Lexus Culinary Classic: Q&A With Master Sommelier Carlton McCoy

Youngest Master Sommelier Carlton McCoy

A couple months back, I was able to spend a weekend in Sausalito at the phenomenal Cavallo Point while attending the inaugural Lexus Culinary Classic. To say there was some of the best food prepared by some of the best chefs in the country being served in view of the Golden Gate Bridge would be mostly accurate – and I’m so honored I got to be a part.

All the Vintages

One of the main afternoon events was a tasting through different Cabernet Sauvignon vintages from the Mondavi estate, which was an eye-opening experience to say the least. Afterwards, I got to sit down and talk with one of the youngest Master Sommeliers in the world and one of the newly anointed Lexus Culinary Masters, Carlton McCoy of The Little Nell in Aspen. At 30, he is one of the youngest Master Sommeliers in the world and is only the second of African-American descent in history.

What is being a Lexus Culinary Master all about?

For me it’s about quality, it’s about the experience. It is about lifestyle. I’m very comfortable partnering with Lexus. [With cars,] you’re buying a high quality car and it has this much HP. At the restaurants, people are buying a quality dining experience.

With there being only only two-hundred-some Master Sommeliers in the world and over half of them being in North America, you obviously have a gift for tasting, for service. When was this first apparent to you?

I don’t think you pay attention to it until somebody points it out to you. It’s what you perceive so how would you know? You only know what you know. I do very well in the kitchen and creating well-balanced dishes. [Talk about understatement: Carlton won a C-CAP cooking class and earned a full scholarship to CIA in Hyde Park, NY, before working in the kitchens of Aquavit, Craft Steak and Per Se.] And I carry that over into the dining room. I was approached by a sommelier to go into studying and tasting wine in Washington DC. I guess this was not normal. I was 23 at the time.

How did people treat you, being so young?

I was the youngest teaching assistant at 19 years old I was very comfortable in that position. You treat people with humility. Even now, I’m 30 years old, but the majority of my staff still respect me. You treat everybody with humility and consistency.

How do you approach wine, personally?

It’s what you decide to focus in on. The time we spend on tasting wine, it becomes somewhat of a chore. When I go out I tend not to drink wine. I love to see, smell and taste wine; it seems like you’re doing it so intensely. I don’t know how to do it casually. You get so focused and in tune. It has to do with flavor and reverse memory. You knew about the cinnamon roll shop on Pismo Beach that was coming up before it even came into view. When I started to smell wine, I’m deconstructing that reverse cinnabon.

What about a photographic memory?

When I study, I never used flash cards. I draw maps and I take naps, but I memorize the page. I can still memorize my notes for Chablis. Labels especially. I was at a tasting earlier in Napa, on a Barbaresco panel. And this woman was taking these notes, but my handwriting is really bad. I just remember wines; I just memorize it. I know this sounds silly but people only remember what they care about. Things you care about, you never forget.

What are the biggest misconceptions about wine?

You have to listen to other people. One of my biggest issues is the culture of wine ratings, tasting notes, etc. What it has done is it has shifted the power away from people. They really have this crutch of, What are these scores? That person [on Wine Spectator] has no clue what you like. Look at a wine that has 100 points – what does that actually mean? But what if you don’t like the same style of wine as that person at wine spectator? This is a major issue and that’s one of the biggest issues I have with wine in America right now. I like to pull people away from that. Get people to ignore the notes. Hey what do you think? Go buy a bottle of it and just try it. What’s the worst that’s going to happen? How bad is it really going to be? It’s going to be OK. It’s not as serious as people make it out to be.

You will never know everything about wine. That’s my job. I don’t go to the auto mechanic and tell him, You know what – I already know what’s wrong with my car. Why would I need to go to the auto mechanic? But maybe I want to learn how to do simple things like change the oil. Don’t put so much pressure on yourself to know everything about wine. It’s impossible. You can just learn to casually enjoy and learn about wine. Don’t make it a stressful experience. Really enjoy yourself. That’s what wine is all about.

What are you drinking these days? What are you buying to drink?

That changes frequently. I always compare wines to music. It depends on what you’re into and what you really like. I get into phases where I enjoy bright plush wines, other times I can’t stand it. There are times when I really enjoy. Right now I really enjoy Chablis. I drink an enormous amount of it. In for buying to age, As far as what to buy, wines in the Rhone Valley are the most underpriced wines in France and they won’t be for a long time. Burgundy has gotten so expensive right now for even collectors. It’s good idea to move into other regions.

What do you recommend, if money is no object?

If your goal is to invest, Bourdeaux is always great. Northern Rhone Valley, Burgundy, Loire. Chenin Blancs are really stunning.

Do you drink wine at home?

I don’t drink wine at home hardly ever unless I have company because it becomes a chore. I drink this cocktail I like, which I joke about. I call it Farm to Table. {If it’s not farm to table, then it’s got a problem, right?) I take a pint glass and put ice on the bottom, squeeze a little lime over it, then pour beer into the glass. I started drinking this in Thailand. I love it so much, it’s so refreshing.
I don’t drink an enormous amount of spirits but I really like tequila. Not aged tequila, but just pure silver. Ocho is my favorite. I love single state tequilas. On the rocks. I don’t like infused spirits. I’ll drink Calvados, it’s a little more interesting. I like blanco because it shows the base ingredient. A lot of spirits taste like oak, but I like to taste the distillate.

Which wineries do you appreciate?

I love old historical estates like Charles Krug, Diamond Creek, Dominus, the old Equinox. There are a couple new hotshots with very interesting wines. Hirsch Winery. Ross Cobb is probably my fave domestic Pinot Noir. It’s like a hobby winery. I rarely see a domestic wine where this happens. Buddy Rogers is doing great things. Hirsch Winery. Ross Kobb is probably my favorite domiestic pinot noir. There’s that sugar ripeness. His mom planted the coast in 1986. You taste his wines, he has a cuvee I’ve never seen. I’ve never been taken aback by a domestic Pinot Noir but I get true pleasure by tasting his wines.

Do you like sparkling domestics?

The J. Schram is really stunning. That’s that’s serious bubbles. I remember my first trip to California when I visted the winery. I remember enjoying it. Domestically, Soter Winery makes stunning sparkling wines. I like domestic sparklers because they can offer phenomenal value.

Iron Horse is classic. I was on the same trip as J. [Schram] for that 21st birthday weekend in Napa. I thought it was the coolest thing because That’s the energy I like with wine in general. Approachability is kind of lost. I love that attitude of, “Come on in.” That’s what really would help California wines to be known. Sonoma still is excited to get anyone down there. More of that approach is necessary.

Lexus Culinary Classic

Cavallo Point
601 Murray Cir
Sausalito, CA 94965
415.339.4700