How This Master Sommelier Became a Game-Changing Napa Valley CEO
Carlton McCoy Jr. is an ambivalent member of the elite. One of the select corps of master sommeliers, he achieved this rare distinction despite a childhood blighted by trauma and poverty. An alumnus of some of the nation’s most prestigious restaurants, he disdains the world of fine dining. And as the first Black CEO of a Napa Valley winery, he positioned himself as a polite but firm disrupter inside that privileged realm. “I definitely don’t feel obliged to stay within the lines when it comes to the wine industry,” he says.
Now managing partner at Lawrence Wine Estates, McCoy has been buying up properties, launching brands and staffing them with a young, diverse team. Spurred on by a series of scandals in the sommelier world, he also sees it as his mission to detoxify and demystify the image of high-end wine in America.
As a child growing up in a deprived Washington, D.C., neighborhood, McCoy did not foresee a life spent parsing grape varieties or examining soil profiles. But on a wet spring morning, he is on his way to check out the latest piece of land to enter his portfolio. “I’m just going to go walk the vineyard,” he tells Robb Report via an hours-long Zoom call from his car, one eye on his phone and one on the road. “When it’s raining, you get a better idea of the water-holding capacity of the soils.”
McCoy, 37, clearly relishes these muddy agronomic investigations after years spent studying viticulture in the abstract as an aspirant sommelier. At 28, he was one of the youngest people, and only the second of African-American heritage, to pass the master sommelier exam, which has a success rate of just 5 to 7 percent.
McCoy with the barrels at Stony Hill. Matt Morris
Charismatic and driven, McCoy would put Horatio Alger to shame. Both of his parents were heroin addicts, “victims of the really big drug epidemic in the ’70s and early ’80s,” he says. His mother, who died when he was three, had been disowned by her Jewish-Hungarian family, and his African-American father “was not around.” McCoy was raised by his paternal grandmother “in a home with cousins whose parents had that same issue. It was more common than I think people want to admit,” he says.
His grandmother, whom he calls “an absolutely exceptional woman,” taught McCoy to cook. “I spent the majority of my childhood in the kitchen,” he says. He was also, however, “a troubled kid.” After McCoy dropped out of high school for the second time, his sister, who had left school to have a baby at 16, persuaded him to give it a final shot. Thanks to his cooking skills, he did well in home economics and was recruited to join a program that provides job training in the food industry. It was a revelation to McCoy that you could make money by cooking.
At the age of 18, he won a scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. Before he left, his grandmother sat him down and said, “ ‘There’s nothing wrong with you, but where you’re going, they won’t… accept you the way that you are,’ ” he recalls. “She was trying to set me up for success. I was going into a completely different world.”
McCoy was better prepared than she thought. As a biracial child, he was used to being an outsider at school, where “everyone was Black—in elementary, middle school, high school,” he says. “My sister and I were the lightest kids.” His relationship with race was, he says, “complicated.” After his grandmother’s warning, he cut off his cornrows. “Over time, I changed the way I spoke. It was a survival technique. And I have no problem with that. I’ve been doing that my whole life.”
Still, culinary school gave him a serious case of culture shock. “I had never really been around many white Americans,” he says. “I’d never heard of the Beatles. I had never seen a Star Wars movie. Ever. I had never seen The Godfather. We didn’t watch those movies; we watched Black movies.”
At the time, McCoy felt that he had no choice but to try to fit in. “There’s obviously a movement now that is trying to promote an environment of just accepting people the way they are and actually celebrating the differences, but that wasn’t my reality,” he says, adding that he adapted with the help of two friends “who were the kind of guys who play lacrosse and things like that.”
McCoy also felt tremendous pressure to excel. “I studied endlessly,” he recalls. “I showed up to class every day with my chef whites completely creased and starched. I couldn’t just be mediocre; I had to be the top guy,” he says, anxiously. “I had to be, you know?”
Before college, McCoy says, “I’d never seen an actual bottle of wine.” But in one of his first jobs after graduating in 2006, working as a food runner at Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York, he listened in on wine classes, and the seed was sown. That job was cut short by his grandmother’s death, at which point he moved back to D.C. to help his sister. There, working at Eric Ziebold’s CityZen, McCoy found a mentor in sommelier Andy Myers, “an old punk-rock kid,” McCoy recalls. “He was like a social reject in a sense. That was the first time I’d seen a sommelier who was like that, and it really made me comfortable. That’s when I decided to study wine.”
Master sommelier Andy Myers. Photo Courtesy of Andy Meyers
Myers, now the beverage director for José Andrés’s Think-FoodGroup, describes his protégé as a self-starter and attributes that discipline to a fervent desire not to return to his old neighborhood. “I mean, he’s someone who pulled his own ass out of the fire,” Myers says. “He earned every goddamn inch of what he has.”
McCoy quickly made a name for himself as a sommelier and was poached in 2010 by the Little Nell in Aspen, famous for its 20,000-bottle wine cellar and ritzy clientele. Sabato Sagaria, a master sommelier who was then the food and beverage director, recalls feeling some initial anxiety about hiring the relative unknown. For a start, McCoy was new to Aspen, “a very competitive town, whether you’re skiing, biking, studying wine. It’s almost like sommelier CrossFit,” says Sagaria. “And for somebody that had grown up in D.C., never skied before, never really been to the mountains, it was a little bit of a gamble.”
