2020 has been a year of change and upheaval for all of us. For Annette Alvarez-Peters, it started with a huge transition. In January, she retired after a career of nearly 37 years at Costco, including 15 years overseeing the company’s wine, beer and spirits program. She and her husband moved from outside Seattle, where Cotsco is headquartered, to Reno, Nevada shortly thereafter. “I’ve always loved the Sierras,” she told me. “We were close enough to family in California without being too close. We moved, and then we went right into lockdown.”
At Costco, Annette sold about 4.8 billion dollars of beverages to members in 49 million households as the company’s Assistant Vice President and General Merchandise Manager of Beverage Alcohol. Annette’s job was to lead a team to choose products that reflected the high quality and low prices that Costco is famous for. She also developed Costco’s private label brand, Kirkland Signature for wine, spirits and beer. Her resume is packed with seriously impressive awards and accolades: Wine Spectator called her the most powerful person in wine, Fortune named her one of the Most Innovative Women in Food & Drink of all time, Decanter included her in their Power List, and the catalog goes on.
For such a powerful woman in a notably male-driven, infamously snobbish industry, Annette has a refreshingly down-to-earth, warm vibe. Annette didn’t start off with plans to conquer the wine world. She spent the first part of her career as an electronics buyer, specializing in audio equipment. When a beverage buying regional position opened up at Costco, a mentor told her, “I promise you’ll figure it out.” And that’s exactly what she did. (Note: this is advice Annette has given in turn!)
She knew the right questions to ask: “Who are the players? What am I supposed to know? How do I know what makes a good wine?” Annette points to a generous, welcoming community of wine professionals who were happy to take her along to tastings and seminars and show her the ropes. She knew she had a lot to learn, so she invested time tasting, studying, taking classes, and following her curiosity.
“Back in 1995, we were a mid-sized department, not considered big,” Annette explained. “We sold a lot of three- and five-liter boxed wine; we were not really in the fine wine business.” Under Annette’s leadership, that changed. She pounded the pavement, travelling to winemakers in Napa and Sonoma to more deeply understand their wine and the business. She began introducing Bordeaux to her American customers. Then her travels brought her further afield, to France, Italy, Spain, Australia, Argentina, and nearly every major wine-growing region. She encountered incredible hospitality and became truly enamored with wine.
She’s seen trends come and go. Annette never thought canned wine would be such a big thing, but years ago, she had a good feeling about rosé. “I kept waiting for rosé to take off,” she remembers. “It took a while to get traction. Varietals ebb and flow; what’s hot today may not be what’s hot tomorrow. And people have different tastes and preferences. I think that’s what’s cool about the industry—we can all like different wines.”
Annette never stopped learning, growing, and pushing herself. In turn, she’s loved inspiring young people in her field and sharing her hard-earned wisdom. So, when Martin Reyes, Master of Wine and member of the Board of Directors at Wine Unify, asked Annette to serve as a mentor for the organization, Annette jumped at the chance. (Wine Unify is a nonprofit that works to welcome, elevate, and amplify the voices of underrepresented minorities in wine. We’re so excited to be profiling their incredible mentors here at Wine4Food.)
“There are not a lot of women in the business, and I could go a very long time not seeing someone who looked like me in any other roles,” Annette said. Through Wine Unify, she seeks to help and encourage young people of color in wine “gaining experience, gain confidence, and get their message out there.”
Annette is still very much involved in the industry, mentoring and consulting. When we talked, she was just logging off from a Zoom talk about the impact of Covid in the beverage world. Later that day, she was going to deliver a keynote speech. “It’s tough out there,” she said. “Unfortunately, there have been so many furloughs and people laid off because of Covid. I hope people land on their feet and that their next role is bigger and better than what they had before.”
“As for me it’s been a fun ride. I have no regrets. It’s a relationship-driven business. My colleagues will be lifelong friends, and that’s the single most important thing to cherish.”
Hannah Howard is a writer and food expert who spent her formative years eating, drinking, serving, bartending, cooking on a hot line, flipping giant wheels of cheese, and managing restaurants. She is the author of the memoir Feast: True Love in and Out of the Kitchen. Hannah is a graduate of Columbia University and the Bennington Writing Seminars. She writes for SELF, New York Magazine, and Salon.com, and lives in New York City.