Editor’s Note: The CNN Originals show “Nomad with Carlton McCoy” premieres this Sunday, May 1 at 10pm ET.
Carlton McCoy’s favorite ritual is one as old as human memory: Share a meal and a drink to more intimately understand a person or a place. That exercise is the framework of the master sommelier’s latest endeavor – the CNN Original Series “Nomad” – in which McCoy explores what he calls the “pillars of culture” through the lesser-seen sides of different destinations, including Seoul, Paris and his home city of Washington, DC.
McCoy became a force in the wine industry when he was granted the hard-earned title of master sommelier in 2013 – he was among the youngest, at 28 years old, and only the second African American to do so. Now he’s the first Black CEO of a Napa winery, helming the historic Heitz Cellar. But rather than host a show about wine, which he said doesn’t really film well, McCoy wanted to explore “what makes the identity of a culture,” he explained. “Nomad” is about “understanding how fast the world changes, being able to revisit places that we all thought we knew and…how the people who occupy the spaces evolve those cultures.”
McCoy experiences art, architecture, fashion and culinary scenes around the globe, but primarily through the deep connections he forges with people in each place he visits – and often over food or drinks. In Saint Denis, France, he spends an afternoon with gallerist Mariane Ibrahim in the studio of artist Raphaël Barontini, during which Barontini serves the food of his mixed European, Caribbean and African heritage. In Wonju-Si, South Korea, he has a soju tasting with Korean-American rapper Jay Park and brewer Kim Won-ho, who have collaborated on a new soju brand.
Beverages aren’t always front and center on “Nomad,” but McCoy’s experiences in the wine world are always present, as he speaks to other people who are equally passionate about their careers and have often faced barriers to reach their level of success. McCoy entered the culinary world after learning to cook from his grandmother, who raised him and ran a catering business. He won a citywide cooking contest in DC that paid his way through the Culinary Institute of America and led to his first wine course, setting him on his path.
Winemaking is largely generational, with families passing down expensive vineyard land, and McCoy didn’t have the same type of access that many of his peers did. But he sees some much-needed shifts occurring.
“You can create your own brand actually for very little money to start, I think that now is becoming more apparent,” he said. “You don’t need a winery anymore to have a cool wine brand that is very successful. That narrative is changing.” He believes that with the wine world – like all the other important markers of culture – making access easier for underrepresented perspectives will only be for the better. “When the fashion industry, music industry, visual arts, really started to open the door to people of color, the industries (became) one, more successful and two, far more exciting,” he said.
McCoy has a lifetime of memories of sharing beverages with people, including the corn liquor he drank with the patriarchs of his family down South and rare vintages imbibed with winemakers he most admires.
“It is really about connecting people,” he said. “Do people sit at home and have a tequila on the rocks or a glass of wine? Absolutely. But it’s almost always better shared with someone else.
“It is a ceremony of sharing (a) beverage together,” he added. “That, to me, has always been the most valuable part.”
In that spirit, McCoy shares four bottles that have the most significance to him.
Most memorable beverages
1978 Hubert de Montille Pommard 1er Cru Rugiens
In 2011, when McCoy was studying to become a master sommelier, a friend commented that his exceptional knowledge of French wine must be the result of regular travel to its country of origin. But McCoy felt a sense of shame kick in at the assumption.
“I’d never been (to France) at that point. I studied books, I drank all the great wines in the world,” he recalled. “It was a bit of an embarrassing moment.”
That night McCoy booked a flight to Burgundy and before he left, he discovered this “absolutely exceptional” Hubert de Montille vintage – de Montille is “one of the godfathers of modern-day burgundy” wines, he notes – thanks to a good 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 Easter weekend.
“I ended up just sitting in this courtyard,” he said. “I’m by myself. At this point I’m wearing flip flops, shorts and a t-shirt. I’m looking very American.” A few beers in, he realized to his surprise that de Montille himself was in the same courtyard. McCoy introduced himself and they shared wine together; the winemaker was so confused that he was alone on Easter weekend that he invited him to join his family that night for dinner.
“He requested a leg of lamb from the chef for a traditional Easter meal,” McCoy said of de Montille, who died in 2014 at the age of 84. “We had such an exceptional night. There’s a picture of me standing next to him smiling. It was like a dream. I didn’t sleep that night – it was just surreal.”
Lobos 1707 Tequila
Lobos 1707 is the joint venture of several famous figures in basketball, including LeBron James, but McCoy is closest with the premium tequila brand’s founding partner, Maverick Carter. McCoy and Carter met some years ago while drinking wine with friends and discovered their paths had run close together but never crossed until that point.
“We had an enormous amount in common. We were raised in almost identical neighborhoods (in DC), similar situations – he was raised by his grandmother, (had) troubles with (his) parents and we really connected on a human level,” McCoy said. Through their meeting, the “Nomad” host keenly felt the concept of sonder – the realization that your life is small and that “billions of other people have their own reality,” as he put it. “I’m here in my little world and he’s a mile away. And now we end up meeting years later,” he said.
He watched Carter fully immerse himself in Mexico’s tequila culture to bring Lobos 1707 to market in 2020, and says it’s been a “blessing” to see how his life has changed because of the beverage industry.
“We both live and work in circles with people who had a lot more access…to wealth and education, and what we call wholesome families and safer neighborhoods,” McCoy explained. “(We have an) ability to connect on a plane that very few people in our worlds, in our circles, would ever understand.”
2017 Ink Grade Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon
This wine brand with winemaker Matt Taylor was the first that McCoy had been part of creating after investing in a vineyard, but at first McCoy was unfamiliar with the history of the land.
“I hadn’t really heard of the vineyard,” McCoy said. “And I started to do some research on the vineyard and found out that it actually had been developed in the 1870s. And it was part of this whole pre- and then post-Prohibition movement of building a wine industry in Napa Valley.” Walking through the woods, he could still see the copper stills used to make hooch – a homemade liquor – when alcohol had been banned in the US.
“It’s one of these wild, crazy, high-elevation terraced vineyards that you really feel completely off the grid, and you’re there, there’s no signs of life, you don’t see any homes, any roads, anything like you’re in the woods in this vineyard,” he said. “And having the opportunity to create a single vineyard estate wine from beginning to end from a very historical site like that – very few people in the world get to do that.”
1996 Dalla Valle Pietra Rosso Napa Valley
When McCoy began dating his girlfriend, Maya Dalla Valle, who is, as he described, “an intimidatingly exceptional winemaker,” both of his parents and her father had passed away. He knew they both understood that kind of grief, but he’d never asked her about it in depth.
“It’s not something that you typically want to sit around and talk about,” McCoy explained. “I figure when people want to share things, they will, and it’ll just happen in time.”
Dalla Valle had traveled around the world to work for different estates, but she had moved back to Napa to take over her father’s winery alongside her mother. When McCoy and Dalla Valle were out to dinner one night, she saw this bottle on the wine list – it was a vintage her Italian father had made that was dear to him because it was the only one in which he used a specific grape from Tuscany, harvested in Napa.
The grapes “weren’t great for that site,” McCoy said, so “it was never the best wine that they made. But it was the one he was very proud of because it’s a little piece of Italy here in Napa.”
Incredulous that the restaurant carried the wine, Dalla Valle and McCoy ordered it and shared the bottle and she told him the full story over dinner.
“Listening to her talk about the story of that wine – and just how proud it made her – (there) was a connection that she would always have with her father through that wine,” McCoy said. “It was really special.”