Carlton McCoy’s favorite ritual is as old as human memory: sharing a meal and a drink to intimately understand a person or place. This exercise is Saki’s latest framework—CNN’s original “Nomad” series—in which McCoy explores what he calls “the pillars of culture” through the less-watched sides of various destinations, including Seoul, Paris and his hometown of Washington, DC.
McCoy became a force in the wine industry when he took home his hard-earned sommelier title in 2013—he was among the youngest, at 28, and the second African American to do so. He is now the first black CEO of a Napa winery, leading the historic Heitz Cellar. He explained that rather than giving a presentation on wine, which he said doesn’t really portray well, he wanted to explore “what makes a culture identity.” “Nomad” is about “understanding how quickly the world is changing, being able to revisit places we all thought we knew and…how the people who occupy spaces develop those cultures.”
Watch the trailer for the new series Nomad with Carlton McCoy
McCoy experiments with art, architecture, fashion, and culinary scenes around the world, but primarily through the deep relationships he forges with people everywhere he visits – often while eating or drinking. In Saint-Denis, France, he spends an afternoon with artist Marianne Ibrahim in the studio of artist Raphael Barontini, where Barontini serves food of his mixed European, Caribbean and African heritage. In Wonju-si, South Korea, he has a taste of soju with Korean-American rapper Jay Park and brewery Kim Won Ho, who have collaborated on a new brand of soju.
Drinks aren’t always front and center at Nomad, but McCoy’s experiences in the wine world are always there, speaking to other people who are equally passionate about their careers and have often faced barriers to reaching their level of success. McCoy entered the culinary world after learning to cook from his grandmother, who raised him and ran a catering company. He won a citywide cooking competition in the capital, worked his way through the Culinary Institute of America and led to his first wine course, setting him on his path.
McCoy and Matt Taylor owned Ink Grade. credit: very simple
Winemaking is largely intergenerational, families move expensive vineyard land, and McCoy didn’t have the same kind of access that many of his peers did. But he sees some much-needed shifts taking place.
“You can actually create your own brand for very little money to get started, and I think that is much clearer now,” he said. “You no longer need a winery to have a great, highly successful wine brand. This narrative is changing.” He believes that with the world of wine – like all other important signs of culture – easier access to underrepresented viewpoints would only be for the better. “When the fashion, music, and visual arts industries really started to open the door to people of color, the industries became one, more successful and two, and more exciting,” he said.
Instead of giving a presentation on wine, McCoy wanted to show “how quickly the world is changing.” credit: CNN
McCoy has lifelong memories of sharing drinks with people, including corn syrup he drank with his family’s patriarchs in the South and rare wines drank by the winemakers he admires most.
“It’s really about connecting people,” he said. “Do people sit at home eating tequila on the rocks or a glass of wine? Sure. But it’s always better to share it with someone else.
“It’s a party sharing (a) drink together.” “That, to me, has always been the most valuable part.”
In this spirit, McCoy shares four bottles that are most important to him.
Most unforgettable drinks
1978 Hubert de Montille Pommard 1er Cru Rugiens
In 2011, when McCoy was studying to become a professional sommelier, a friend commented that his exceptional knowledge of French wine must be the result of regular travel to the country of origin. But McCoy was ashamed of the assumption.
“I was never (to France) at that point,” he recalls. “I studied books, and drank all the wonderful wines in the world.” “It was a rather embarrassing moment.”
That night McCoy booked a trip to Burgundy and before he left, he discovered the “absolutely exceptional” Hubert de Montille Vintage—de Montille is “one of the fathers of modern-day Burgundy wine,” he notes—thanks to a friend who was generous with his wine collection.
Fast forward to his trip to France, and McCoy found himself unable to visit many of the wineries on his list because it was the Easter holiday.
“I ended up sitting in that courtyard,” he said. “I’m on my own. At this point, I’m wearing flip flops and shorts and a T-shirt. I look very American.” After a few beers, he realized to his surprise that de Montiel himself was in the same courtyard. McCoy introduced himself and they shared wine together; The winemaker was so confused that he was alone on the Easter holiday that he invited him to join his family that night for dinner.
McCoy said of de Montiel, who died in 2014 at the age of 84: “He ordered a leg of lamb from the chef for a traditional Easter meal. We had an extraordinary night. There’s a picture of me standing next to him. Smiling. It was like a dream. I didn’t sleep in those.” Tonight – it was just a surreal dream.”
Lobos 1707 Tequila
Lobos 1707 is a joint venture of several famous basketball personalities, including LeBron James, but McCoy is closest with the co-founder of the premium tequila brand, Maverick Carter. McCoy and Carter met a few years ago over wine with friends and discovered that their paths converged but never crossed until that point.
“We had a tremendous amount in common. We grew up in almost identical neighborhoods (in the capital), similar situations — he was raised by his grandmother, (he) had problems with his parents () and we really communicated on a human level,” McCoy said. By meeting them, the “Nomadic” host felt deeply about sonder’s concept – the realization that your life is small and that “billions of other people have their own reality,” as he puts it. “I’m here in my little world and it’s a mile away,” he said. “Now we’ve ended up meeting after years.”
Watching Carter immerse himself fully in Mexican tequila culture to bring Lobos 1707 to market in 2020, he says it was a “blessing” to see how his life has changed because of the beverage industry.
“We live and work in circles with people who have greater access to … wealth and education, and what we call beneficial families and safer neighbourhoods,” McCoy explained. “(We have) the ability to communicate on a plane that very few people in our worlds, in our circles, understand.”
2017 Ink Grade Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon
This wine brand with winemaker Matt Taylor was the first McCoy was a part of creating after investing in a vineyard, but at first McCoy was unaware of the history of the land.
“I’ve never really heard of the vineyard,” McCoy said. “And I started doing some research on the vineyard and discovered that it was really developed in the 1870s. And it was part of this whole movement before and after Prohibition to build the wine industry in Napa Valley.” While walking in the woods, he could still see the copper stills used to make liquor – a homemade alcoholic drink – when alcohol was banned in the United States.
“It’s one of those wild, crazy, soaring vineyards that feels completely off the grid, and you’re there, no signs of life, no houses, no roads, anything like you’re in the woods in this vineyard,” he said. “And I have the opportunity to create a single grape farm wine from start to finish from a very historic site like this – very few people in the world can do that.”
1996 Dala Valley Petra Rosso Napa
When McCoy began dating his girlfriend, Maya Dalla Valley, whom he described as a “terrifyingly exceptional winemaker,” both his parents and her father died. He knew that they both understood this kind of sadness, but he had never asked her about it so deeply.
“It’s not something you normally want to sit around and talk about,” McCoy explained. “I think when people want to share things, they will, and it will happen in time.”
Dalla Valley traveled the world working on various estates, but returned to Napa to take her father’s place with her mother. When McCoy and Dalla Valle were out for dinner one night, she saw this bottle on the wine list—it was a bottle of wine her Italian father had made and that was dear to him because he was the only one who used a certain type of grape from Tuscany, harvested in Napa.
McCoy said the grapes “wasn’t great for this location,” so “it was never the best wine they made. But it was the kind he was so proud of because it’s a little piece of Italy here in Napa.”
It’s doubtful that the restaurant was carrying wine, Dalla Valle and McCoy ordered it, shared the bottle, and told him the full story over dinner.
“Hearing her talk about the story of that wine — and how proud she was — (there) she always linked her to her father through that wine,” McCoy said. “It was really special.”