Down in the depths of Aspen’s renowned The Little Nell hotel, marvellous vinous odysseys are staged for guests at one of the finest cellars in the land.
Curious connoisseurs are led through the working end of the Nell to reach this splendid subterranean grotto, replete with appreciative graffiti and a superb collection of the world’s best wines.
Here in the soft light an ebullient wine staff conduct informative, vaguely troglodytic, tours amid the racks and cases for visitors wishing to learn a thing or two about fine wine, whist sipping samples of the same.
The current ringmaster behind The Nell’s reputation for wine excellence is its amiable Wine Director, Carlton McCoy.
This chap is a natural – he lives and breathes the nectar of the gods, delights in vintages, terroir, varietals, the great wine regions and matching heavenly drops with superb cuisine.
It’s his mission to make sure the diners at the hotel’s award-winning Element 47 restaurant walk out perfectly sated, highly impressed and chatting excitedly about their next gastronomical sojourn.
The popular cliché of sommelier or wine director as a haughty fellow sporting a bulbous roseate schnoz and cocked eyebrow, clad in bowtie and tails with ornate silver cup asway on a neck chain…is not what you get at The Nell.
Carlton and his dynamic young wine staff – all are under 35 – are the modern face of American wine expertise and fine dining panache.
But don’t be deceived: these guys really know their stuff and have the cellar to grant even the most kingly wine wish at table.
The Starfish caught up with The Nell’s vino supremo on our recent visit to Aspen, Colorado.
It seems you were made for this job, Carlton. How did you get started?
I was at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. I actually studied to be a classic French chef and had to do a wine course as a part of those studies. At first I was terrified it was something we had to do, but after a few weeks I really took to it. I got a high mark and won a scholarship in the wine class, which was probably a pretty good sign.
After that, I worked in New York and DC under a lot of sommeliers who were very passionate. I suppose I really got bit by the bug when I was in DC and things developed from there.
The Nell has always had an outstanding reputation for wine and cuisine matching. What was it like to start working here?
When I arrived I was a sommelier, not the wine director, so I had the opportunity to sit back and watch what was going on. Aspen is a unique market and you can’t really apply the rules that exist elsewhere. You have to understand the flows of business, and exactly the type of experience people are looking for here. If you look at our wine list, you will see that we have a great New World selection; that’s been the case since about 1997. But we are also well know for our fantastic Old World wines.
I’m really impressed with the knowledge and enthusiasm in your team – and they’re all so young!
We are probably the youngest team working at this level in the US. I’m 31, and the other team members are younger. We like to put extra emphasis on approachability, accessibility and interacting with people on the floor. It’s got to do with emotional intelligence, really making it all more fun, and not so formal.
Wine has a lot of tradition attached: is this innovative approach working for you?
Absolutely. The tasting room downstairs is very much a part of this experience. We like to remain creative. We’ve done some cool promotions in the last few years. We did a thing called the Dealers Choice. Every day we would pick a bottle of wine, put in a bag and we would blind taste the guests. It was great fun and gives guests a whole new approach to drinking wine. These different promotions and ideas keep us really fresh and make the job very interesting.
Is good training a key part of your approach?
I put extra emphasis on training staff so they are very knowledgeable about the wines. In the last year, 35 staff members have passed sommelier exams at different levels. We now have 38 people with some knowledge of wine and how to explain it to people. If you are a server and you want to create that dialogue with a guest, we encourage it, even if your goal is not to be a sommelier. We like the staff to be well versed in wine, food, cocktails – and the guests really appreciate it.
What wines are today’s Nell guests requesting?
We have such a global clientele. Some will be after classics like Burgundy, Bordeaux or some will say something like I want the great labels from California; so we have got to have it all. I think that is the definition of earning a Grand Award, which we have: you are pretty much catering for all regions, tastes and requests.
Wines styles seem to drift in and out of favour over time. Is this something your experience here at The Nell?
We see trends, and they do go in cycles. Nowadays it’s pretty rare for someone to discover a new wine-growing region. Most have existed for a long time, so it’s just a matter of time before we catch on and stock wines from these places. Bordeaux has been around since the 1700s, but it still goes in and out of fashion. It’s actually back in fashion now. But only five years ago you couldn’t sell Bordeaux. At the high end, people have always bought First Growth Bordeaux wines, but no one was buying the classic $200 bottle. Now I can’t keep them on the list, they are back in.
Why do you think this is the case?
I don’t think there has to be reasons, it just is. It’s a classic region and they make very good wine, so it’s only a matter of time before they are popular again.
Would you say price point plays a role?
A lot of it probably has to do with the prices of Bordeaux. For a while there, they went up dramatically. You look at the 2000, ’05, ’09, ’10 – the wines were so incredibly expensive people couldn’t afford them, so sales dropped off. They kind of killed themselves off. Then people started realising that they could purchase older stuff, rather than the over-priced recent vintages, and for good prices. Currently people love the wines from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s.
