Annette Alvarez-Peters recently retired from her tenure at the helm of Costco Wholesale Corp’s wine, beer and spirits division, one of the largest wine retail programs in the world with roughly $2 billion dollars in sales annually. She was assistant vice president and general merchandise manager, overseeing 20 beverage alcohol buyers worldwide. Alvarez-Peters began her 36-year career at Costco as a sales audit clerk in 1983 and worked her way up through buyer positions in the electronics and auto departments, before joining the wine and spirits program. In addition to many similar honors and awards during her career, Alvarez-Peters appeared in the top 10 of each of Decanter Magazine’s biennial power rankings—Most Influential Individuals in the Wine Industry—from 2007 to 2013.
Read more about Annette in the written interview below:
Karen MacNeil: You have given much credit for your successful rise to the executive level to Costco’s openness in its hiring and promoting practices. Were you surprised by the lack of diversity you discovered in the broader wine industry?
Annette Alvarez-Peters: When I became a buyer in Costco’s wine department in 1995, I found the industry no more male dominated than the electronics industry, where I’d worked before. That being said, at the time, many of the regional Costco beverage alcohol buyers were women and most of the women in the industry were middle management. But today, I’m very encouraged to see how many women are in executive and leadership roles, but there’s always room for improvement.
KM: Did you have mentors throughout your career? Tell us about them.
AAP: I have had many mentors whether they knew it or not. In retail, Jim Sinegal, founder of Costco, is an incredibly brilliant man with a laser-focused vision and amazing attention to detail. I learned so much from the culture and discipline he instilled at Costco. His retail experience, wisdom and teaching to always do the right thing have been invaluable life lessons. I also consider Kelly Jones of Jackson Family Wines, one of my first mentors in the business. She was so generous with her time when I met her at my very first industry tasting. She showed me what I should do and how to evaluate wines. I observed how she operated in a male dominated industry and she helped with networking. Kelly was always there when I had questions about the business and available for advice. D.C. Flynt, Master of Wine, was a huge help with my technical wine education. I’m extremely grateful he was constantly available to help me understand regions and guided me to hone my tasting skills.
KM: What other wine professionals do you most admire and why?
AAP: I’m in awe of many individuals who have been able to obtain the extremely difficult Master of Wine and Master Sommelier certifications. Their dedication to achieve the highest levels in the wine business is admirable. I also admire those who can juggle a plethora of roles, like my colleague and good friend, Dr. Laura Catena. She is a mother of three, an emergency room doctor, and winery owner of Bodega Catena Zapata. All of these roles, plus her hectic travel schedule, never prevented her from taking a call or having a glass of wine when I was in the area.
KM: How many wines would you estimate you have tasted during your wine career?
AAP: I wouldn’t even know. If I had to guess—in the hundreds of thousands.
KM: Describe your most memorable wine tasting experience.
AAP: I have been fortunate to travel to so many of the major wine regions throughout the world. If I could only pick one experience, it would be the Bordeaux En Primeur tasting for the 2000 vintage. The weeklong tasting was exciting and exhausting at the same time. The wines at their early stage had such precision and finesse; I recall it being mind blowing. I had the opportunity to meet prominent chateau owners and learn their history and story. The entire trip was simply amazing and such a great learning experience.
“I discovered I was dyslexic during my professional career. I knew I needed to pursue wine studies to help me understand and learn the multiple facets of the wine business. I earned my Level 4 Diploma in Wine and Spirits certificate from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, and the Certified Wine Educator certification from the Society of Wine Educators. This wasn’t easy for me and I did re-sit many of the exams, as I did not pass on the first try.”
KM: Do you drink much wine now that you are retired? What else do you prefer to drink?
AAP: Every. Single. Day. I drink wine, but I do have an occasional bourbon.
KM: You have been open about not having a college degree. What would you say to someone without the opportunity for higher education, to encourage them in their pursuit of a career in wine, or any executive position?
AAP: For me, school was always challenging. The “why” became clear when I discovered I was dyslexic during my professional career. All things considered, I knew I needed to pursue wine studies to help me understand and learn the multiple facets of the business. I earned my Level 4 Diploma in Wine and Spirits from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust and the Certified Wine Educator certification from the Society of Wine Educators. This wasn’t easy for me, and I did re-sit many of the exams, as I did not pass on the first try. Of course I was discouraged and tears flowed, but I knew I just needed to keep at it and try again.
For those without the opportunity for higher education – I would encourage anyone to find a career that piques their interest. Whatever career path they choose, I can only encourage them to put in the work, and most likely, it will be hard. Be dependable and loyal. Do everything that is asked of you and be flexible to take on tasks outside of the job responsibility. Be curious and ask a lot of questions and always keep your eyes and ears open. Observe those around you who are successful and emulate them. Seek out opportunities for wine education scholarships (today, there are many organizations that can help, especially for people of color and women) and don’t be afraid to ask your employer if they can help support your wine education.
As for pursuit of executive positions, work experience helps tremendously in getting you to the dance. But it’s vitally important to take advantage of any educational opportunities a company might offer. General management curriculum was beneficial to me.
KM: What is your greatest extravagance?
AAP: I may have a problem with the number of handbags I own.
KM: Which living person do you most admire?
AAP: Always a difficult question to answer, but I would say my parents (my father passed in 2016). We were a military family, which comes with the unique situation of constantly moving. I admire my mother for raising four children, while having to pick up and move to a new city and starting over many times. My siblings and I were used to being the new kids on the block, which made us adaptable to new situations. My parents taught me to work hard, have accountability and to do a job to the best of your ability. These traits have served me well throughout my business career.
KM: What is the biggest and best mistake you ever made and what did you learn from it?
AAP: In my career, I’ve made a lot of mistakes, many the result of risk taking. We (at Costco) were always encouraged to try new items, products and ideas – not everything would be successful, but at least I tried. It was okay to make mistakes (just try not to make them more than once). There’s always a lesson in failure—you realize what to do differently the next time. I think my biggest lesson would be: if it’s a big enough risk, always have partners before you proceed.
KM: Since retiring, what are you now enjoying?
AAP: While working, I often missed out on a number of get-togethers or outings with family and friends. Since I have retired, I have been able to spend more time with family and friends, which has been so enjoyable! And I would be remiss not to mention – Sleep!