But McCoy threw himself into the work, becoming wine director after passing his master sommelier exam in 2013. And, having perfected the ability to blend in, he also learned to ski after intense practice.
At the time, the sommelier profession was under the spotlight thanks to the popular 2012 documentary Somm, which follows ultra-competitive sommeliers cramming for the test, which only 144 men and 28 women have passed in the Americas chapter since its 1987 founding. The documentary portrays the candidates as “rock stars” of the gastronomic world and the examiners at the Court of Master Sommeliers as all-powerful. This opaque and somewhat arbitrary power became the Court’s undoing.
In 2018, the first of a series of scandals hit, when one examiner shared the identities of wines with favored candidates before the blind taste test. In June 2020, the Court posted support for diversity organizations on Instagram, angering some Black and female sommeliers who felt that the reality did not match the virtue-signaling. Several women later went public with allegations of sexual harassment and assault by members.
The Court apologized, suspended several members and announced an external investigation, which is ongoing. The board of directors resigned and was swiftly replaced, with two women at the helm. Sagaria, who featured in Somm and is on the new board, says the Court is broadening its educational remit, introducing outreach programs with historically Black colleges.
Yet many still call the Court’s relevance into question, including McCoy. “Does it need to exist in America today?” he asks. “I would say no.” He believes the Court “perpetuates elitism in wine” in terms of race and gender, which in turn contributes to the image of wine as an unattainable luxury product, an idea he describes as “absolutely obnoxious.” But he also argues that elite certification, in the best sense of the term, remains a worthwhile endeavor for many, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds. McCoy, who remains a member, hopes the Court will “keep that path open for my community and women as long as it [could be] done in a way that they were respected, they had the fair chance [and] they were safe.”
These days, McCoy spends less time popping corks and more time with spreadsheets. In 2018, he was approached by Gaylon Lawrence, one of his Little Nell regulars, whose multi-billion-dollar family-business holdings include farmland, real estate, HVAC distribution, citrus production and eight regional banks. Lawrence had just added Heitz Cellar, a respected but low-profile winery in St. Helena, Calif., to his portfolio—would McCoy like to run it?
“When I decided to work with him, he was like, ‘Great, here’s the winery, good luck,’” says McCoy. “There’s no manual… I had to figure it out.” He commuted between Aspen and Napa for four months, working both jobs. “I bought 10 pairs of the same black slacks and 25 of the same white dress shirt, and I just wore the same clothes every single day. My team here thought I was insane,” he says. “I didn’t have the time to worry about that.”
But it wasn’t until he started as CEO at Heitz full-time that the real challenge became apparent: The business was in bad shape. He told Lawrence the winery “won’t be profitable—and I don’t mean having no debt, I’m just talking, like, even operationally profitable—for decades and decades.” Then he persuaded his boss to embark on an aggressive acquisition strategy.
In partnership, McCoy and Lawrence proceeded to snap up a series of properties: Haynes Vineyard in 2019 and Burgess Cellars and Stony Hill the following year. Parts of Burgess were destroyed weeks after purchase in the Glass Fire, and a new vineyard and winery space on Howell Mountain will replace the original site. Brendel, an affordably priced range, launched in April, and Ink Grade, an additional Howell Mountain estate, will open this month. Each operates independently, with marketing handled collectively by a new company, Demeine Estates.
Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon (left) and Brendel wine (right). Howell Mountain/Brendel Wines
McCoy, who had never run one company, let alone seven, decided to use his inexperience to create a fresh type of blank-slate, values-driven Napa start-up. “We don’t necessarily operate the way that most operate in the Napa Valley,” where, he says, wineries are “typically owned by very large publicly traded companies [where] it’s quarterly earnings, it’s consolidation, efficiencies. And when I came here, it was very intentional that we didn’t want to do that.” Instead, “we wanted to create a structure where each estate could live individually and independently. So every one of our wineries is run by an individual team. There’s no real crossover. There’s a lot of risk in that, obviously. But it’s what’s necessary to create something special.”
McCoy is grateful to Lawrence for taking “a shot on me running the whole enterprise,” even though, in his own mind, he was “underqualified.” Lawrence begs to differ. In an email, he says McCoy “has a magnetic personality and is extremely creative, yet has the analytical and practical mindset that is necessary to build a vision.”
Wines from Heitz Cellar, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, are prized for their integrity by critics. In 2019, The New York Times compared the winery favorably to “cult cabernet producers… [that] have parlayed scarcity and exorbitant prices to become Napa’s most coveted bottles.” Virginie Boone, a reviewer for Wine Enthusiast magazine, awarded the only 100-point review of her career to a Heitz 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon Martha’s Vineyard in a blind tasting last year. Boone, who knew the Heitz and May families who created the cellar’s original vintages, tells Robb Report, “When I found out it was Heitz… it was like, ‘Oh my God, of course it is.’ I mean, I’ve just had so much respect and love for that winery for so long.” Alice Heitz and Martha May are, she says, some of the “great historic figures in Napa wine,” a legacy she finds perceptible today. “You can almost sense the history and the friendship that’s there and what that can bring to a bottle of wine.”
