A Sommelier's Rise to the Cellar

Sommelier Carlton McCoy Photo © C2 Photography
By Ray Isle Posted March 20, 2015

Carlton McCoy grew up in what used to be the murder capital of America; today, he oversees one of the country’s most rarefied wine lists. Here’s how he did it—and the age-worthy bottles that are his life’s work.

Carlton McCoy grew up in what used to be the murder capital of America; today, he oversees one of the country’s most rarefied wine lists. Here’s how he did it—and the age-worthy bottles that are his life’s work.

You grew up in Anacostia, in Washington, DC—a pretty rough neighborhood, and not exactly wine central, right?

No, Mad Dog 20/20 is more like the bottle you’d see there. It was a very dangerous place; I’m not going to be shy about that. When I was growing up it was the murder capital of the country.

Going from there to wine director at Aspen, Colorado’s Little Nell hotel is a huge transformation. How’d it happen?

I know—I look back and I think, You’ve got to be kidding me. But my grandmother had a small catering company that she ran out of our church. We’d do banquets for, like, 300 people. I’d finish school, and before I could even start my homework I’d have to put in three or four hours in the kitchen. Other kids would say, “I’m going to go play basketball,” and I’d say, “OK, I’m going to go home and make deviled eggs for 300 people.”

How did your friends react?

They’d just look at me, like, “You’re what?” But to me, “We’re going to go throw a ball around” sounded boring. “We’re going to peel potatoes,” with my family—that was interesting.

Even so, jumping from apprentice deviled egg maker to Master Sommelier is quite a leap.

What changed everything for me was C-CAP [the Careers Through Culinary Arts Program]. They host culinary competitions and give cooking school scholarships to inner-city kids. And I won the final. In one year I went from being this troubled kid to winning a full ride to the Culinary Institute of America.

When did you get into wine?

When I met Andy Myers, who was the sommelier at CityZen in Washington, DC. I was waiting tables, and Andy would grab me after service and we’d blind-taste till 3 in the morning. I was learning so much: It was like, game on.

What was the best lesson he taught you?

Andy was big into Chenin Blanc. One Tuesday he opened this Coteaux du Layon, and I remember him saying, “This is good, but it’s going to be great after three days in the fridge.” I thought, Is this guy insane? How could a bottle 
of wine be better after three days? Three days later he grabbed me and said, “Here, taste this.” I didn’t even know it was the same wine, and I was like, “Oh, my God—what is this?” It was gorgeous. He’d just stuck a cork in it and chucked 
it in the fridge. It was the coolest thing.

At The Little Nell, you get a lot of wine collectors as customers. What are they after right now in terms of high-end wines?

More northern Rhône wines. That’s amazing. Take Monier Perréol, this tiny little producer in Saint-Joseph—I love pouring that by the glass. A few years ago no one would have had a clue what it was. But people want more elegant, more complex wines now.

What about Bordeaux and Burgundy?

The market is flooded with old Bordeaux. I mean, do you want a case 
of ’61 Lafite? I can get it for you within two hours. People think old Bordeaux is rare, and it’s not. The collectors I see aren’t looking for Bordeaux; they want Burgundy, Rhône, Barolo, northern Italian. And Burgundy’s great, but look, in a few years the words reasonably priced and Burgundy won’t even fit in the same paragraph anymore.

What are you excited about?

Old California Cabernet. I got an offer two weeks ago for 10 cases of old Diamond Creek, for $100 a bottle. 
These were early-’80s wines, and they’re beautiful. You can find even better deals than that. On the auction market, for $50 or $60 a bottle, you can drink really well. Incredible wines, subtle in a way that a lot of Napa Cab isn’t right now, already aged, and they’re gorgeous.

Master Sommeliers are supposed to be infallible, but have you ever had anything go horribly wrong while you were on the floor?

I’m extremely clumsy. I seem put together, but I’m not. And this one big New York collector was in here drinking two bottles of ’05 Meursault-Perrières, a Coche-Dury and a Roulot. Together, those wines cost about $1,500. I was running around, it was really hectic, and I poured the wrong wine into the wrong half-full glass.

What did you do? Or, maybe I should ask, what did he do?

I could have freaked out, but what I did was I stopped, looked at him and said, “OK, that’s now the single most expensive village Meursault ever made.” The guy could have totally told me to go screw myself. But he laughed, chucked the glass out and said, “OK, let’s start over.” It could have been a disaster. But people read off your energy. It’s like when a child falls down. If you cry, they cry. But if you laugh, they laugh, too. At least that’s what you hope for.

7 Collectible Bottles
Carlton McCoy recommends great wines to seek out.  

2013 Georges Descombes Morgon ($26)
“I’ve heard there was once a time when cru Beaujolais was more expensive than grand cru Le Chambertin! That won’t happen again, but just in case, I’d buy some of this lovely one before prices creep up.”

2012 Monier Perréol Saint- Joseph ($36)
“This is one of those northern Rhône producers where in 10 years I’ll be like, ‘Holy crap, I used to pour that by the glass and now no one can find it!’ Density, elegance, pure Syrah fruit—it’s got the whole package. I’m case-stacking as much of it in my own house as I can.”

2008 Olivier Horiot En Barmont Sève Rosé Champagne ($54)
“Olivier sources his grapes—100 percent Pinot Noir in this case—from a tiny plot in the village of Les Riceys in the Aube, and ferments in oak for richness and sweeter aromatics.”

2012 Cristom Vineyards Louise Vineyard Pinot Noir ($58)
“Steve Doerner gets overlooked, but, honestly, his wines are delicious. For me, in Oregon, he’s numero uno. And 2012 is a spectacular vintage there.”

2012 Patrick Piuze Grand Cru Blanchots ($75)
“I’m an absolute Chablis freak, but the prices on superstars like Raveneau or Dauvissat have shot up crazily. Patrick Piuze’s wines are affordable and have unmatchable focus, tension and energy.”

2002 Disznókó 6 Puttonyos ($100)
“Every collector would love to walk into his or her cellar and see a wall of Château d’Yquem, but not many can afford that plus their child’s education. Tokaji’s an excellent alternative. This one has great freshness and vibrancy, and will age almost forever.”

1987 Burgess Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon ($140)
“Napa Valley’s Burgess Cellars still has plenty of late-’80s vintages for sale directly from the winery that are drinkingbeautifully, like this one. It’s not inexpensive, but for a great wine that’s 
28 years old, I think it’s a bargain.”

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