Carlton McCoy MS was not only one of the youngest people ever to earn the Master Sommelier title, he’s also only the second African American to earn the qualification. In 2002 he won a scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. , where he was exposed to wine, which he later parlayed into roles at top restaurants such as Thomas Keller’s Per Se, Marcus Samuelsson’s Aquavit, Tom Colicchio’s Craft Steak in New York and Eric Zeibold’s CityZen at The Mandarin Oriental in Washington, DC. Today, he is the CEO Lawrence Wine Estates, and manages seven wineries in the US, including the historic Heitz Cellar in the Napa Valley, along with Château Lascombes in Bordeaux. Since 2022, McCoy has starred in the CNN Original Series Nomad where he is, according to CNN “on the hunt for authenticity in destinations around the world”. He shared his vision of fine wine with Areni.
Areni: What is fine wine for you?
McCoy: Fine wine has become a bit of a marketing term that is applied to a lot of wines. And I don’t think that it has been defined. Neither do I believe it’s easily definable. I’d imagine everyone you interview probably has a very different answer, which is a very good thing. For me, I look at fine wine as a wine that is made with intention and that expresses a place or a particular philosophy, but probably most importantly has to be a sort of base level of quality. And the reason I use that as a quantifier is that having interesting terroir does not necessarily mean that you’ll produce a fine wine.
While we believe very strongly in doing as little as possible in the cellar, the quality is really dependent on the skillset and knowledge of the winemaker. Wine is, I think, one of the most unique and exciting collaborations between nature and humans. It produces something magical and special and it’s what we all love about it. But there has to be a base level of quality.
Good wine can be a fine wine. And I think there’s actually more use in society for good wines. Great wines live as this aspirational category that can create and facilitate these epiphany moments that are extremely memorable. But good wine is far more important in society, to create wine culture.
I think there’s actually more use in society for good wines. Great wines live as this aspirational category that can create and facilitate these epiphany moments that are extremely memorable. But good wine is far more important in society, to create wine culture.Carlton McCoy MS
You’re not originally from the fine wine world. You don’t come from a wine background. What was your perception of what fine wine could represent when you entered that world?
My interest into this world was through food, which I think is a very natural progression because in the US we’re still a young wine drinking country. It was a bit odd for people when I decided to move into the wine industry because I took my career — my studies in classical cuisines, particularly classical European cuisines — very seriously. I think that time in the kitchen prepared me to understand wine at a deeper level, as a cultural pillar where food and wine exists in the same conversation. And I think both are enjoyed at their highest when they’re together.
I wanted to come back to a point that you said at the very beginning, which is that fine wine is almost impossible to define; however, fine wine makers all have something in common, which is the will to reach excellence.
I agree with that. They’re always made with intention. ‘Intention’ comes with an entire collection of philosophies and thought process and logistical planning. One is nature and you have no control over it. Wine making with intention is difficult and it requires an enormous amount of your mental attention. Nature throws us curve balls every single year. And what we have to do is adjust the strategy, these philosophies and how we approach it to end up with hopefully the similar range of results. And then the other variable is the market. The world is a global wine market now. You’re really looking economically and culturally what’s happening in all these different countries where you’re selling wine and these variables you have very little control over. So the word ‘intention’ is a very important part of the definition of fine wine. Maybe the most important.
The market has an influence on how wine styles are shaped. I wanted to go back to that notion of excellence. In one of the recent study that we’ve done, there’s been a slight change in the understanding of what excellence means in food and in the kitchen. Is there the same shift in wine as well?
In the time of Covid, it accelerated movements that were already happening. Speaking from the restaurant side, what we saw was that chefs were pigeonholed into a certain type of cooking or a certain type of presentation, and the food now lacks soul. We all saw it. No one wanted to say it openly. We looked at the Pellegrino Top 50 restaurants and you go, “that’s fantastic”, but I don’t want to go to the restaurant and I don’t want to eat the food.
The system had created this demand where we were all shooting for the stars, but no one actually really enjoyed being where the stars were. The old joke is that chefs cook this food, but then they go out and eat this with their friends afterwards. We’re chasing food that it created at a very high level with impeccable technique and ingredients, but which still has that thing that’s very difficult to describe. When you eat it, when you smell it, when you see it, it has an effect on you that is almost like warming to the soul.
The rating systems have created this environment in the world of food. It’s Michelin, it’s Pellegrino, and so forth. For wine, it’s the score system. The hundred-point score. You are aspiring to create a sense of perfection, going in a direction where you no longer enjoy what you’re creating.
It’s like Rick Rubin says: the moment you start creating art for someone else, you’ve lost it. I think that’s where both industries really got off track. First, the illusion of perfection in both wine and food, and allowing also ourselves to be judged by people who are not in our own industry.
It’s like Rick Rubin says: the moment you start creating art for someone else, you’ve lost it. I think that’s where both industries really got off track. First, the illusion of perfection in both wine and food, and allowing also ourselves to be judged by people who are not in our own industry.Carlton McCoy MS
Could you elaborate on what authenticity means to you?
Yeah, authenticity is also subjective in the sense that it’s a personal venture. When we discuss authenticity and what we’re doing here in Napa with our wineries here, it’s really about defining what we want to be and what is our identity and what feeds us. Staying true to that is authentic. I’ll go back and I’ll reference that quote from Rick Rubin again because I think that is a key point in authenticity: when artist starts to create art to appease other people is when you lose authenticity. Authenticity for us is expressing ourselves through wine.
