Leading from the Top: A Live Chat with Carlton McCoy

The CEO of Napa's Heitz Cellar talks about his incredible journey from high-school dropout to star sommelier to the upper crust of California Cabernet, and how the wine industry can become more inclusive for those like him

Leading from the Top: A Live Chat with Carlton McCoy
At just 36, Carlton McCoy heads one of Napa's historic wineries. (Courtesy of Heitz Cellar)
Aug 6, 2020

Carlton McCoy has a lot on his plate, but that’s nothing new for him. McCoy became one of the youngest people ever to pass the Master Sommelier (MS) exam—at age 28—and just the second African American to receive the coveted pin. Now, eight years later, he's helming one of Napa's most historic wineries, as president and CEO of Heitz Cellar. He joined the winery in 2018, after overseeing the Little Nell's Wine Spectator Grand Award–winning wine list for several years in Aspen, Colo. In the latest episode of Straight Talk with Wine Spectator, McCoy spoke with executive editor Thomas Matthews about becoming a Master Sommelier, breaking new ground in California and how to make the wine industry more inclusive for minorities.

McCoy's journey into wine started with food. Born to Jewish and Black parents, he was exposed to diverse cuisines at home. While he loved cooking with his grandmother and learning his way around the kitchen, school was less of a draw. McCoy dropped out of high school twice, but eventually found his path when he won a cooking competition and received a full scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America.

"I took it very seriously, because where I come from, people don't go to college," McCoy said. "So it was a big deal … I sacrificed everything to focus on the great cuisines of the world."

Cooking is a calling, but it's also a job. The reality of making ends meet hit McCoy when he arrived in New York City. His meager kitchen wages made life in the city difficult, and without any other financial support, he pivoted to the more “financially secure” dining room, where he found a new passion for service.

While working at the now-shuttered CityZen in D.C., McCoy met Master Sommelier Andy Myers, who mentored McCoy and helped guide him toward the MS certification.

"[Studying for the MS] showed me the world in a way that I hadn't seen it, which was, believe it or not, in a very casual and very informal and very soulful way," McCoy recalled. "You start realizing that when you travel for wine you meet some of the most soulful people in the world."

During his prestigious tenure at the Little Nell, McCoy began to feel the lure of California, and two years ago accepted the position of CEO at Napa’s iconic Heitz Cellar. Now, he spends half his days crunching numbers and the other half walking the vineyards. "I've learned a lot more about the reality of how difficult it is to consistently make great wine, how difficult it is to farm, and naturally at a high level," he said. "It's been very humbling."

McCoy sees his next challenge in making his industry more inclusive for minorities. When it comes to consumers, he believes there is power in marketing. McCoy says that Napa Valley is a popular destination for Black people, but that ad campaigns fail to reflect that. As a person of color, McCoy draws two conclusions from such campaigns: They don't value him as a consumer, and they don't want to associate with him.

"Something as simple as having brown people in your marketing campaigns makes a massive impact," McCoy said. "From a brand it says, 'These are the people I value as consumers of my product.'"

When it comes to employees, McCoy believes attitude is everything. He says the wine industry must be more accepting of Black culture and embrace it as a creative, resourceful and marketable part of American culture as a whole.

"I have mentors in sports, music, fashion, contemporary art, and every one of those industries has only gained value from being accepting of Black people," McCoy said. "I think the wine industry will only be better by accepting them the way they are."

Watch the full episode with McCoy on Wine Spectator's IGTV channel, and tune in to catch Straight Talk with Wine Spectator, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7 p.m. ET. Tonight, Aug. 6, executive editor Thomas Matthews will chat with Sonoma winemaker Mac McDonald, part of a month of highlighting Black voices in the wine industry.

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