, Verve Wine aims to educate customers and help them buy, order and enjoy wine with confidence. ICE is excited to welcome Dustin as one of the featured participants in the next First Fridays at ICE on April 7. In anticipation, we chatted with Dustin about his path to Verve and picked his brain for some seasonal wine recs.
When did wine shift from a hobby to a career path for you?
I would say it first became a hobby when I was living in Maryland. I was working at a steak house and I got really interested in wine from being around it on a regular basis. So I started reading and studying it and tasting more often. But it wasn’t until I moved to Boulder, Colorado in 2005 and started working with Bobby Stuckey at Frasca’s Food and Wine that I realized that there was potential to work as a sommelier and have wine as a career path. Bobby is a master sommelier and he was my first mentor.
You’re a master sommelier also, right?
Correct. I passed the exam in 2011.
I’ve heard it’s a pretty intense test, to say the least.
It is indeed.
Tell me about preparing for that. What was the training like?
The majority of it is self-taught, so you don’t go to class for it. In order to get good, you need to have a great support system of wine people around you who are also pursuing it. It would be incredibly difficult to prepare for it on your own, without guidance. It took me basically from the time I started pursuing it until I actually passed, so a five year process.
Yes. It’s a lot of studying. You know, leading up to the time when I passed, I was putting in a solid 3-4 hours of study time on days that I was working. Then on days off it would be another 8-12 hours of study time. Tasting all the time, studying all the time with my group. It was definitely all-encompassing. I didn’t have a lot of free time.
After working as a sommelier for some time, you started Verve Wine. Can you share a little more about Verve?
Verve is a place to learn about, discover and buy wine online. We also have a physical store in Tribeca. We focus on small, artisanal producers from all over the globe, but we’re very particular about the producers that we carry. We like family owned estates that very much respect their land and make wines that are true to their sense of place.
So it’s a process of curation — finding great wines from all over the world at different prices, everything from ten-dollar picks to those that cost thousands of dollars. We really wanted to create a place that makes finding and learning about wine accessible for a lot of people. That’s our main focus — making wine accessible and making it fun without dumbing it down. Also we make sure we provide top quality wines.
I was checking out your website and, like you said, it does seem very accessible. I work in food so I found the tool where you can search wines by food pairings very useful.
Exactly. We realized that people like to shop for wine in various ways. Some people go in and know exactly what they’re looking for. Some people are looking for a particular grape or region. Other people look for wine to go with a certain type of food. There’s also an “occasions” feature, so if you’re looking for wine for brunch versus Valentine’s Day or Thanksgiving, we put together curated lists of wines that fit each occasion.
And that’s just the website! Do you also do in-house wine education?
Yes. We host tastings pretty often and they cover a wide range of topics. Sometimes we do a casual tasting — like on Thursdays, we open up a couple of bottles from a region and people can come, taste and we talk with them about the wines.
Other times, we’ll invite winemakers or sommeliers and host on a seminar where we taste through their wines or a specific region and talk more in-depth about it. This Friday we have Richard Betts, another master sommelier coming in to do a tasting of a wine he makes plus some other wines that are similar to his. We want people to come to the store to learn and taste, not just buy.
It seems like all the master sommeliers know each other. Do you guys and girls all hang out and open magnums together?
Sometimes. It’s definitely a small community of people. At this point I think there’s only around 230 worldwide. We tend to all know each other. I am buddies with some of them and we get together on a regular basis. We’re always supportive of each other in our respective endeavors. A lot of us got to know each other through the process of studying for the exam. Some of my best friends are guys I took the master sommelier exam with.
That makes sense. Circling back to the First Fridays event you’re taking part in at ICE — The Craft of Food, Wine & Chocolate — do you have any pairing suggestions for wine and chocolate?
It depends on the type of chocolate. If you’re having a bitter, dark chocolate on its own, I like something called Banyuls. It’s actually the name of a place in southern France that makes a really delicious fortified wine — kind of similar to port but a slightly different flavor and texture to it that I think works really well with bitter chocolate.
Let’s say you’re having a chocolate truffle or something with caramel or fruit inside — I’d recommend this interesting wine from Austria that’s a sweet wine, late harvest made from a grape called Zweigelt. You definitely want something that will match up with the sweetness of the chocolate. The pairing would change depending on the other flavors with the chocolate, if any. If you’re having a chocolate with peanuts or almonds, you might want a vin santo from Italy.
That seems counterintuitive to me. I would think you’d want a contrast in flavors — like if you have a creamy chocolate, you’d want an acidic wine.
All of these wines actually have a lot of acidity. Because they’re sweet, they need to have a lot of acidity; otherwise the wines would feel cloying and overly rich. But if you were to pair a dry red wine with chocolate, it would be a clash because the chocolate, which is so sweet, would make the wine taste even drier. You don’t want a wine that’s sweeter, you just want to match the sweetness.
Since it’s Spring, can you give us a pairing for a seasonal meal, such as roasted chicken with spring vegetables?
Chardonnay from Burgundy handles itself really well. It tends to be lighter, brighter and fresher than a California Chardonnay, for instance. That would be great with roasted chicken. For spring dishes, especially at this time of year when the sun is starting to come out and things are warming up, I’d recommend crisp, bright, more mineral-driven whites. Things like Gruner Veltliner, Albariño, etc. Sancerre can definitely be a great spring wine, especially with something like roasted asparagus. That goes really well Sauvignon Blanc.
Thank you, Dustin. We’re looking forward to seeing you at ICE soon!
Learn more about First Fridays at ICE.