On creativity, leadership, mental health, breaking down the walls of exclusivity in the wine world, and why his business partner calls him the Wine Boss.  

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Carlton McCoy
Credit: Matt Morris

Editor’s note: The news can weigh heavily on all of us during these strange days, and especially on small business owners and employees whose jobs have been altered by the pandemic. We could all use a little inspiration and light. That’s why we’ve launched Best Practices, a new column for F&W Pro, to share how leaders are facing unprecedented challenges head on during the pandemic while still growing personally and professionally.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You can tell a lot about the quality of human beings by watching how their former colleagues interact with them. In June 2019 when Carlton McCoy returned to The Little Nell for the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, it was the former wine director’s first trip back since he took a job as President and CEO of Heitz Cellar in Napa. He was greeted at the door by his former team members with a hero’s welcome of hugs and high fives, and a special gift of limited edition Nike Lebrons.

The Little Nell’s tasting cellar was where McCoy first met his now business partner Gaylon Lawrence Jr., the billionaire investor who purchased Heitz in 2018. Now, in the two short years since McCoy came on board, their partnership has mined the rich history of some of Napa Valley’s most iconic wineries and yielded the kind of growth that has rendered any job title or business card McCoy could print obsolete. He now oversees 70 employees and 10 companies, including seven wineries, along with land holding and sales and marketing operations that could have a lasting impact on Napa Valley for generations to come. 

In many ways the fast growth of their companies mirrors McCoy’s own meteoric rise in the restaurant and wine world. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, he became one of the youngest Master Sommeliers and worked at some of the best fine dining restaurants in the country and came on board as one of Lexus’s Culinary Masters. I spoke to him recently over Zoom about his new career, and how he’s adapted to running 10 companies during a pandemic.

You’ve hired 20 more people since I last talked to you in August. Maybe it's personality or maybe it’s emotional intelligence, but what's that one core thing you're looking for in a new team member?

We have a fairly unique philosophy in the way we operate, both in our company structure and in Napa Valley. A lot of what happens here are big company investments; they're  constantly looking for consolidation or efficiency, saving this, saving that. What we always say is it's very easy to quantify what you save, but it's impossible to quantify what you lost by saving so little. 

Essentially, we’re looking for people who are very comfortable in an environment where there isn't a big infrastructure to support them. They’re not looking for constant pats on the back from a boardroom full of people with big leather chairs.

We definitely invest in our employees properly, but our company is scrappy in a sense that you have to be very entrepreneurial. People depend on structure to make them feel comfortable, they won't work for us. We're looking for people who question authority, who take a bit of a more rebellious approach. And also people who are looking to be a part of what we think will be the new wave of wine from the Napa Valley. That's hard to find.

Is there an overarching name for the culture that you've helped create and translate across these different organizations? 

No. When I first jumped in, I read all the entrepreneurial books. What I realized is that I didn't want to create something that seemed cult-y. I didn't want people to feel like they were part of Apple or something, because that in and of itself creates this feeling of a vacancy.

When we hire people, we don't even bring them in with the other teams. We don't introduce them or anything. I'm the only person they meet. I go, "Great. This is what you're doing. Here's your new winery." We talk about philosophy and we talk about wine making, but we literally treat each winery as if it has nothing to do with anything else.  This is you and that's it. You can talk to the other guys if you like, but you have no required connection. What that does is empower that team to create their own value principles, but under the same overall philosophy or structure. That's the environment that creative people like to work in. They don't want to be a part of a big corporation. They don't want to be a part of a machine.

At the same time, it's very important that we create really safe, secure workplaces where people do feel that they're valued. We stop meetings all the time whenever we feel that things are getting emotional and remind each other to just be kind to each other. That's very important to us. We want people who are invested in what we're doing for the very long term.

What’s your job title now? 

I actually don't have a position. I've already gone through all these positions. I was hired for the CEO of Heitz Cellar, but now we have all of these other companies. That old title doesn’t really make sense.

Then yesterday we were at dinner and Gaylon always makes fun of me because he’s an entrepreneurial type guy; he's never had a business card in his life. He goes, "Carlton, we're going to make you a business card that says Wine Boss. Because I saw an episode of Cake Boss." He thinks it's hilarious. 

That's got a nice ring to it.

