Normally we don’t focus on Newsmakers outside of Metro New York, but C-CAP Grad & Wine Director, Carlton McCoy is an exception. by Joyce Appelman
Listed in the Forbes 30 under 30 in 2014 in the Food & Wine category, The Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP) alum recently debuted a new wine tasting program, which allows hotel guests a casual après ski tasting with a sommelier in the legendary The Little Nell Hotel’s cellar in Aspen, CO. McCoy is the second African American and one of 133 top wine professionals to have earned the title of Master Sommelier in the U.S. Formerly of Per Se, Aquavit, and Craft Steak.
For those that don’t know you, give our readers a little background about yourself and what got you interested in culinary arts which eventually led to a successful career in wine and service?
I was raised in what could be described as a rough neighborhood of Washington, D.C., and I spent my free time helping my grandmother with her church-based catering business. In high school I enrolled in the Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP), which helps underprivileged youth get a head start on culinary careers. I was awarded a scholarship to The Culinary Institute of America, where I found my true passion: wine and service. Thanks to my education, I was able to work in a variety of great restaurants like Thomas Keller’s Per Se, Marcus Samuelsson’s Aquavit, Tom Colicchio’s Craft Steak in New York, Eric Zeibold’s CityZen at The Mandarin Oriental in Washington, D.C., and with Doug Anderson at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, D.C. Now I’m the wine director for The Little Nell in Aspen, Colorado, and I got my Master Sommelier Diploma last May!
C-CAP works with many public schools across the country to prepare underserved high school students looking for a career in the restaurant and hospitality industry. How did C-CAP make a difference in your life?
It opened a lot of doors for me. C-CAP was instrumental in my success – without it, I have no idea where I’d be.
Congratulations on making the 2014 Forbes: 30 under 30 list! Has this newly acquired title been opening new doors for you?
Not yet… Although it has put me on the radar of a lot of influential people. I’m excited to see what comes of it.
What type of training or experience prepared you to become a sommelier?
It was a culmination of back and front of house experience. Working in the kitchen taught me different flavor profiles and to have a better understanding of how food service works. It also gave me a better work ethic. The front of house taught me salesmanship and professionalism. It’s important to have all of these to be a successful sommelier.
What is most rewarding aspect about your job?
When the guest has a great time. That’s the ultimate goal, but it’s much easier said than done.
In your opinion, how has the world of wine in our industry changed over the years? Are the standards rising, and how are consumers responding?
The standard for sommeliers has been raised. We’re in a world that’s much more global. The guests expect you to know it all and to have seen it all… you’re not allowed to have a specialty anymore. The consumers are driving this change. It is their expectation that you have more experience than them to be relevant. I have to have something to offer them as far as information and experience to really show them my value and expertise.
Talk a little about your new wine tasting program in The Little Nell’s cellar. Where’d the idea come from and what makes it so successful?
It was something I wanted to create to expose our wine program. Everyone had an idea of what our 20,000 bottle cellar is like, but no one had been there and experienced it. It was about creating a transparent experience for them that was authentic. Basically, it’s a wine geek’s dream. It isn’t some hokey, pretend wine cellar. This is our “wine dungeon” where we’ve worked, stored and aged wines for our guests since 1989.
When a guest books a tasting, I consult with them to figure out a theme. If you like Burgundy, it will be a Grand Cru flight, and if wines from Spain make you happy, we’ll assemble some amazing riojas.
What inspires you when you are curating a wine list? How do you choose, stay within a budget, what does the process involve?
There are three things:
1. What the consumer actually demands. (Guests enjoy them, so I buy them).
2. What I really enjoy! (These regions might not be the most popular… but the wines are phenomenal).
3. Profit. (There are certain wines I can’t buy because the margin isn’t good enough on them. You have to be cost conscious).
What advice can you give that young student looking to make a career move in this industry?
Learn how to work in a restaurant. Every great sommelier I know started as a food runner or busser. Some of the most pretentious and flakey sommeliers are people who woke up and choose it as a profession out of the blue.
Go through the ranks! You are expected to execute normal front of the house duties as a sommelier, so be ready to do it all.
Also, travel whenever you can. Your days on the beach are over! Vacation time should be spent in a wine-growing region.