McCoy says he aims to preserve this integrity, which he considers rare in Napa. “Often in the world of elite wine, unfortunately, there are winemakers who play this game of engineering wines to try to get a certain score rating. We don’t do that,” he says. A Napa winemaker’s real skill, in his opinion, is expressing the region’s special character. “Napa Valley is unique because we have something called a diurnal shift. You get a lot of quality sunlight, you get enough warmth to ripen grapes, but it’s very cold at night. And that creates an environment where you can get ripeness, but freshness of acid. But you have to know how to farm that way. You have to know when to pick and then how to take that fruit and turn it into something that has beautiful nuance aromatically. That, to us, is what a life’s work is really about.”
McCoy’s Roots Fund cofounders Tahiirah Habibi (left) and Ikimi Dubose (right). Photos Courtesy of Tahiirah Habibi and Ikimi Dubose
To that end, he says, he hires winemakers who understand that “philosophically, it’s about man’s connection with nature.” He has had to develop that connection on the fly, having previously known about grape-growing only hypothetically. As a master sommelier, he says, “I learned a lot about the theory of farming, the theory of winemaking and so forth, but it’s very different in the practice . . . . Farming is very humbling. You’re at the absolute mercy of nature.”
Believing that experience requirements disadvantage candidates from unconventional backgrounds, McCoy prioritizes “soulful” qualities in potential employees. A high proportion of his staff is female, including many of the main winemakers, and many are in their 30s, almost all brought on under his watch. He struggles to understand the scarcity of women leaders in the industry. “You wonder, is that a block that people have, not want- ing to hire females?” he says. “It’s very odd to me. Being raised by women, I never had the perspective that a woman wasn’t capable of anything managerially that a man was capable of.”
To improve inclusivity, he set up a nonprofit last June with two Black female wine professionals, Tahiirah Habibi and Ikimi DuBose. The Roots Fund provides scholarships and job placements in the industry for people of color, for most of whom drinking wine is “still far-fetched,” says DuBose. “They have liquor stores in their neighborhoods, and they don’t sell wine.” Going to a wine shop is a journey in more than one sense, she adds. “Most people are afraid. They’re intimidated because they don’t know how to ask about the wine.”
The sommelier who trained him says McCoy is always eager to help lift up someone else. “I can’t imagine the number of people he’s mentored,” says Myers. “He’s Helen of Troy to me, you know—he’s just launched a thousand ships.”
Prioritizing diversity is far from the norm, according to McCoy. “Napa is a very insular culture,” he notes. “People tend to just trade winemakers. And the problem is they just end up carrying the same thought around, the same style of wine.” McCoy likes to recruit from outside Napa and into roles for which hires may have no direct experience. Outsiders, he believes, have an objectivity that allows them to shed the industry’s pretentiousness. “Even inexpensive wine, people market it as a real luxury beverage,” he complains, noting that an ad for “a $10 Pinot Grigio is, like, someone on a yacht, and you’re like, ‘What is this?’ Show it the way it’s being consumed, on somebody’s back patio out of a water glass.” The result, he says, is to make people feel excluded.
The Burgess Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon (left) and Heitz Cellars Lot C-91 (right). Burgess Cellars/Heitz Cellars
Broadening the audience is smart business. Wine consumption in America has been flat for some years, and the “ready-to-drink” category is expected to overtake wine in terms of volume consumption by year’s end. The pandemic created both obstacles and opportunities, and the industry must “adjust or die,” says McCoy. “Now it’s time to be part of the solution, or I think we’ll fade away because people don’t want to support an industry that doesn’t carry the same values that they carry.”
Bucking convention, he does not harbor ambitions to make the most expensive examples in your cellar. “Charging someone $700 for a bottle of wine, I think, is a little silly,” he says. Still, there is only so far that McCoy can democratize his own products. A few of his wines are in the $25-to-$30-a-bottle range, but the top price is $250, and about a third retail for more than $100.
Building the New Jerusalem is not easy. “We work very intensely,” McCoy says, with some pride. “I don’t think anyone in my company ever goes home not completely mentally exhausted,” he says, “because we will go down a path and we’ll have a meeting and the entire business model will change in 45 minutes. And it drives some people insane, but ultimately, if your goal is to run the very best company and create your best work, you can never be married to [one] way of doing something.”
After developing Lawrence Wine Estates at breakneck pace, McCoy isn’t about to kick back just yet. He thinks of time off as cheating—himself. “You get one life and I don’t want to spend too much of it just sort of sitting down,” he says. It might sound like a recipe for burnout, but McCoy says he takes care not to reach that point. He has a girlfriend, sees a therapist, lifts weights and runs long-distance, pausing only to scribble business ideas in a Smythson notebook. When questioned as to how relaxing any of that really is, he explains: “Because of the way I was raised, I dealt with a lot of death, and I have a very clear sense of mortality… I’ll worry about being tired tomorrow, if tomorrow exists.”