When your boss hands you responsibility for an enormous retail wine operation and you know next to nothing about wine, where do you start? For Annette Alvarez-Peters, it began with lots of books, not enough sleep, and promising her boss she'd learn the ropes fast. Alvarez-Peters joined Costco in 1983, and became a wine buyer for the wholesale company in 1995, following brief stints in the electronics and auto departments. She recently retired from her position as the general merchandise manager for one of the largest wine retail programs in the world, with over $2 billion in wine sales in 2018. In the latest episode of Straight Talk with Wine Spectator, Alvarez-Peters spoke with senior editor James Molesworth about learning America's wine preferences and her recent work with the nonprofit wine education initiative Wine Unify.
Alvarez-Peters broke into the wine industry just as the U.S. wine market was booming. She spent her first few years trying to figure out how America drank wine, and had some lucky contacts to help.
"It's a complicated business, and coming from the electronics side to a three-tier-system, that in and of itself was confusing," she said. "I relied on the network of distributors and suppliers to really help me and guide me through the SKU selection, and my friends that collected wine gave me guidance as well."
Alvarez-Peters focused on Central Coast wines in the beginning, since she believed they were underrepresented at the California locations she was purchasing for. Around 1998, Costco expanded to higher-end areas, and Alvarez-Peters decided she had to bring her wine game up a notch.
"I spent a lot of time reading," she said. "My husband can attest to the fact that I would fall asleep with a pen and Wine Spectator on my chest, just scouring the magazines on what I should be bringing in."
One of Alvarez-Peters' big breaks in the beginning was bringing in Bordeaux. A distributor introduced her to the concept of futures and sold her on the upcoming vintage. Alvarez-Peters called Costco's CFO and took the gamble on waiting two years to sell wines she hadn't seen or tasted. They sold out in less than two weeks, and Alvarez-Peters grabbed the attention of the Bordelaise.
"Bordeaux was quite interesting because the Bordelaise did not know what Costco was, so we had to do a lot of pounding on the pavement to introduce ourselves and get them to understand our company and bring in those goods," she said. "In my last year at the company a lot of the [Château] owners had a lot of praise for Costco."
So what's the next big challenge after steering the Costco ship for 36 years? Millennials. Although Alvarez-Peters admits she hasn't figured out how the generation will impact the wine industry, she believes they will be a big part of the wine community as they age, grow their wealth and have families.
"I would like to figure out how they choose wine," she said. "What's important to them? How do they see it? How do their friends see it?"
Although she is no longer at Costco, Alvarez-Peters continues to pursue other projects, including Wine Unify, a diversity program which fosters wine education for underrepresented minority groups.
"Wine Unify seeks to create visibility and opportunity for people of color, with the belief that education is the cornerstone to the future of any field," Alvarez-Peters said. "They're giving us the ability to give those education-based awards and I think it's fantastic."
Watch the full episode with Alvarez-Peters on Wine Spectator's IGTV channel, and tune in to catch Straight Talk with Wine Spectator every week. On Feb. 10, senior editor Bruce Sanderson will chat with Sassicaia's Priscilla Incisa della Rocchetta. And on Feb. 17, senior editor MaryAnn Worobiec will talk to Penfolds winemaker Peter Gago.