Master Sommelier Carlton McCoy is a rare varietal
Saying that Carlton McCoy, The Little Nell’s wine director and Master Sommelier, is passionate about his work is like saying that Luciano Pavarotti liked opera or Jackson Pollock liked to paint. McCoy, 31, grew up in Anacostia, a highcrime area of Washington, DC, with his paternal grandmother, who owned a soul food catering company. His journey to discovering wine is an unlikely story that’s led to McCoy making history as one of only two Master Sommeliers with African heritage in the world.
Edible Aspen: Do you remember the first time you tried wine? Was it love at first sip?
Carlton McCoy: I was 18 and attending the Culinary Institute of America and focusing at that point on Classic French Cuisine and I had to take a wine class. I was terrified. I’d never had wine before. The only thing I knew was that wine was made from grapes, that’s it! At home my family drank beer and whiskey. Wine isn’t part of the African culture and it’s really only been since the 1950s that it’s been part of the American culture.
There were 10 glasses in front of me. I remember picking up the first, which was a Gewurztraminer, and smelling particular aromas. I could discern the different elements. Then I tried another and another, and I got really into it. The challenge excited me. Six months later, I was tutoring wine classes and was the CIA’s youngest teaching assistant.
EA: When did you decide to make wine your career?
CM: I went from chef to server, and helped open a restaurant in New York City. As I moved up, wine became more important. In some restaurants, wine sales make up 50 percent of the total revenue. I moved back to Washington, DC, and worked at a restaurant called CityZen (now closed) at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. The sommelier there saw promise in me, and told me to read five huge textbooks on wine. Within six months, I’d read them all. When I told him, he said, “No one reads those books!” I paid attention and listened to the wine experts around me. In 2005, I did my first blind tasting. At the age of 24, I began taking the Sommelier exams, and at 28 I took my Master Sommelier exams. I was the second-youngest in the world at the time.
EA: When customers ask you to recommend a wine, what language do you use?
CM: There’s a time for romance and a time for practicality. You don’t always need to pair a wine with food. Perhaps the customer is looking for a particular style or price point. I don’t ever shy away from price point because the goal is to make sure the guest leaves happy. It’s also about emotional intelligence, about being able to read your guests and the table. Every table is a clean slate, an opportunity to make a wonderful impression.
EA: What is your favorite wine region?
CM: I’ve traveled all over the world and in my opinion there’s nowhere better than France for wine. It’s something about the culture. Italy makes good wine in four regions, but France makes good wine all over, and wine is part of the lifestyle. The French are passionate about what they do, and they love to dine.
EA: Tell me about your favorite kind of customer.
CM: My ideal customer requests only one thing: to have a good time. As a sommelier you have a role to play. My job is to take people who haven’t had a good day and make them happy. It doesn’t matter what I have to do, the guest is going to leave delighted. That’s my art.
EA: Do you have favorite characteristics you look for in wine?
CM: My personal philosophy is that there’s no such thing as a wine being “ready.” Great wine goes through different lives, it’s constantly being reincarnated. When it’s young, it’s simple and boisterous. As it ages it gets more complex. There’s something beautiful about being a young kid and a wise old man.