At some point I've got to have some sort of business card. It seems very odd—I think most people would feel very unstable [not having a firm job title]. But looking at where we started and where we are now, it's the type of energy that I like to be a part of. When my feet touch the ground every morning, I'm excited to do what we're doing. We're not here for a week, two weeks, two years. Let's build something that in 50 years, we’re still happy with. 

With the moves that you're making, buying up vineyard blocks and winery brands, you and the group are reshaping the physical nature of Napa Valley. But also you're doing things behind the scenes through sales and marketing that could change the way that the Valley operates. That place is a very small bubble. Are you getting any pushback from the old guard? 

No, because in our very purest form, we have done everything in our power to really honor the history of this valley. We feel like there are so many stories in this valley that are still untold that we get really excited about the opportunity to tell them. My goal personally is to be here for the rest of my life, to be in and of this valley. And I know the Lawrences are committed generationally. We’ve become absolute students of how all the wines have been made in this valley from the beginning, from post-prohibition, which is the beginning of the real Napa Valley, up until now. We're still in that learning phase. 

You're a man of a lot of ideas. How have you learned how to prioritize them and pick the ones that you're going to invest your time into?

I’m actually completely out of operations now. So my entire job is looking at those ideas, whether they be something as small as what color that door is going to be or as big as a brand new acquisition, a new estate, bringing on a new team, or bringing on a chief investment officer to look at how we strategize and finance institutions. Everything.

I can't do that if I'm in operations day-to-day in any one of our companies. Having me chained to the ball of one of the companies would inhibit the growth of [Lawrence’s] assets here and what he can do with the investment. Now we can come with an idea, I can put it into place, and then let someone else run it. Empower them, invest in them, let them run it entrepreneurially as their own company. That way I can pretty much just focus on the creation of new ideas. 

Obviously there are ideas that go back to marinate for a little while. Then [Gaylon will] come back to town and we'll pull it back off the burner and we'll stir it a little bit. "Nope, it's not ready yet, put it back there." But a lot of things we decide on very quickly. It's being big, but acting small. That mentality has allowed us to be agile. I can't speed up the rate at which a vine grows to maturity. I can't speed up the rate at which wine ages and comes to maturity and to the point where it's ready to be bottled or drunk. But anything else we can control and move fast on, we do.

You’ve got Gaylon Lawrence. What's your advice in terms of  looking for a business partner when you’re starting a new business or taking a job with somebody?

Be brutally and uncomfortably honest with each other. When you're going into business with someone, it’s no different than being in a marriage. Be honest, tell them what your five-year plan, or what your 10 year is. Tell them what you want for yourself in 30 years.

Or take a different route and say, "Great, I'm here for five years and I know that." What you don't want is disappointment as a result of expectations. Be honest about your expectations for compensation, for equity, whatever the deal is that you desire. You have got to be comfortable having those uncomfortable conversations at the beginning, because if not, they will come up. You can bet every dollar you have on that.  

I’m not married, but I would imagine if I were, I'd have some very uncomfortable and hard conversations in the beginning. What do you want? Be blunt with everything, as detailed as you can be. Leave nothing untouched, leave nothing up to interpretation. Get it on paper, get it signed, like a prenup. Because when times are tough you could find yourself having a real hard conversation very abruptly with an investor. You’ve got to be able to go back and focus on that first conversation you had and reference that.

I know that  seems incredibly unromantic. We have this idea of the restaurateur and the investor traveling the world, taking inspiration, coming back, and opening this beautiful restaurant. You can do that too, but if you're not having that first, tough conversation, you're absolutely setting yourself up for failure.

What did working in restaurants teach you?

One thing I learned was to be so good at my craft that I had to promote myself out of it. Once you get to the point where you're in bed with someone for business, if you're still focused on roasting the chicken, you will fail. It just won't work. You can't be the guy coming up with the menu, sourcing the produce, roasting the chicken, making the stock, plating the whole dish, analyzing your sales, and strategizing for the future. It's tough to swallow. But at some point, I couldn't be the guy who was just buying the wine, on the floor, selling a bottle at a time—not if I wanted my department to be successful. 

What habits are you going to carry into 2021 and post-pandemic?

When everything hit I flew out to Arkansas to meet with Galen on March 14. So much was unknown. Restaurants were shutting down. That's a big revenue creator for us. What were we going to do? But what was really important to us was that we were building something here for the long term.

