Aspen Snowmass Little Nell A Place to “Wine” in Aspen

Young Master Sommelier Carlton McCoy Holds Court at Aspen’s Little Nell
By Rob Story

Aspen Snowmass The Little Nell Sommelier
Aspen Snowmass The Little Nell Sommelier

Only 29, Carlton McCoy this year became the third youngest person—and only the second African-American—to win a master sommelier diploma from the Culinary Institute of America. Wine & Spirits Magazine named him a Best New Sommelier for 2013. Shortly thereafter, McCoy was promoted to Wine Director of Aspen’s prestigious Little Nell Hotel. For the moment, however, he stands in the Nell’s tasting room preoccupied, not with oenophilic matters but porcine ones.

Before McCoy, the back half of a pig rests impassively in its own cured skin. McCoy cuts me a small slice off the animal’s back, explaining, “it’s the finest ham in Spain, Jamon Iberico,” which can sell for more than $90 a pound. It tastes of smoky pork, as well as the pig’s sustainable, protein-rich diet of fresh acorns.

Such palate cleansers and McCoy’s unrivaled taste in wine have made the Little Nell’s tasting room the talk of Aspen cognoscenti. Located in a subterranean cellar of the venerable hotel, scarcely larger than a closet, the room can accommodate but six guests at a time (and a single pig). Still, it’s McCoy’s pride and joy. “A wine geek’s dream,” he calls it. The communal table was handcrafted from beetle-killed pine and vintage wine barrels. McCoy describes the constant 50-degree temperature as “good for red wines; bad for oaked whites.”

McCoy—trim and pressed, sporting sleek eyeglasses on a freshly shaved head—shows me the hotel’s 19,000-bottle collection. “Aspen’s a town of transients, people from all over the world, with every imaginable taste. So the wine program at the Little Nell has a long history of high quality. This isn’t some hokey, pretend wine cellar.”

Aspen Snowmass The Little Nell New Wine Bar
Aspen Snowmass The Little Nell New Bar

Aspen Snowmass The Little Nell certainly stands a long way from McCoy’s birthplace: “A part of Washington, D.C., that had no wine—just cheap spirits and malt liquor.” While no one in McCoy’s family drank wine, a job with his grandmother’s catering business honed his sense of cuisine. He won a scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America, worked in impressive New York restaurants, and in 2013 took the Advanced Master Sommelier test, which concludes with a blind taste of six wines in 25 minutes, in which the sommelier must determine the wine’s origin, grape, and vintage. Of the 63 candidates at the exam, only McCoy and three others passed.

His approach as sommelier is that “Wine is for everyone. Every time I approach a table or talk about wine, it isn’t coming from a place of snobbery or elitism. It’s about figuring out what people like, finding new things guests might like, and spending time with friends and family.”

Aspen Snowmass The Little Nell Sommelier in the cellar
Aspen Snowmass The Little Nell Sommelier in the cellar

A child of the city, McCoy claims, “I’d never even seen a pair of skis” before arriving in Aspen. But he now skis when he can, and feverishly explores the Elk Mountains in summer, whether cycling or hiking. Indeed, he sometimes chills cru Beaujolais in a mountain stream, and then sips it while soaking in Conundrum Hot Springs. Now that he’s lived here three years, McCoy comprehends Aspen’s hedonistic appeal. As such, he delivers Nell guests “hangover kits” containing granola, dark chocolate, coffee, Red Bull, Brain Toniq, and—for the proverbial “hair of the dog”—vodka from nearby Woody Creek Distillers.

 675 E Durant Ave, Aspen, CO 81611