We Love Drinks continues our series where we look behind the bar, profiling the many people – from mixologists to bartenders, sommeliers to publicans – who make your drinks experience happen.
Ah, the mystique of the sommelier. How many times have you actually felt comfortable engaging in that dance of the wine list with one? There’s the delicate waltz about price point, the fear of disapproval of your favorite varietal. Unless you are a wine connoisseur or see something you recognize, no doubt it’s been awkward at best.
Enter Carlton McCoy, native Washingtonian and sommelier for Sou’Wester, Chef Eric Ziebold’s second restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental. Or rather, enter-exit-enter-exit-here-there-everywhere Carlton McCoy. I’ve never seen a sommelier with this kind of high energy. Almost like that perfect host at a private dinner party, checking in guests, smiling and milling about in an friendly open manner – he completely demystifies the role.
Gone are the days when people will accept a raised eyebrow reaction to a request for a moderately priced bottle. As we learn more about wine, we are less likely to approach a sommelier like a high priest, and certainly in rough economic weather that’s less likely to be tolerated. The best ones understand this and want to share their passion in an approachable manner. Carlton has this quality, times ten. I would never hesitate to ask him anything about wine, and I know he’d give an honest, no-nonsense reply.
This refreshing attitude comes backed with a pretty impressive pedigree. He’s an Advanced Level Sommelier from the Court of Master Sommeliers (that’s one level away from being a Master Sommelier, of which there are only 168 in the world). But Carlton began his career in the culinary world, attending the Culinary Institute of America with stints at famed New York restaurants Aquavit and Per Se. He returned to DC to be Chef Ziebold’s assistant sommelier at CityZen while also managing the cheese cart there. His official duties at Sou’Wester include managing the some 250 bottle wine list, all-American beer list and cocktail menu. Having worn many different hats suits his expansive style well.
He’s also refreshingly humble talking about the cocktail program, his first! “Chef and I are lightweights,” he jokes, “so these are $10 cocktails you can have without falling over.”