Yet, unlike Bordeaux, where they can buy another vineyard and produce more wine, you can’t make more of a wine like Romanee-Conti La Tache. And now you have 10 times the number of people in the world who want it. It’s a different game. People are ruining friendships over wine allocations. It’s pretty gnarly, but that’s what comes from being a consumable luxury in demand.
It’s not like you buy a Ferrari and you have that Ferrari forever. No: you buy the bottle, you open it, drink it, and it’s done. You must buy a new vintage – that’s the nature of fine wine.
Barolo has definitely figured out its act. We certainly have people requesting them. Obviously our job is not to just fill orders, but to sell the wines through dialogue and discussing the properties or a wine. But people have been asking for Barolo – and they are very aware of what it is. There has been a concerted investment in marketing by the region – so this Italian style is popular at the moment.
More elegant styles of wine from the New World are increasingly popular and people are also asking for them. Bordeaux-style cabernets and Burgundian-style Pinot Noir and chardonnays from all around the world are also in demand.
What are you thoughts on Australian wines?
There are some excellent wines coming out of Australia. I’m currently very interested in the wines coming out of Tasmania. They are not cheap, but I was very impressed on a recent visit there.
What do you look for in a good wine?
I’m not one of those sommeliers who harp on, saying wine must be under 15% alcohol, or this or that. You taste the wine and ask logical questions. Is it well made? Is the oak integrated? Is the alcohol integrated? If you look at the wines of Amarone, Borolo, Ribeiro and Priorat – these are very warm Italian and Spanish regions. For example, Amarone Reserve can be 16 or 17% alcohol. My problem is never with the weight or the richness of the wine, but whether it is well made.
How many bottles do you have in the cellar here?
We range between from 20,000 to 22,000. It‘s a lot of inventory, but it’s very important to us to be able to offer a wide selection for the tastes of guests.
You’d have to fly the flag for US producers in your cellar, wouldn’t you?
We have a nice collection of the finest Californian wines – Cabernets, Pinots, Chardonnays. They are doing awesome work in California. We would be foolish to ignore or neglect what is happening in our own winemaking. I think in the US has come farther, faster than any other country. You couldn’t argue that for the 1950s, but in the 60s we started making some really good quality wine. Some New World areas have achieved in 50 or 60 years what other regions have taken hundreds of years to achieve. Obviously, the US had the infrastructure and prerequisites to achieve success. Our economy was strong and we had France as a great example.
Yet The Nell has always had a European-based wine program and always will. That’s what our clients want and that’s what we like to pour with the food that our chefs prepare. European wines are often a better marriage with our cuisine.
I spotted some pretty rare wines in the cellar. What are some of your favourites downstairs?
We’ve got some Mouton Rothschild 1926 and Latour ’37. Our Château Lafite goes back to 1945. We also have a selection of Burgundies from the ’29 vintage. There is Madeira going back to the 1840s. Our Domaine Romanee-Conti in the six litre bottles is a real collectible. They are wonderful; we really guard those ones! People come here specially to drink them.
Do you travel much in your work?
Being able to travel to France, Spain, Italy, Austria – all over the world – is a real plus. Even if you don’t come back with ideas, you are reinvigorated and with the passion renewed.
I mean, to walk through the vineyards of Burgundy on a beautiful sunny day, you’d have to be a dud not to love it. The culture is wonderful. I also study how people dine in the Old World and learn a lot every time. You just have some phenomenal times learning about, and drinking, great wines in foreign lands. I’m always refreshed by it.
What’s the largest wine spend you’ve had in the restaurant here at The Nell?
I’d say the largest table I have had is about $100,000. That was a group that ordered four bottles. Needless to say, they were drinking some great stuff. They really knew what they were drinking. But you don’t generally sell wine by someone taking an order; you have a dialogue. The guest wants a bottle and you help mould that experience with them. That’s our goal: to give them the very best wine and dining experience. We want them to walk out wandering when is the next time they are going to return. That’s our goal: to make people happy and to create a beautiful experience.
What is the general perception of today’s sommelier?
I think the modern American sommelier has changed the perception of what we do. We don’t have a long history of wine drinking here in the States. We didn’t grow up drinking wine, so it was very new to us. We have been a beer and whiskey culture. I think we treat wine with a more jovial, playful approach than the older cultures. It’s not a good or bad thing; it is what it is. I always encourage my sommeliers to be very approachable, to be ready to discuss anything with you. You always have a better relationship with the guest when you are completely open.
How do you feel about the mix of wine and food today?
I think where we are at with wine and food today is incredible. People are having so much fun enjoying them well matched. We like to make wine fun and approachable and see people really enjoying themselves drinking it. Our goal is to make people trade that glass of beer in for a glass of wine.
Keep up the crusade, Carlton.
Thank you, I will!
Find out more about accommodation, events, food and wine at The Little Nell at www.thelittlenell.com