We’d recruited all these employees and now we’re going to lay them all off? No. That didn't fall in line with our philosophies or what we're trying to build. So we committed to keeping all of our employees on at full pay, which is obviously a big cost to swallow. But you have to look at it as investment in your people and in their psychological commitment to what you're doing. That's huge.

People take ownership  when they're psychologically committed to what you're doing. But with that, you also have to adjust your business. So we challenged our employees every day to email me directly with a revenue producing idea. Every day, five days a week. Now I have this entire file on my computer just for business ideas. Some of them were really interesting. Some of the most brilliant ideas came from cellar workers. Someone who had never sold a bottle of wine in their life, who moves wine from a barrel to another barrel for a living. They had brilliant ideas. 

So that was really eye-opening in terms of  how we constantly tap into employees' creativity. And for us, it did two things. One, obviously it allowed our employees to do the thinking for us, and two, everyone had a seat at the table. It proved that anyone  can have a great idea. 

You run every day, but what other things do you do on a daily basis to feel whole and ready to lead your team?

I started seeing a therapist, and it was life changing for me. There are certain key points in the day where you have got to stop and reset. For me, it was when I left the office before I walked into my house. Or before I interacted with anyone at home, I needed time to reset. I come home, I'll say hello to my girlfriend Maya, then I’ll go take a shower and have about 10 minutes by myself. My therapist told me to do it. I was like, "This is never going to work." She said, "I just want you to focus on releasing everything. Doesn't mean it goes away, because you and I know, Carlton, those problems you have, they ain't going away. A shower's not going to solve them." But it changed everything. It made me enjoy being home a lot more. It made me rest easier, so when I came into the office in the morning, I was refreshed and ready for the day. Back when I worked dinner service, if I had taken 10 minutes after I got off work, after doing 150 covers at a high-intensity restaurant? Just 10 minutes after the shift to be by myself? That would have solved all kinds of problems.  

The second thing is coffee. There is no day that I start without coffee. It's the first thing I do every single morning. I wake up, put the robe on, I turn the Jura Super Automatic machine on and I have coffee immediately. It's my ritual. It's cathartic. My grandmother raised me. She drank an obnoxious amount of coffee. To me, it's very comforting to smell coffee in the morning. It's very homey. 

What’s one piece of tech that makes your life better?

This is not an answer to what you’re asking, but when I was studying for the Master Sommelier certification, it was really about understanding how everyone retains information very differently. I realized that it was very difficult for me to retain information, to keep up with what I was supposed to be doing, so I went back to this little notebook made by Smythson. It's called the waffle. It’s this teeny little notebook, fits in my pocket, smaller than my wallet. I use this for my to-do list, for ideas, everything.

It’s the anti-tech approach. I cannot overstate how important this has been to me and what it's done for my ability to run these companies successfully and drive them. It’s all about understanding how your brain retains data. 

What about a song or an album that you've been playing nonstop for weeks?

Music is my jam. Outside of food, and wine, it’s just absolutely without a doubt something I need. I was raised in a house where we listened to a lot of gospel music, soul music. I always tend to go back to that type of music. He never gets credit for how genius he was as a producer, but I’ve been listening to a lot of Isaac Hayes. Everyone looks at Isaac Hayes and they think Shaft, but if you take away all that and you take away the image of the Black guy with the fur vest—sure, he knew how to present himself. But listen to the music and how complex it is. Then you’ll understand that you're talking about a Black man in the 1960s orchestrating incredibly layered, complex music.

His voice is okay, I never thought he was a great singer, but his production skills are insane. You talk about great theme music, if you're walking down the street, listen to Isaac Hayes. It's pretty incredible.

That's the theme music of a Wine Boss.

Oh, yeah.

How about a particular book that you might share with friends? 

One that I’ve re-read five times during various points in my life, when I need to reconfirm my drive about what I’m passionate about and not get side-tracked, is The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. It’s about defining your purpose in life. What you want to live for. How the universe conspires—that’s been a theme of late. The work that I’m doing here. The aspirations for my personal life. Physically, romantically, professionally. It’s about deciding what kind of person you want to be and being empowered to go for it. It’s one of the great books of the world, which everyone should read. It gives you this freedom and license to define your life. 

How about art?

