McCoy was previously wine director at The Little Nell in Aspen.
Credit: © Daniel Krieger Photography

Master Sommelier Carlton McCoy, Jr. has been hired as President and CEO of Napa Valley's Heitz Cellar and will be leaving his role as wine director of Aspen, Colorado’s The Little Nell.

McCoy, 34, was one of the youngest candidates ever to achieve Master Sommelier status in 2013, and is one of only two African American master sommeliers. After working at top East Coast restaurants such as Aquavit and Per Se in NYC and CityZen in Washington DC, he arrived at The Little Nell in 2010. He was promoted to Wine Director in 2013, overseeing a staff of 150 and The Little Nell’s acclaimed 20,000-bottle wine cellar, and while there has become one of the most visible and acclaimed sommeliers in the country.

Simon Chen, Managing Director at The Little Nell, said, “As Wine Director, Carlton emphasized approachability in our wine program, furthering the connection between our guests and knowledgeable team of sommeliers. He helped foster the educational aspect of the wine program with ongoing classes for staff, as well as taking a lead role in The Little Nell Wine Academy offered each spring to guests.” Among its many accolades, The Nell has earned a reputation as a training ground for Master Sommeliers, having had ten on staff throughout the course of its nearly thirty-year history.

Heitz Cellar, founded in 1961, rose to prominence during the 1970s, particularly on the strength of its signature Martha's Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, one of California's longtime benchmarks for great Cabernet; the 1974 vintage has often been referred to as one of the greatest Cabernets ever made in California. “I’ve had an opportunity to try a lot of great old Heitz wines now, and the ‘74 is undoubtedly great, but wines like the ‘68 and ‘72 are still amazing too—they have a least another decade of life in them,” McCoy says.

Heitz was helmed for nearly 40 years by founder Joe Heitz, one of Napa Valley’s most brilliant (and testy) winemakers. Famously, after Robert Parker wrote that a Heitz wine was lacking in aroma, Heitz sent the renowned critic a box of handkerchiefs, implying that his sense of smell needed help. Heitz now joins the ranks of iconic Napa wineries that have changed hands in the past few years, along with Stony Hill Vineyard and Mayacamas Vineyards. In April 2018, billionaire Gaylon Lawrence, Jr., director of Tennessee Bank & Trust and a principal investor in farming company The Lawrence Group purchased the property, which included the winery, tasting room, and 425 acres of vineyards, from the Heitz family for an undisclosed sum. McCoy says, “Gaylon has been a client of mine at the Nell for a number of years, and at one point he called me and said, 'Do you mind my asking what your sense of Heitz Cellar is?' I said that for me, as a sommelier, it represented a Napa of the past—in some ways one of the few wineries in the valley still making elegant, classic wines unapologetically, and not being hijacked by an allegiance to scores or whatever.”

In an official statement, Lawrence said, “We’re very excited to welcome Carlton to our team. His reputation throughout the wine industry as one of the most recognized Master Sommeliers will certainly add to the rich history of Heitz Cellar. The quality and integrity our brand possesses are benchmarks that both Napa Valley and our customers have come to expect; Carlton will make an immediate impact building on that tradition.”

McCoy says, “I always thought of myself as dying in a restaurant somewhere, someday, and now I'm no longer going to be in the restaurant industry. But I don't think there's another estate that could have brought me to Napa. The first time you visit this winery, you realize what a national treasure it is—it's a living history lesson of Napa Valley.”

Regarding his plans for Heitz, McCoy says, “The estate has over four hundred acres of vines, but only uses a portion of that, about one hundred acres, at the moment. So eventually there will be a collection of wineries as part of this project in the next few years. At the same time, we're going to go even further down that rabbit hole of purity and elegance. In that way, the future of Heitz really is the past.”