A woman could feel her palms sweat as she entered the traditional fine wine store filled with dark, beautifully carved wood shelves that contained expensive wine bottles from all over the world. She had been reading about one particular bottle from Burgundy, France that she wanted to purchase but she was new to wine and the anxiety of having to ask for the bottle was starting to build. As one of the staff members decked out with a jacket and tie approached her, she began to question her apparel in jeans and a t-shirt. “May I help you ma’am?” asked the man, and instantly the woman shouted, “I’m sorry, I am in the wrong store!” as she stormed out and caught her breath on the street corner. It was a moment that many, whether male or female, have lived through themselves when it has come to either visiting a high-end wine store or having to deal with an overwhelming wine list at a restaurant.
But interestingly enough, one of the top wine industry leaders in the U.S. breaks many stereotypes of how the traditional wine expert should look or what path she would have to take to achieve such status.
First Work, Dream Later
Annette Alvarez-Peters started working in the audio merchandise department at Costco almost 40 years ago. She did not go to college but instead went straight to work after high school and found a company which promoted from within if workers were willing to put in the hard work and make the sacrifices that helped them become one of the best in the specialty retail store industry. Of the 37 years she worked there, she worked 25 years in the beverage alcohol department as vice president and general merchandise manager, and she eventually led a team in the United States that brought in $4.8 billion in global sales (2019). Since wine information wasn’t accessible to the masses like it is today via the internet, she felt she had to “step up her game” and she ended up taking wine classes at the WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) and Society of Wine Educators.
Through time she became one of the most influential wine buyers in the world and a vital part of introducing wine to a broader consumer base, making the U.S. one of the most significant wine drinking countries in the world. But from the beginning, it was about Annette consistently doing the work over several decades, and over time she became part of a retailer giving American consumers a friendlier and more inclusive wine buying experience.
Avoiding Being Placed in a Box
Others have also found unconventional paths into wine that each have their individual map and speak to different situations.
Wanda Mann, East Coast editor of The Somm Journal and founder of Wine with Wanda, had a different expectation than the path she ended up taking since she had attended prestigious schools such as Phillips Academy (Andover) and Pomona College, which has one of the lowest acceptance rates of any U.S. liberal arts college. Some thought she would become a lawyer or work towards becoming an executive in the corporate world but she followed her passion of creating and promoting high-profile events in New York City and eventually became one of the top voices in the wine world. “Everyone’s path to wine looks different, and our paths shouldn’t be the same, and that is what adds so much richness and texture to this industry,” explained Wanda.
Another woman leading the charge in the wine industry almost followed the path to becoming a lawyer yet after university there was something about “the pace of that kind of work that didn’t connect” with her. Today, Mandy Oser has been the owner and wine director of Ardesia Wine Bar in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City, for 13 years. She encourages people to talk to as many people as possible in varying sectors of the wine world to find out where they belong, whether it is sales, retail, restaurant, writing, etc., as each has its own unique qualities and she noted that even an honest 15-minute conversation with someone working in that sector could give someone an idea of whether it would be a good fit.
And then Mandy said that someone just needs to jump into wherever she gets an opportunity, as she did when she got the chance to work at City Harvest, a local food rescue organization. She could never envision working in such an environment before that time but she realized it was the “right fit immediately”. Mandy continued to explain that there was something about being surrounded by “food, wine and hospitality” that really clicked with her. And although she has always greatly valued her staff as a business owner, during the pandemic, she discovered that she wasn’t utilizing all the talents of each staff member. She and her manager would have to take over kitchen duties when the chef was out, and she had someone from the kitchen take over front of house duties when staff members were out for weeks. Her biggest takeaway from the pandemic is that as a business, they had “quite a rigid view of how the roles should be set and what people should do” and not only does Mandy see that sort of viewpoint being bad for creating a dynamic environment but that it is terrible for the overall moral; she sees that her employees have a greater chance of being “happy” and “more satisfied” with their work-life if she doesn’t put them in a box.
Jirka Jireh, who grew up in a house with no alcohol, moved to New York City to pursue the hip-hop world and she initially worked as a food runner in a restaurant. She was fortunate to have a couple of wine directors encourage her to taste wines and empowered her with wine knowledge. Through time, she discovered that wine had everything she loved about hip-hop: creativity, rawness and real stories. A couple of years ago, she left NYC for the West Coast to advocate for “BIPOC and LGBTQIA+1 representation amongst domestic natural winemakers,” and she is the co-founder of Industry Sessions, a digital wine education program exclusively for marginalized people that spans 14 cities in the U.S. and Canada.
“Seeing a room filled with people who looked like me and have the same passion made my heart burst with love,” Jirka passionately declared. Because she knows first hand, if one doesn’t see herself in the wine world, it is never considered a possible option. Although her primary mission is to push for representation for underserved communities, her overall passion is to have deep connections with people who don’t look like her or who have different backgrounds and that it will create a healthier and more fair wine industry as people’s fate will no longer be decided by a handful of gatekeepers. That old attitude of having to jump through hoops for the gatekeepers of the wine world, which sometimes forced people to choose between their dignity or their career, is being torn down by the younger generation. One doesn’t have to go to a wine class that makes them feel inferior because of their background, as Jirka has noted that one can learn anything on the internet and that platforms like TikTok can offer a safe way to educate oneself about wine without having to be humiliated.
As recent investigations have shown that some of those gatekeepers to the wine world were demanding sexual favors from women for educational opportunities and career advancement, it becomes essential to create other avenues for success that are not only vital for women but for those men who themselves have been ostracized for calling out such bad behavior.
Allowed to Dream
People’s journey to their wine dream can significantly vary, with some entering it with no formal education at a young age and others starting a second career after 20 years in a completely different industry and sometimes some don’t initially have that dream on their radar because they could never visualize themselves in that world.
Annette Alvarez-Peters greatly appreciates those opportunities she was given at Costco to learn, grow, and ultimately become one of the most powerful wine buyers in the world. “Working for Costco was the most wonderful time in my life,” noted Annette and it was a big decision when she decided to retire a couple of years ago after being there for 37 years. She loved that time in her life but she needed to prioritize her personal life as she sacrificed a lot working long hours as well as weekends and holidays. But as she moves into another stage of life with the creation of her own wine consultant business, annette a.p. Wine and Spirits Inc, and the role of mentor as she is on the advisory board for Wine Unify, a non-profit organization to promote and celebrate diversity in the wine industry, she starts to rethink how her own dream came true. As that dream only developed because she was empowered and educated by Costco, and in turn, she was a loyal employee that always delivered what the company needed from her.
Yet now, as she has time to reflect, she knows how important it is for the wine industry to create an infrastructure that is open to all and rewards hard work and passion instead of being an exclusive club. As she still remembers how “intimidating” and “overwhelming” wine seemed, and hence, she wants to be part of making it more accessible to people willing to do the work. And in the long run, it will not only create more ethical working environments but also help companies find ideal candidates that will eventually move up to powerful positions. As in the past, the perfect candidate may have been toiling away, stuck in a dead-end job, because she never envisioned herself in that world, in that position; the person loses out, the company loses, and the wine industry loses out because of circumstances not allowing someone to dream.
This article was inspired by the discussion that took place during the Winebow Imports’ Women in Wine Leadership Symposium (WWLS) held on January 24th, 2022 via Zoom.