Named a Master Sommelier at just 28 years old, Carlton McCoy was one of the youngest inductees into the organization as well as the second African American to earn the prestigious title. Raised in Southeast Washington, D.C., he grew up working in his family’s catering business, which sparked his interest in the restaurant world.
In 2002, he won a citywide cooking contest, earning a full scholarship to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. There, something different caught his attention: a wine class with the James Beard-winning writer and professor Steven Kolpan, which he says “opened my eyes to a completely new world.” With its complex classifications, varietals and global regions, enology can be intimidating, but McCoy purposefully attended all the sessions to learn as much as he could from Kolpan.
After graduating in 2006, McCoy honed his wine skills at some of the top restaurants in the country, including Thomas Keller’s Per Se, Marcus Samuelsson’s Aquavit and Eric Ziebold’s CityZen at the Mandarin Oriental in Washington, D.C. While studying for his Court of Master Sommeliers certification, he was guided and inspired by the iconoclastic sommelier Andy Myers, who was the first expert to endorse boxed wine. “A tattooed punk-rock drummer with a no-nonsense personality, Andy showed me that one could be an outsider and have a unique voice in the wine industry,” McCoy says. “He changed my life. He was the first person to take me under his wing and tell me that I may have a future in this.”
In 2011, McCoy joined the team at The Little Nell in Aspen, Colorado, inspired by the hotel’s award-winning wine program and reputation as a training ground for Master Sommeliers. After earning the certification in 2013, he was promoted to wine director, overseeing a staff of 150 and the property’s acclaimed 20,000-bottle cellar.
Then, in 2018, billionaire Gaylon Lawrence, Jr., acquired the iconic Napa Valley vineyard Heitz Cellar and named McCoy its president and CEO. Two years later, Lawrence and McCoy formed Lawrence Wine Estates, encompassing Heitz, Stony Hill Vineyard and Burgess, among other historic Napa wineries, as well as Demeine Estates, a collective of premier domestic and international brands that acts as a marketing force for this curated portfolio.
As an homage to Napa Valley’s Howell Mountain and pioneer rancher Theron Ink, who established a vineyard there in 1873, McCoy and the Lawrence family launched the label Ink Grade in 2021. Heading up the cellar is famed winemaker Matt Taylor, who has practiced his expertise from California to Burgundy, starting at Joseph Swan and Domaine Dujac and then Eisele and his own estate. “Matt pitched a tent and camped in the vineyard for three days with his dog, really connecting with the place,” says McCoy.
Ink Grade’s single-vineyard, classically structured wines include Andosol 2017, Howell Mountain cabernet sauvignon 2017 and sauvignon blanc 2019. The Andosol label doesn’t specify the grape, so I was surprised to discover this luscious, beautifully spiced and very vibrant wine is mostly zinfandel. This special cuvée changes annually to best express the terrain and wide variety of Ink Grade’s grapes.
I was so impressed with the sauvignon blanc that I asked McCoy how they were able to create a sauvignon blanc that didn’t taste like one. “Textural white wines should be light, prickly and fresh,” he said. “You can’t produce that concentration of flavor and texture with big yields. Planting on volcanic soil is naturally low-yielding. You get smaller berries with incredible concentration.” One of the loveliest whites I have had, this bright Napa Valley sauvignon blanc epitomizes California. Its natural acidity keeps the finish lifted on the palate and displays discreet tropical components.
One of only four Black Master Sommeliers in the world, McCoy is a member of the organization’s diversity committee. He’s also a marathon runner, another example of his commitment and drive in all aspects of life.