That Wine Lyfe: Carlton McCoy of The Little Nell, Aspen

America's sommeliers have access to some of the best wines in the world. But what are they drinking off duty? Welcome to "That Wine Lyfe," the drink diary of wine pros.

Twice a year, Carlton McCoy, wine director of Aspen institution The Little Nell, throws a highly anticipated dinner party with chef Bryan Moscatello called “Dazed and Confused.” The two switch roles with McCoy cooking a five-course meal and Moscatello pairing wines with each dish. McCoy always has the upper hand. He trained at the Culinary Institute of America, apprenticed under an exacting French culinary master, worked front of house at Per Se in New York City and Cityzen in Washington D.C.

Though he’s been cooking since a young age, wine was a blind spot until he left the back of house looking to gain front-of-the-house experience in the hopes of one day opening his own place. “My family doesn’t really drink, so I didn’t grow up around wine,” he says. Once out of the kitchen, he began to sit in on staff wine trainings. “When I first started tasting, I was so curious I would drink anything. Even Australian shiraz,” he says with a chuckle. McCoy jumped into wine with uncensored excitement, trying everything until he had tasted enough to form an opinion. “At first it was a lot of boozy cocktails and IPAs—anything with big, robust flavors. Just not oaky California chardonnay.” Just a few years later, at the age of 28, he passed his Master Sommelier exam.

Most people don’t expect a 29-year-old with such a casual sense of service (he failed the Master Sommelier wine service test “miserably” the first time around) to be in charge of a 19,000-bottle cellar. He didn’t quite expect it either. Growing up and working in D.C., McCoy had no desire to leave the East Coast, so when Sabato Sagaria (now Chief Restaurant Officer of Union Square Hospitality Group) called him about the opening position at The Little Nell, he flat out turned it down. Undeterred, Sagaria then called his boss in D.C. who booked him the flight to Aspen without asking. Of course, McCoy took the interview fully expecting to turn it down. Instead, he came back to D.C. packed his things, and left for Aspen.

Where many somms might be eager to forge their mark upon taking over a wine list, McCoy spends time to observing what guests tend toward. Then he fills in the gaps, and acquires wines that will help to further those established tastes. Whereas D.C. drinkers were always big into Bordeaux, McCoy noticed that Aspen’s locals tend much more toward Burgundy. And though The Little Nell’s Chablis list was great, it skewed young. So McCoy spent time finding older vintages to round out the list, and then threw a dinner party surrounding the new acquisitions. “We had Raveneau going back to ’98 and our regulars were so surprised these older wines could taste so fresh.” The element of surprise is one of McCoy’s hallmarks.

Though he’s only a few years into his wine-drinking career, he’s already come to the conclusion that “it’s all about balance.” Almost all the wine he loves contains this illusory sense of tension. How does that translate to what he’s drinking? We asked him to keep track of the best things he drank over the last seven days. Here’s the damage:

Val de Mer Non-Dosé Cremant de Bourgogne N.V. | $20
“The winemaker, Patrick Piuze, is a good friend of mine. He brought this sparkling Chablis to a dinner at the Little Nell and we were blown away. It’s super crisp, high-acid with almost no oak. It’s also incredibly cheap.”

Domaine Guiberteau Saumur Blanc Clos de Carmes 2013 | $19
“This came on the scene in the last few years ago. Clos de Carmes is a sub-plot within a more well-known plot, and it almost shows like white Burgundy when it’s young. It’s got lightning-high acid and is super fresh. I like it with a few years of age.”

Domaine Monier Perreol St-Joseph 2011 | $36
“I visited this producer a month ago with Raj Parr for the first time. Monier and Perreol are actually two different guys, and they blend their wines together for this one. They’re a bit off the beaten path. It’s an inky, purple color, but it’s actually lean and really elegant. I get the entire allocation for Colorado, which is only, like, nine or ten cases. And it’s such a good value.”

Jean Paul et Jean Luc Jamet VdP Syrah Collines Rhodaniennes 2012 | $25
“This is one of the top producers of Côtes Rôtie, and this wine is vinified similarly to his top wines, but with less oak. It’s just a nice, light, fresh syrah. Like a baby Côtes Rôtie really.”

Paolo Bea Rosso de Véo 2007 | $48
“Paolo Bea is a phenomenoal producer out of Umbria. He tends to make weird, geeky wines, and this is probably the most normal. It’s got bright red fruit almost like a blend of pinot noir and grenache, but with more structure and tannin.”