Dinner at Carlton McCoy's House Blends Napa Wines and Global Flavors

When the master sommelier, CEO, and TV host invites guests to dinner, he pours new and old Napa wines to accompany a menu inspired by Italy and Ghana.

Carlton McCoy, host of CNN’s Nomad and CEO of Lawrence Wine Estates, at the grill at Stony Hill Vineyard in Napa Valley
Photo: Carlton McCoy

"Wait! We need wine!"

That's Carlton McCoy, CEO of Lawrence Wine Estates and host of this holiday dinner, realizing that although the food is on the table, something crucial is missing. A wine dinner with no wine? He's to the kitchen and back with bottles before anyone notices — not a typical CEO move, but most CEOs aren't also Master Sommeliers.

The setting is Stony Hill Vineyard, hidden in the woods high above the floor of Napa Valley. The bottles are a mix of Napa Valley old and new. The guests are Napa luminaries — such as Cathy Corison of Corison Winery, with her husband and partner, William Martin; and Randy Dunn of Dunn Vineyards. There's a younger Napa generation, as well: McCoy's girlfriend, Maya Dalla Valle, the winemaker at Dalla Valle Vineyards; Westin Neal and her husband, Zach Neal; and Philana Bouvier, president of Demeine Estates, with her husband, Rob Trauger.

Stony Hill has been the source of some of California's greatest Chardonnays ever since it was founded by Fred McCrea and his wife, Eleanor, back in the 1950s. It still makes world-class Chardonnay but is now part of a growing empire of wineries that McCoy oversees, all owned by Arkansas billionaire Gaylon Lawrence Jr., which includes Heitz Cellar, Burgess, Ink Grade, and others. But Stony Hill is arguably the most beautiful: From the house, the views sweep down to encompass the valley floor and Howell Mountain in the distance. (At one moment, Dunn, talking to Dalla Valle, points across to where his own vineyard lies.) Behind the house, vineyards rise up in a bowl surrounded by forest.

Everyone gathers on the patio before dinner to trade stories about the wine- making life, with Stony Hill’s Chardonnay vines behind them
Carlton McCoy, host of CNN’s Nomad and CEO of Lawrence Wine Estates, at the grill at Stony Hill Vineyard in Napa Valley

So how did McCoy find himself here — on top of the world, one might say? McCoy's story is a remarkable one. He grew up in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C., and learned to cook from his grandmother, who ran a small catering company out of the church they attended. As he recalls, "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.'" That led to a scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America from C-CAP, a nonprofit that helps underserved kids get into culinary careers. He then switched from cooking to wine and eventually became the wine director at The Little Nell in Aspen, Colorado (and passed the extraordinarily demanding Master Sommelier exam, as well). McCoy never intended to run wineries, but a friendship with Lawrence, an investor, wine lover, and Little Nell regular, changed all that. McCoy's road sounds simple, in a way, but as a Black man in a white wine world — and make no mistake, when McCoy got started, the wine world was about as diverse as a badminton game at a 1950s country club — he faced plenty of obstacles. At this dinner, Bouvier, whom McCoy hired to run Demeine, mentions facing similar issues: "I've had a bazillion doors slammed in my face. But I always say you can't use your identity as a reason not to do something." That's a philosophy McCoy shares, and it's helped him push past any number of barriers—the latest being the gatekeepers of TV, because he's also now the host of CNN's Nomad, where he takes viewers on an around-the-world hunt for places where food, wine, and culture come together. (The second season will launch in early 2023.)

So, short version: Carlton McCoy is a very busy guy. But when you're faced with a 500°F grill loaded with rib eyes, all other obligations fade, especially when your tongs are too short. McCoy is flipping steaks quickly, trying not to burn his hands. Chatting with Westin Neal, who is Gaylon Lawrence Jr.'s daughter as well as a fellow CIA graduate, McCoy recalls one rite-of-passage experience, cooking salmon for the culinary school's final exam: "The guy before me had left the grill turned up crazy hot, and I inherited that. And this Italian chef on the faculty was just watching me and laughing. He knew exactly what was going on!"

"I was in exactly the same situation," Neal says, laughing. "I felt like my fingers were on fire!"

McCoy's cooking draws on his entire life, which lately means his travels for Nomad. The suya spice on both the steak and the grilled okra, for instance, came from a visit to Ghana: "There are all these street vendors there cooking lamb or beef, and they have a bucket of suya — it's the go-to spice. They wrap the meat up in paper, hit it with some suya, and you eat it with your hands. So I thought, 'Why don't I just make a compound butter with it?'"

When the cooking is done and the wine is on the table, conversation is a give-and-take between old Napa and new, just as McCoy aims for not only at his dinners, but also in his whole approach to wine. Dunn, passing a platter of glazed persimmons to Dalla Valle, recalls Napa in the 1970s, when he made wine for Caymus. "I started my own wine when I was still working there, so I'd put it in plastic trash cans to do punch-downs at work. So one day I'm driving around in this Econoline van packed with trash cans full of wine, and this school bus suddenly pulled out. 'Oh shit!' I slammed on the brakes, and this wave of grapes and juice washed into the front seat. Man, the rugs in that van never smelled the same ever again."

Meanwhile, McCoy presses more steak on the guests. When someone demurs, he laughs. "Come on! A friend of mine says you have to eat and drink and live life. You'll never have six-pack abs, but who cares?" And, in keeping with that, he pours himself another glass of wine.

A festive tablescape
Jose Mandojana

The Wines of the Night

2020 Stony Hill Vineyard Chardonnay ($100)

Focused and elegant, this white was a hit with the fritto misto that McCoy served.

2017 Dunn Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($110)

Randy Dunn's Cabernets are epically ageworthy, but the 2017 vintage is surprisingly approachable in its youth.

2018 Corison Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($120)

The Cabernets that Cathy Corison makes are known for their subtlety and perfect balance, and this release is no exception.

2015 Burgess Cellars Alpinist ($150)

An unusual blend of Syrah, Cabernet, Petite Verdot, and Petite Sirah from a winery that McCoy oversaw the purchase of in 2020, this wine is powerful and gamey, great with a grilled steak.

2019 Dalla Valle Cabernet Sauvignon ($250)

Dalla Valle makes some of Napa Valley's most sought-after Cabernets, and this layered, complex red shows why that's the case.

01 of 04

Royal Paloma

Royal Paloma
02 of 04

Fritto Misto with Calabrian Chile Aïoli

Fritto Misto with Calabrian Chile Aioli
03 of 04

Grilled Rib Eye Steaks with Okra Suya and Cucumber-Yogurt Sauce

Grilled Rib Eye Steaks with Okra Suya and Cucumber-Yogurt Sauce
04 of 04

Pine Nut Olive Oil Cake

Pine Nut Olive Oil Cake
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