I think for a long time we looked at authenticity through the lens of the Old World and the idea of the old winemaker that has been working in this land forever. But in a region like Napa, which is so new and is really still finding itself, we have to redefine that in the sense of a person being their true selves and expressing that through wine.
Authenticity does not mean it’s a positive thing. You can be authentic in your venture to make really high-volume commercial wines I think that what people are looking for, is they want things produced by people, even more so in a world where technology has separated us physically.
What is your position on the responsibilities of fine wine?
I think that if you’re sitting at the top of the pyramid, there does come an obligation to leave from the front. Now, just because an obligation exists does not mean that people will fulfill it or have any interest in it. When [agriculture billionaire Gaylon Lawrence Jr] and I came here to Napa, it was really important for us to define what that meant for us. We sort of mapped out what that meant. We looked at what the industry was doing. I’ve been in the wine industry pretty much most of my entire adult life. I’ve traveled quite a bit and looked at what other regions were doing, and in some cases it was not happening here. I saw that as an opportunity.
This gave me an opportunity to work with our teams to define some philosophies that were really important to us. We decided to convert all our vineyards to biodynamic farming. Between all of our estates, we have 650 planted acres, and that’s a very, very large holding.
I think the direction we’ve taken with our wineries here is producing wines that are much more well-balanced. Part of it is about leading as an example to other young winemakers.
Wineries are terrified to make those styles of wine because they think that they can’t sell wine made in that style. So I think that us making wines with these philosophies creates a new narrative in a region that I think has become really monotonous in its style. Hopefully it will inspire others.
Wineries are terrified to make those styles of wine because they think that they can’t sell wine made in that style. So I think that us making wines with these philosophies creates a new narrative in a region that I think has become really monotonous in its style. Hopefully it will inspire others.Carlton McCoy
What you are saying is that when people make wine because they want to do it that way, not because they have to do it one way, they create a huge diversity of style.
In Napa, people go, “Well, if I make this style of wine, I’ll get this score. Critics will love this, and then it will sell”. And what happens is you have groupthink where then everything tastes the same.
You export a large part of your production, which can be unusual for Napa Cabs that tend to sell a lot of their wines direct.
We’re producing wines that we are excited to drink, and it’s a belief that there are a lot of people in the world who are also interested in this more elegant, balanced style of Napa Valley wines. And while the US will always be our main focus, we always had as our focus Germany, Switzerland, Norway, Paris, to see the wines on wine list. And that can be very difficult for a lot of Napa Valley producers because that style of wine is not always in demand in a lot of Europe.
We know that we’re making a style that can find a place on the table with the great wines of the world and that the only way to prove that, which is to do it. A really big focus, especially in the last 18 months, is spending more time in our export markets. We’ve been really overwhelmed by the way in which those European countries specifically, and also some Asian countries, have really embraced the wines.
Liv-ex have a theory about what works on the secondary market, bearing in mind that the secondary market is a niche of fine wine: fine wine has a long history of quality and consistency of quality; a hierarchy that helps people understand why they pay $10 for wine and $100 for a wine coming from a quite close region; and the last one is an export market.
If you look at the great producers that have been continuously successful on the global market, they’ve been doing it for a long time. Every year you have to produce something compelling. Obviously there’s vintage variation, but even in those difficult vintages to produce something really compelling. You have to show a body of work where we see a minimum of a decade. That’s where I think the clock starts. For us as a company that has also acquired some old estates, we have all of this heritage and historical knowledge, but for us the clock starts when we acquired it. We always say it’s the most exciting time in the world to be a wine drinker because the quality of wine is so high around the world, but there are also so many wines that people are exposed to.
I wanted to ask you a last question about responsibilities, because you’ve referenced your six estates in Napa and your estates in Bordeaux. Your owner is Gaylon Lawrence, who is a billionaire. Does being associated with wealth come with an extra layer of responsibility?
In some ways. So I’ll tell you, everyone had their own reaction to Covid, and what came out of that whole thing was that I am committed to not allowing outside influence to affect how I live my life. I only have one life and this is my run at it. And what I have to do is I have to trust my values and what’s important to me and what I want to contribute to and to do the very best that I can do in that lifetime to play a role in that.
We’ve started asking whether fine wine changes depending on the source of the capital, whether it’s family owned or part of a big company. What we found out very empirically is that it’s not the source of capital that changed the wine, it’s the long-term vision or the absence of long-term vision of management.
You have to differentiate the sources of wealth. A family-owned company is much more likely to produce high quality wine than a company who buys a winery. That’s just a fact because especially publicly traded companies live and breathe by their quarterly statements.
When I came to work for Gaylon, I had a really fantastic job. I lived a beautiful life living in Aspen. I skied as much as I wanted to. I cycled as much as I wanted to. I took very long, beautiful European vacations to visit my friends and wineries and be re-inspired by what they were doing. When I came to work with Gaylon, it was very important to me that this was not going to be a type of enterprise. Gaylon sat me down and mapped out how his family only invest in multi-generational ventures. We’ve never sold anything. He looks at it in terms of generations.
I can’t think of a single winery here in Napa that was bought by a big company that five years later was better.
This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity and length. To enjoy the entire conversation, listen to the podcast.
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