I didn’t really look at visual art as a kid. What changed that for me was an exhibit in L.A. for Kerry James Marshall. He has an incredible way of explaining Black culture in America. His work was empowering and validating to someone like me who was raised in a mixed race home. Also, Carrie Mae Weems as a photographer. She takes pictures of Black Americans at one table. Her photographs are expressions of candid Black experience. 

How did the fires impact your harvest? Will you bottle a 2020 vintage?

We had two waves of fires. The smoke had a big impact. Having fires in the middle of August wasn’t typical. This was different—it was a lightning storm. You talk to the locals, we can go 10 years here and not see a single lightning bolt. We had 150 strikes.

We were fortunate to have picked some blocks of grapes in advance, but once we saw the smoke we decided not to pick anything else.  We’re going to produce 15 to20% of normal production. But Napa is a complex place, and not everyone is affected the same way. 

The second fire added insult to injury. On September 11, we purchased Burgess Cellars, and two weeks later it burned down. That was a bitter pill to swallow. We’re grateful that no one was injured. One team member lost a home, and a lot of acreage burned and homes burned. It was very difficult. 

The stories of sexual harassment and assault by members of the Court of Master Sommeliers have been in the news lately. I’ve been thinking about this also in terms of access to wine and wine knowledge and how that can be used in the worst way as leverage and power. Or to keep wine exclusive. You’re a Master Somm. You’ve worked in some of the best restaurants in the country, including The Little Nell. What’s your take on this now? 

This is the second wave of issues the Court has had this year. The first was during the country’s reckoning with race issues. I was thrown into that and it became apparent I needed to speak up. But political opinions require nuance and discussion and social media doesn’t allow for that. You want to speak up and a 200-word Instagram post is the best forum for that? 

Then there came the issues with sexual misconduct and harassment. I was careful about my response to make sure my words were as thorough and careful as possible. What I found was these issues were all symptoms of the same problem. Exclusivity, power, and a lack of a culture of inclusivity. When an organization is created with that structure you’re always going to have problems. 

We need to change the entire organization. Instead of being this archaic structure with a colonial hierarchy, make it more democratic. Build an organization where everyone has a vote and if you pass an entry level exam you’re in. It shouldn’t be a club; it’s an organization meant to enhance the industry and make it more professional. Have 10,000 members who can give their say and have their input. 

It was also a blatant reminder about the inequality of gender in society. I was raised by a single grandmother who worked two jobs and had to work harder to prove herself and her worth. The way you have systemic racism, you have systemic genderism. They gave freed slaves the right to vote before women.

In my companies, every single employee gets racial and gender bias training. These unconscious biases rule our lives. [As a manager] you don’t lead with fault, but with how we move forward. When we look at resumes we take the names off of them. I read an article by Hillary Clinton in The Atlantic about a speech she gave in 1998. She said everyone has biases when you see a name. You make assumptions about culture, gender, race, which should have no impact on hiring. [Running a company] you have to think about these things. With the  Court of Master Sommeliers, it’s been run by men for so long. Their power is now stripped away. In this case, that can’t happen slowly and gradually, it has to happen abruptly. 

But so many people are pointing fingers, and there’s a point of exhaustion. I want to focus on the issues and go to work and figure out how to align with these organizations to evolve them into better organizations. I feel strongly about that. People don’t want to hear it. People are angry. I had to come up in this world and dramatically change myself to come up in this industry. I wouldn’t change that. But I can’t marinate in the anger to the point where it becomes counterproductive. The voices have been heard loud and clear. 

Is The Roots fund part of your attempt to focus on issues like these? 

The Roots Fund started with a brainstorm. Where do the problems lie in the wine industry? It’s not an industry in which people of color are aware of the potential career paths. If you’re born into a culture where you don’t interact with wine, then how do you know there’s a career in it? 

We’re recruiting young people who are interested and giving them guidance about how they can become employable. In some cases that’s a cellar internship or a full scholarship to UC Davis or Cal Poly. Or maybe we’ll cover the costs of their testing requirements. We’re handing out 50 scholarships next week.

Then, okay, great, now they’re aware and educated and qualified. How do we get them in the room? Because the country is so segregated, we said let’s use our connections and influence to network and open the doors, to give people a seat at the table for an interview.

The final part is mentorship. People get that wrong. A mentorship doesn’t have to be a time-consuming full commitment. It can be a quick 30-minute call that changes someone’s life. Give them guidance. Connect them. Off they go into the world—then how they perform is up to them.