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How Napa Executive Carlton McCoy Is Opening the Door for Diversity in the Wine Industry

As the second African American and one of the youngest people to ever earn the Master Sommelier title, McCoy is no stranger to being a changemaker. 

Photo courtesy of Hermes Rivera via Unsplash

Carlton McCoy, Jr. is one of those rare people who has taken an industry by storm. Just google his name and you’ll find a myriad of articles on how he has risen through the ranks to become one of the wine industry’s newest heavy hitters. And as the second African American and one of the youngest people to ever earn the Master Sommelier title—the highest qualification in the wine industry, which only 269 people have earned globally—it seems fitting for McCoy. 

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Though he is now known for his work in the wine industry, McCoy entered the industry through the kitchen. He was raised by his grandmother in Washington, D.C. and says cooking was a significant part of his childhood. Through the Careers Through Culinary Arts Program, which gives underserved teenagers the skills to move into successful culinary careers, McCoy won a cooking competition that earned him a full scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). This, he says, was a major turning point in his life, as he had not been planning to go to college. And while attending CIA was a big culture shock, McCoy says it was a cool, yet intense, experience.

“CIA’s like the military. You have to show up every day clean shaven, creased neckerchief, the big toques, sharp knives. If the chef can’t slice a sheet of paper with your knife, you have to go home and sharpen your knives, like a very, very intense environment,” McCoy says. “I found it to be very fun actually. I know it’s very odd, but I thought it was fun.” At just 19, McCoy was a teaching assistant at the Escoffier Room, a CIA student-run French restaurant that became The Bocuse Restaurant in 2012. 

After earning his bachelor’s in hotel restaurant management, McCoy moved to New York, where he moved to the front of house. He found that servers made more money than cooks, so he became a server with the intention that it would be a short-term gig. But he ended up really enjoying getting to connect with people over food and wine.

“I like talking to people about food; I like connecting with people,” he says “It was something I really missed. When you’re cooking lots, it’s very pleasant, you love cooking. You don’t ever get to connect with people. You’re just doing the task. And I really like to bring food to people and tell them about food and interact with them.” 

So, a manager told him that to progress, he’d have to learn more about wine. “It’s a big part of the business model of restaurants,” he says. “So, I started studying wine as an economic thing. It was a business thing.”

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This was how he came to learn about the Court of Master Sommeliers. For five years, he rigorously studied wine. And at 28 years old, he became the second-youngest person in the world to pass the Master Sommelier exam. After traveling the globe to learn about wine and the people and companies that produce it, McCoy moved to Aspen, Colo. to work at the five-star hotel The Little Nell, where after two years, he became the wine director. It was here that he met the Lawrence family. “We really hit it off and started to have some discussions about investments in the Napa Valley and what that could look like,” McCoy recalls.

Together, McCoy and Gaylon Lawrence, Jr. bought Heitz Cellar, a whole host of vineyards and a tasting room. McCoy is now the managing partner of the Lawrence Wine Estates and CEO and president of Heitz Cellar, making McCoy the first Black CEO of a Napa winery. 

“I think my existing in this space, in a high position, hopefully can lead as an example to show others that it’s an option for them,” he says. “They shouldn’t be given anything, no one should be given anything, but just psychologically, seeing, ‘hey look, this is something I could do.’ To me, it’s very powerful, and it’s worth it to me to work hard to take my career as far as I can just to show people what they’re capable of.”

McCoy also cofounded The Roots Fund in 2020 with Ikimi Dubose to help create a pathway for Black and Indigenous people to engage with and pursue careers in the wine industry. “What we wanted to do is to really examine why we felt people of color were not engaged in and working in the wine industry,” he says. “One was a lack of exposure culturally and socially. So, you were less likely to be in social circles with people who drank wine for a number of reasons.”

The Roots Fund offers wine education, mentorship and help pursuing a career in the industry. “The great thing about the way Ikimi has structured our organization is there’s very low overhead. Almost all the money goes directly into efforts for candidates,” McCoy says. “So, it’s been very fulfilling to be a part of the organization that’s actually doing something that’s going to have an impact, not just be sort of some fluff organization.”

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So, what does McCoy want the future of the wine industry to look like? “My ultimate goal is to make sure that all barriers are broken down, where candidates who want the opportunity to enter the industry have them.”

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