Everyone thought Carlton McCoy would become a chef. As a young boy, he spent hours watching his grandmother cook at her catering business, run out of the Independent Church of God in the Woodland area of southeast Washington. Then he started helping her chop vegetables and prepare the recipes.
At Anacostia High School, McCoy enrolled in a class sponsored by the Careers Through Culinary Arts Program, or C-CAP, which helps underprivileged high school students prepare for restaurant careers. In 2002, he won a citywide cooking contest sponsored by C-CAP and earned a full scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
After earning his culinary degree, McCoy worked in some of New York’s finest restaurants, including Aquavit, Craft Steak and Per Se. He ultimately found his true calling in the front of the house, serving wine instead of dishing food. Last month, at the ripe age of 28, McCoy became a master sommelier. As such, he joins the elite of the world’s restaurant wine professionals.
That’s no easy feat. The Court of Master Sommeliers, an international association founded in London in the 1970s to promote excellence and professionalism in hotel and restaurant beverage service, has anointed only 201 master sommeliers worldwide. In North America, 133 have earned the title — 19 of them women. McCoy is the second master sommelier of African American descent, after Thomas Price of Seattle, who achieved the title last year.
To earn the MS diploma, McCoy passed the Court’s four levels of increasingly rigorous examinations on wine and spirits knowledge, tasting ability and the finer points of service. In May, 63 candidates who had passed the challenging third, or advanced, level tried for the master sommelier diploma. McCoy was one of four who passed.
“It’s a cultural thing,” McCoy says of the small number of black members of this elite rank. “There is little wine on the table in the black community.” Wine was never on the menu at his home in the Fairfax Village neighborhood of Southeast Washington. He first tasted the grape at the CIA, and turned to wine professionally while working at CityZen in Washington, under the tutelage of sommelier Andrew Myers.
“When I met him, he was a food runner at CityZen,” recalls Myers, who has achieved the advanced level in the Court of Master Sommeliers hierarchy. “He said he wanted to learn about wine. To be honest, everyone who works there says that, so I told him to show up two hours early the next day and don’t clock in.”
McCoy did regularly show up early and cheerfully mop the cellar floor and shlep cases of wine back and forth. It’s sommeliers’ grunt work. Before long, Myers invited him to taste wines and introduced him to a group of Washington sommeliers working for the MS certification under the tutelage of Kathryn Morgan, who became a master sommelier in 2010.
“I couldn’t have had better mentors than Kathy and Andy,” McCoy says. But Myers, who ranks as one of Washington’s top sommeliers, quickly recognized a rising star.
“I have never seen anyone so naturally walk the tightrope between perfect, French, fine-dining humility and American bravado-charm as Carlton,” Myers says of his former acolyte. “He approaches a table and the guests know immediately that they are perfectly attended to and yet perfectly welcome to be themselves. This is, without a doubt, the hardest task for anyone in our profession to pull off. This kid does it with ease.”
McCoy entered the master sommelier program with gusto, earning the title in just over five years. Along the way, in late 2011, he left Washington for his current position at the Little Nell hotel in Aspen, Colo., a haven for food aficionados that doubles as a retreat for master sommeliers and candidates in that program.
Now that he has earned the signature MS lapel pin, McCoy says he may take some time to enjoy Aspen.
“I wasn’t given a ton of opportunity in my life,” McCoy says. “But when I was — with C-CAP and the master sommelier program — I took complete advantage of them.”