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From Somm to CEO: The Story of Carlton McCoy

Amiee White Beazley | May 15, 2019 | Food & Drink Feature Features

The Little Nell’s Carlton McCoy leaves his position as wine director to take the reins at Napa’s Heitz Cellar.

McCoy was one of the youngest master sommeliers ever when he earned the title in 2013.

McCoy was one of the youngest master sommeliers ever when he earned the title in 2013. 

Aspen’s loss is Napa Valley’s gain as The Little Nell’s wine director, Carlton McCoy, takes another move forward in a career whose trajectory can only be described as meteoric. In April, McCoy moved west to become president and CEO of one of the longest-running and most beloved wineries in the California wine scene: Heitz Cellar ( It is one more step in a path that includes The Culinary Institute of America, Thomas Keller’s PerSe, CityZen in his hometown of Washington, D.C., and The Little Nell, where he started in 2010 and three years later became a master sommelier. All of this before turning the ripe ol’ age of, ahem, 34.

For McCoy, his years spent in Aspen were akin to finishing school. “When I first came to Aspen, I was a tight-ass,” he says with a laugh. “There was a dishwasher in the kitchen who used to call me ‘Corbata,’ or ‘The Tie’ in Spanish. After a couple of seasons, Chubby [The Little Nell’s food and beverage director, Csaba Oveges] says, ‘You know, you don’t have to wear a tie. No one here wears a tie, not even the hotel manager.’ So, I dropped the tie and started to relax.” He also dropped the cigarettes and adopted a new love for the outdoors, learning to cycle, run a marathon (or two) and ski, all while building a James Beard Award-nominated wine program 22,000 bottles deep.

McCoy not only grew the wine program’s prestige but also opened it up to a younger generation from all backgrounds, ready and wanting to dig deeper through brown bag wine tastings, The Little Nell Wine Academy and the establishment of the now-famous Red Light Lounge.

“I think I learned more about genuine hospitality from Dalton O’Connor than anyone else I know,” McCoy says of the longtime server and beloved Aspenite, who died in 2017. “He showed me that hospitality is how you make someone feel. Service is the technical side of things—making sure the wine is served at the right temperature and the right time, the building blocks of what we do. But what Dalton taught me is that the measure of hospitality is how someone felt when they left the restaurant.”

McCoy’s legacy at the Nell was his ability to joyfully dispense wine knowledge with boyish enthusiasm. Through every glass he poured, he made every guest—from newbie to wine snob—feel as if they were a part of something special. To McCoy, we raise a glass.

New Labels

Just four years after joining The Little Nell team as head sommelier, Chris Dunaway was named to succeed Carlton McCoy, managing the hotel’s 22,000-bottle wine program as its new wine director.

Dunaway’s interest in wine can be traced to his childhood in Kentucky, where his grandparents had a garden that included grape vines used for winemaking. After college, Dunaway attended the American Sommelier Association and took positions at some of New York’s best restaurants before moving to Aspen. “I want to add to the legacy Carlton built upon and continue to refine it,” Dunaway says. “I want to continue to make The Little Nell an exciting place to learn more about wine in a dynamic and engaging venue, which is what drew me to this program in the first place.”


Last year, McCoy partnered with Champagne house Billecart-Salmon to produce an exclusive cuvée of pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier for The Little Nell. “We have always loved the wines of Billecart-Salmon and decided that given their legacy and incredibly high standards, they would be the best partner for us,” says McCoy. 675 E. Durant Ave., the


Photography by: The Little Nell