How many Grand Award-winning venues were named for a prostitute? At least one, if you believe the rumors: The Little Nell, the restaurant and hotel in Aspen, Colo., allegedly takes its name from the town’s most famous turn-of-the-century courtesan. Resting at the base of Aspen Mountain, the restaurant at the Little Nell has held Wine Spectator’s highest restaurant honor since 1997, helping to make Aspen not only a skiing destination but also, for those in the know, a wine lover’s mecca. Last year, the restaurant underwent a major overhaul. They call the new concept Element 47—silver’s position on the periodic table—to recall Aspen’s roots as a mining town.
Master Sommelier Carlton McCoy, the restaurant’s wine director for the past three years, saw the transformation into Element 47 as an opportunity to reimagine a long-successful wine program. He’s hired more young sommeliers (“They don’t understand the repercussions of things going wrong yet—and that’s a good thing”), purchased more verticals and reorganized the Riesling selection by sweetness, to make it more approachable. McCoy, 29, also put a tasting room in the restaurant’s wine cellar (inventory: 18,000 bottles), where some lucky guests are invited to share a nightcap with the sommeliers after dinner. The goal of the transformation, McCoy said, was “not to be the best restaurant in Aspen, but to compete on an international level. When we changed that approach, we had to change everything we did in the restaurant.” McCoy recently chatted with Wine Spectator about the changes at the Little Nell, what’s exciting to him on a wine list and the importance of Master Sommelier certifications.
Wine Spectator: Has wine been a central part of the Little Nell from its beginning?
Carlton McCoy: Wine was a part of even the initial investment. It’s grown tremendously since then. The Nell always had a very international clientele, and to please that clientele you had to have a diverse wine list. Back then [in 1989, when the restaurant first opened], in America, that didn’t mean very much; that was like a 10-page wine list. The wine program slowly grew, and they realized that this is a great way to make money, and there was a demand for it. So they started hiring sommeliers that had a bit of experience. They poached Bobby Stuckey [in 1995], and essentially the program doubled under his tutelage. That’s where it really started, was with Stuckey.
WS: When you became wine director, what changes did you want to make to the wine program?
CM: When you have a Grand Award for so long, it becomes, "Well, OK, so what’s next?" We had one of the highest inventories in the country, but it was sort of boring. It’s all the classics, but what about the cool bottle of wine that’s highly allocated that no one else can get? It’s not expensive, but it’s thought-provoking. We weren’t challenging the guests in that sense. "You want [to spend] 70 bucks? Oh, instead of Chave Hermitage, drink Chave St.-Joseph." But instead, you introduce that guest to a producer like Thierry Allemand, bringing him from a $500 bottle to a $250 bottle—he’s never heard of it—and that makes it exciting. That’s what keeps people coming back.
WS: The Little Nell has a knack for churning out Master Sommeliers. Why?
CM: Bobby started the culture, and it just carried out from there. We’ve employed 11 Master Sommeliers in a matter of 13 years. [The Little Nell has] become known internationally as the hub for Master Sommeliers. They’ve never hired an M.S. once; once you’re hired, there’s an expectation that you will pursue it.
WS: Do you think the M.S. certification is important for sommeliers today?
CM: We’re falling into this situation where esoteric, weird wines have become really cool, but there aren’t a lot of people who have the base knowledge of every region in the world, which you need. Everybody wants to be the cool guy and know the cool little producer, but do you know the classification of 1855? "No, but I can tell you about 10 producers of orange wine from Friuli." Great, that’s interesting, but how are you going to make money as a wine director?
The Court forces you to learn the classic regions—Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhône, California, Italy, at some point Spain. If you don’t know these like the back of your hand, you’ll never have a profitable wine program, unless the whole point is to turn over cheap bottles. Huge wine programs have to have a base in these. Of course there are some people in the business—Mike Madrigale, Raj [Vaidya]—who have gone extremely far without the certifications.
To be an M.S.—it’s a personality type where you always want to achieve more. Like you enjoy torturing yourself.
WS: Do you find that your guests are more adventurous drinkers than they used to be?
CM: People are a lot more open compared to when I started there about three years ago. They are much more willing to have the somm just go after an interesting bottle. Maybe it’s the wine-pairing culture, which has forced people to relinquish control, but now they trust sommeliers more.
WS: Does that mean your guests are interested in trying oxidized wines from the Jura?
CM: You know what? Young sommeliers are always like, "I think this is cool, so everyone will think this is cool." And that’s not true. It’s got to be the right guest for each wine. That oxidized wine from the Jura—if I pour that for my Meursault drinker, he’d be like, "I’m not paying for this, what is this?"
It’s a question of how do we stay passionate and find these new producers and express this passion to the guests? For example: When people think Vouvray, they think Domaine Huët. But there’s a lot of producers that aren’t in Vouvray, or even Savennières, that make insane single-plot Chenin Blancs. It’s super mineral-driven; it’s kind of like Meursault blended with Chenin—Domaine Guiberteau in Saumur, for example.
WS: What are you drinking these days?
CM: Chablis. I’ve always been extremely passionate about Chablis. It’s probably the best value Chardonnay in the world.