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Desert Island Wines

Carlton McCoy, Sommelier and TV Star, Shares His Wines of a Lifetime

The host of CNN’s newest travel series shares the wines he’d take to a desert island

Janice Williams By April 26, 2022
photo illustration of Carlton McCoy on a tropical island background with wine bottles
Photo illustration by Pix

The premise of Desert Island Wines is this: You’ve just been shipwrecked on a desert island and there’s no rescue in sight. Worse, the only food the ship was carrying was a lifetime supply of canned soup and spaghetti. But when you boarded the ship, you brought along three cases of wine and — luckily! — they have all washed ashore safely. You chose to take one inexpensive wine, one luxury wine, and another wine in between. These are the wines you’ll be drinking until you’re rescued. Which is going to be a loooong time coming. Choose well.

Carlton McCoy is busy. 

As president and CEO of Heitz Cellar and a managing partner of Lawrence Wine Estates, his days are filled with calls, vineyard visits, and clocking miles driving here and there to catch up with winemakers and wine professionals alike. As a co-founding member of The Roots Fund, his schedule is packed with brainstorming sessions and events aimed at shaking up the industry when it comes to diversity and inclusion. 

With his new CNN series “Nomad,” McCoy will be busy sparking viewers’ wanderlust as he travels the world, experiencing new people and cultures. 

McCoy simply doesn’t have the time to be stranded on a desert island. But he’s sure he would survive it if he ever were. 

Then and now

Having grown up in a poverty-stricken neighborhood of Washington D.C. to become one of the youngest people — and only the second Black American — to ever pass the master sommelier exam at age 28, McCoy knows a thing or two about perseverance. It’s in his nature to keep on pushing.

“I was working in D.C. at CityZen restaurant with Andy Myers, who suggested that I pursue this certification. I thought, why not? I had really no idea what I was signing up for initially. Once I got into it, I realized it was very intense,” says McCoy. 

He adds, “One has to be willing to sacrifice their social life to studying. That was challenging. I pursued the certification in my 20s, and that meant I sacrificed the time most people have in their 20s to go find themselves.”

If his time as a student at the Culinary Institute of America, where he became a classically-trained chef, or his years as wine director at the famous Aspen restaurant The Little Nell doesn’t count for self-discovery, McCoy will certainly uncover a new side of himself through “Nomad.” 

“Working on a TV show requires an entirely different set of competencies. It was a great learning experience. It sparked a lot of curiosity in me. It allowed me to be myself while being part of something new,” says McCoy.

Set to premiere on May 1, the series will kick off with a trip to Paris, where McCoy first cut his teeth on French cuisine. There he will visit Banlieues Parisiennes, a French district that’s steadily becoming a cultural hot spot for food, music, and art. On McCoy’s first visit to South Korea, he’ll get a tour of the towns and scenes that gives Seoul its soul while meeting up with old pals like Master Sommelier Kyungmoon Kim and Michelin-star-winning chef Hooni Kim. McCoy will even hit the road and head south to hear the stories of the people reshaping the Mississippi Delta’s future. And later, a journey to Ghana will redefine everything he thought he knew about Africa. 

“We as Americans don’t really know Africa. We have a certain narrative about African countries, me included. It was such a different place than I ever expected,” says McCoy. “Ghana was very progressive while rooted in history. I just really loved the energy from the people.”

Something special

The rich experiences that come with engaging with people from all backgrounds, races, and places are what McCoy would miss the most while surviving life stuck on a desert island. Of course, having an endless supply of wine would help — even if for nothing more than the memories of the folks he’s had the pleasure of drinking with. Like the day he was first introduced to Domaine de Montille Pommard Les Rugiens during a festive night with a patron at The Little Nell.

“We only had six bottles, and I sold one to a guest who really knew this wine. I sat down and had a glass, and it was nuts,” McCoy recalls. “I doubled the price on the wine list afterward because it was such a special bottle. I wanted to make sure it was sold to someone who understood how special it was.”

Prosecco party

Lazing the day away under the sun might get boring. But with a few bottles of Prosecco lying around, McCoy might manage to have some fun. If anything, it’ll spark a few flashbacks of the good times he had ordering bottles of bubbly at the club when he was young. 

“When I was a young sommelier and not making a ton of money, Prosecco was my go-to. I would go to a nightclub, and whenever the clubs required bottle service, I would order Prosecco. It was perfect,” says McCoy. “Good quality Prosecco is delicious and perfect for your wallet.”

Not to mention festive. “It’s perfect for the island coconuts! I would make a spritz,” adds McCoy.

Sancerre for the sunshine

There’s no place like home, and McCoy is sure he’d miss it while stuck on a desert island. An endless supply of Francois Cotat Sancerre would supply his new oasis with some much-needed familiarity. It’s one of his favorite wines and a style that he often tries to convince people to drink. 

“I love this wine because it proves that Sancerre does produce great white wine and at a value still. I think Sancerre is still not widely recognized for great quality, and it should be,” says McCoy.

While the crispy acidity and green and grassy flavors of the wine are sure to keep him cool, it’s the memories of good times with a glass of wine and the many people he’s shared bottles with that McCoy says will keep him moving onward.

bottle of Domaine de Montille Pommard Les Rugiens 2019

Domaine de Montille Pommard Les Rugiens 1978

Domaine de Montille’s history in Burgundy dates as far back as the mid-1700s. However, it was 20th-century lawyer-turned-winemaker Hubert de Montille who was first to establish a commercial winery using the property’s prestigious grapes. This Pinot Noir is loved by critics and wine enthusiasts for its dark purple hue, ripeness of red and blue fruits, elegance, and structure.

bottle of Ruffino Prosecco

Ruffino Prosecco NV (~$13)

Ruffino has long been a producer of great Italian wines. The winery was first established in the late 1800s in the heart of Tuscany. Since then, they have expanded, as this Prosecco shows. Made from the Glera grape, grown in the Veneto region, this Prosecco is intensely fragrant and fruity, displaying fine persistent bubbles. The wine wraps up crisp and clean, with an enjoyable finish.

bottle of Francois Cotat Sancerre Les Monts Damnes 2020

François Cotat Sancerre Les Monts Damnes 2020 (~$79)

Produced in the famous Sancerre subregion of the Loire Valley in France, this wine is made from Sauvignon Blanc. It features aromas of yellow stone fruit and white flowers, while the palate is soft with citrus and apricot undertones. The wine is made by winemakers at François Cotat and dates back to the 1990s.