When Sommelier Carlton McCoy began a culinary arts course in high school, a career was the last thing on his mind. Turns out, he had a knack for foodservice. A scholarship to The Culinary Institute of America led McCoy to what became his real interest, wine and service. After acing his wine and spirits class, his instructor persuaded him to study wine in Piedmont, Emilia Romagna, and Tuscany.
He worked at Aquavit in New York City before opening Craft Steak in the Meatpacking District. Before moving to DC, McCoy worked at Per Se where the sommeliers were generous about sharing their knowledge. Along the way McCoy never quite lost his sense of adventure, and traveled everywhere from Japan to Italy. He soon settled down at his current home at The Mandarin Oriental in Washington, DC. He began at Cityzen with Chef Eric Ziebold, who catered his Asian-inflected cuisine to the wine rather than the other way around. His current residency at Sou'Wester is a comfortable, feel-good home for McCoy’s expertise.
McCoy achieved the advanced-level exam for the Court of Master Sommeliers and still spends his spare time traveling and populating his wine menu with newly-discovered gems. He’s one of a new breed of sommeliers who wears many hats, designing the cocktail menu for Sou’Wester when he’s not advising customers on their wine selections. He is also assistant manager. You would think all of this responsibility would go to his head, but in fact the exact opposite is true—his dedication to approachable service before ego trumps all. A graduate of the Careers through Culinary Arts Program, McCoy was the honoree of CCAP’s annual event in 2010 as one of the program’s most accomplished front-of-the-house graduates.
Interview with Sommelier Carlton McCoy of Sou’Wester – Washington, DC
Antoinette Bruno: How did you develop an interest in wine?
Carlton McCoy: When I was in school we took a wine course at The CIA. I did extremely well there, got an A-plus and about a year later the wine instructor asked me if I'd like to go to Italy to study wine. So I spent about a month in Italy traveling around Piedmont, Emilia Romagna, and Tuscany. Then when I was at Per Se the sommeliers were great at sharing their knowledge.
AB: Where have you worked previously?
CM: I was at the Four Seasons in DC cooking under Doug Anderson; he's still there. I was 16 with my first restaurant job. I worked at Aquavit for a little while, then I opened Craft Steak in the Meatpacking District, then Per Se, then CityZen, then Sou'Wester.
AB: What are your favorite food and wine pairings?
CM: I'd probably have to say the frog leg and spring garlic soup I had at Jean Georges with a Gruner Veltliner. That pairing was very simple and it made sense. Eric [Ziebold]'s a really good chef and his food is also very simple. He makes it easy for us a lot of the time. He loves Burgundy, so half the time he cooks for Burgundy and cooks for wine pairings.
AB: If you could go anywhere for culinary travel where would it be and why?
CM: I’d go to Burgundy and I'd stay for two weeks in same town.
AB: If you could have any chef cook for you who would it be and why?
CM: Xavier Le Roux. I was a fellow at Escoffier Room for a year. He’s everything that I love about the industry. When I met him he was 65 years old and couldn't imagine sitting there at a desk working; this is what he wanted to do. His food is very clean, not fussy; it’s all about technique and nothing to do with trying to create something new. He knows the classics like the back of his hand. I never saw him use a recipe. He's from Normandy [so uses] tons of butter and cream…an amazing cook.
AB: Describe your fondest wine memory.
CM: I remember when I was at the bar at CityZen, there was a bottle of Quarts de Chaume, Baumard. We're sitting there after one of our tastings, it's two or three am, we’d done some blind tastings, and this bottle had been open for two days. We were surprised it got better after two days! We sat there for five minutes just smelling the wine, we were so mesmerized. That was probably where I first started to realize that wine is a living, breathing thing. No phase is better—it’s like people. Life isn't very different.
AB: How did you build the wine list at Sou’Wester?
CM: What I try to do is focus on class varietals and regions I’m not convinced that most people pay enough attention to wine to easily recognize the characteristics of something they drink all the time. So I believe it benefits the guest more to offer these wines in an environment where they can enjoy them with great food and create a relationship with the wine. People don’t always come to dinner to be educated…sometimes they just want dinner. So it’s extremely important for us to have a higher level of emotional intelligence and judge whether or not the guest is looking for a new experience. If not, we like to offer diversity with both producer and vintage. If the guest is looking for a new wine experience, we do offer a section in the list entitled “Other Super Interesting Whites/Reds”. Our bottle price range from $30-$300, but 80% of the list is under $100; that can be a night out or a celebration.
AB: What’s your favorite wine?
CM: That’s like asking a music professor what his favorite genre of music is. It depends very much on my mood. Sometimes, I don’t drink wine at all. If you handed me a glass of DRC after a long night and I crave a cold beer, then I probably wouldn’t be very interested. I would still drink it though. It does not always depend on what I am eating, either. Sometimes what I am eating has nothing to do with the beverage I crave. Pairings don’t always have to be thought-provoking. Sometimes it’s just food and wine and that OK! It’s much more important for you to drink what you want. You will usually enjoy it more.
AB: What’s your favorite wine resource book?
CM: Sotheby's is a good go-to for all regions.
AB: Where do you see yourself in five years?
CM: I don't know. If you had asked me that a couple of years ago I wouldn't have said CityZen. When we opened here I didn't know much about classic cocktails, but I got more press about the cocktail menu than the wine list; and it was only meant to be an accessory. I became interested, as I do have a culinary background, in infusions and syrups and foams. So I said, ‘I'll try it.’ I just put on this Bitter Italian I love [that is like a] Negroni with gin, Campari, lemon juice, triple sec, rosemary foam, bright acid, bitter. When I thought about it, I thought I'd do a different texture—this came easy to me. Wine is more knowledge and study. I think the experience I get here is great—I can competently run any beverage program. I haven’t mastered beer yet—a Miller High Life, ice-cold, is one of the best things. We serve it on the beer list here, in a silver [Champagne] bucket as the “Champ of Beers.”