Wink Ink: Carlton McCoy making move from Aspen to Napa
The news came as a surprise to many.
Carlton McCoy, wine director at The Little Nell hotel and a fixture in the Aspen wine community, had taken a new job. It may have even surprised McCoy. “I thought I had my forever job, working for the Crown family and Mike Kaplan here in Aspen,” he related in a recent interview at element 47, whose wine cellar and restaurant floor served as his office for nearly a decade. “If this opportunity had not come along, I might never have left,” he added with a smile that blended both nostalgia and a palpable sense of excitement for the future.
“This opportunity,” of which he speaks, is his new position as president and CEO of Heitz Cellar in Napa Valley. One of the most historic American wineries, Heitz is fortuitously positioned to take advantage of a combination of heritage and assets to expand its role in Napa and in the broader world of wine. Consider that Heitz’s holdings include over 400 acres of prime vineyards in the Napa Valley, ranging from Howell Mountain to Spring Mountain and from Rutherford to Oak Knoll. The winery has a near 60-year-long legacy of producing distinctive and collectible cabernet sauvignon made in a unique style that was the hallmark of Joe Heitz, who founded the winery in 1961.
Just under a year ago, Gaylon Lawrence Jr., a Tennessee-based billionaire and frequent visitor to the Nell who had shared many bottles with McCoy over the years, made his first foray into wine, buying Heitz Cellar for a wine-press reported $180 million from the founding family. That purchase included over 1,000 acres of land (including the 400 acres of vines), a tasting room smack dab in the heart of the Napa Valley and a 100-year-old stone-constructed winery on Taplin Road high above the valley floor.
Given this union of resources and history, it is no wonder that McCoy is enthused.
“Our goal is to position Heitz to where it should be as one of the luxury brands in the Napa Valley. We want to educate people on the history of Heitz and help people understand the Heitz palate,” he said about his mission going forward. The Highway 29 tasting room will be extensively renovated in the near future and will adapt the patina of a “Michelin three-star dining room,” according to McCoy. “We will be placing an extra emphasis on hospitality.”
As far as the winery operations, the possibilities appear limitless for a winery that already produces 30,000 to 40,000 cases per year of wine (depending upon vintage), the vast majority of which is cabernet sauvignon sourced from single vineyards, including the famed Martha’s Vineyard in the Oakville appellation. McCoy sees growth options within the current holdings.
“We own the Ink Grade Ranch (a high-elevation vineyard on Howell Mountain) that we have been selling fruit from to other high-end makers. In 2016, our winemaker, Brittney Sherwood, asked the Heitz family if she could start vinifying some wine from the vineyard and she made 400 cases of a Howell Mountain Cabernet,” he said. “It absolutely blew my mind. We barrel-tasted and it was like nothing else I ever had. It was like, if you were to mix a Saint-Émilion with a Northern Rhône syrah.”
There are other potential projects, as well. “The Heitz family had all of these oddball varietals planted in experimental lots, like touriga nacional, bastardo, malvasia and grignolino (Heitz has long produced a wine from this Italian varietal).” These wines could find their way into another label.
Lawrence has indicated that youth shall be served in his hiring for key positions at the winery. The 34-year-old McCoy will be working alongside the aforementioned 29-year-old Sherwood, who began working for the Heitz family as an intern and ascended meteorically to her current post. It is a bold move, but one that indicates a plan to marry tradition with contemporary concepts. The Lawrence family, which owns over 300,000 acres of agricultural land, employed similar tactics of linking the old and new in the revitalization of a farm town they own, Wilson, Arkansas, in the Mississippi Delta.
For McCoy, the new position is the next step in a career that has escalated with alacrity. Raised in a rough patch of Washington D.C., he developed an interest in the culinary arts at an early age that led to a scholarship at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. Following a kitchen stint at Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York City, he returned to Washington where he took a position in the kitchen at CityZen. It was here that he first found a passion for wine. “Andy Myers (a fellow Master) was a great mentor,” he said.
Hired in 2010 at The Little Nell, his passion became an obsession and three years later he passed the rigorous Court of Master Sommeliers exam at the age of 29. During his time in Aspen he oversaw the Wine Spectator Award-winning wine program at the Nell while also working with best friend Csaba Oveges (director of food and beverage) to build the tiny wine cellar in the basement of element 47, which has become a must-stop for global wine connoisseurs.
But perhaps even greater than his impact on the wine community here has been the community’s impact on him.
“When I took the position at the Nell I thought I was not yet qualified,” he said. “And then when I became the wine director, same thing. But the Nell took the chains off and gave me the chance to grow and to learn so much. I’ll always be grateful.”
Personally he has made life-long friends like Oveges and met his partner, Elleree Fletcher, who will be moving to Napa with him this April. Oh, and he has also adopted the Aspen lifestyle. “When I moved to Aspen I had never played any sports or done anything physical. Now my lifestyle involves running (he has completed two New York marathons) and cycling. It has changed my life.”
Now he turns another page.
“I haven’t really thought about anything but the job yet,” he replied when asked if he has considered the amazing trajectory of his life’s path. “I’m really just in the middle of it and I want to keep moving. Maybe one day I’ll stop and think about it. But for now I’m just moving forward.”
And seeking new Heitz.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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