There's been a lot of uproar from wine lovers following an interview on CNBC with Costco's head wine buyer, Annette Alvarez-Peters. The foodie Web site, "Eater" published a very unflattering and biased article entitled "Costco's Wine Buyer Doesn't Think Wine Is Different Than Toilet Paper." I'm sure, by design, this title hints at the fact that they perceive Ms. Alvarez-Peters is telling us we can wipe our ass with our wine and flush it down the toilet (incidentally she never said this, the interviewer asked the question about toilet paper or tin foil).
But if you dig a little deeper here, you'll find that that's just not true.
I think people are giving her a bad rap because she's pulled the curtain back on something we don't want to know about. Having worked in this industry for more than 7 years, I can tell you that she's no different from most people in the industry, and as you can probably relate, in most other industries for that matter.
I've written about this before and did a "True Hollywood Story" on the wine industry for the podcast but let me reiterate that most of the people I know in the wine industry are not in it for the love of wine. They're in it for the lifestyle (it's cool to tell your friends you work with wine and it's great to get free product) or because they got recruited from college/at a job fair/from the restaurant they worked in and they continue in it for the same reasons that everyone else does the jobs they do even if they're not passionate about them -- 'cause that's what you do for work.
I've got some bad news for you if you aspire to work around wine and in this industry: it's a business. It's a big business and dollars and cents are top dog. Most of the people who work in marketing, operations, and sales for large wineries aren't like you and me. Ironically, they're not wine people. They could do what they do for any company (and they often do -- lots of sales folks move to the more lucrative pharmaceutical industry, the marketing folks move to other food and beverage companies, and the ops people can bounce around to manufacturing and logistics companies).
Although we'd like to think it's more passion-filled in the vineyards, at the wineries, many of the workers are seasonal and they work for survival not love. Winemakers usually care a lot, but as they get sucked into the larger wineries, by necessity, they become more concerned with financial targets than superior quality. Their job isn't to make excellent wine, it's to make the best they can within the financial restrictions they're given.
Look, in an ideal world it would be great if everyone were passionate about their jobs. But that's sadly not true for most people. Ms. Alvarez-Peters seems like she's not obsessed with wine, but you gotta give the lady some credit. She wants to learn the trade and know it better than anyone else out there: she's studying her ass off to get up to speed -- taking on the very challenging Master of Wine program. And she's totally committed to doing a great job at her job, which is, incidentally not to love wine. Her job is to provide a selection of high quality wines at competitive prices. By that standard, she does a kick-ass job.
Passion is not the province of the business person -- that's a rarity and more common among entrepreneurs or small business people. In the world of wine, I think passion is for normal wine people. I got out of the business side of the industry because in a company of thousands, I was one of a handful who was passionate about wine...and the handful couldn't fight the masses. I felt like these people with whom I worked squandered their opportunity to be part of something amazing -- the culture, history, depth, and complexity of wine. But on the other hand, I realized that it wasn't them, it was me. Big wineries, distributors, and retailers are not around for the love of the good stuff -- they're there to provide a selection of wines for us to buy or not buy and to make money doing it. We vote with our dollars, we decide where to shop, what to learn, how much to know or not know. No wine buyer can take that away.
I will say this: the thing that makes this situation a little jinky -- why the hell would CostCo hire someone who knew nothing about wine to do the job? I can't answer that except to say she must be really smart. And if we look at it another way, maybe the way CostCo looks at it, there's actually a benefit to Ms. Alvarez- Peters lack of passion about wine -- she can make good business decisions without personal bias. She can get the best wine possible for the best prices and offer it to CostCo shoppers. She can gauge what people are buying and get more similar stuff so her shoppers can taste great wines that they like at competitive prices. It's her job as a buyer and if you shop there, and you're happy with what you get, then bravo to her for reading the data right and getting you what you want.
I want to be clear about my opinion -- I'm not a fan of big box stores and what they do to the local economy and the mom and pop shops. That's a story for another time...and maybe even another blog. But saying wineries shouldn't work with Costco or should ban Ms. Alvarez-Peters because she isn't a wine lover is a little kooky to me. She works off basic retail principles, and if wineries want to get in on it, and she deems them worthy of her limited number of "slots" on the wine shelf, why not? It's not like she's offering nasty wine to her customers, she's catering to the demand with good wine (and since everyone is trying to sell to her, she really can get the best of the best).
And although I agree that it's frustrating that the business side of wine is detached from us, I think we have to do a few things. First, try to actively seek out and get excited about places like Lava Vine, Acorn, Woodenhead, Navarro, and Notaviva in Virginia where you can see real passion from the owners and winemakers who work on their labor of love and hire people who love wine. Unfortunately that stuff isn't widely available. You can join their wine clubs, but I think it's good to buy wines that are available about which you can get excited and feel passionate, regardless of who was behind the decision to stick them on the shelf. If I like what's on the shelf I buy it. If I think it's donkey, I skip it. If a place is regularly donkey or has bad prices, I never go back.
To end on a rather cynical note, the real lesson -- expect nothing from the industry but instead focus on you and what you like. If Costco isn't it, no problem. But leave Ms. Alvarez-Peters alone. She's just doing her job, hitting her numbers, and working to provide you with something you'll buy if you're a Costco shopper. I commend her and say, great job getting up to speed on wine so quickly. You're a smart lady, and a good business person, even if you're not a wine lover.
As for us, we can geek out and share our passion amongst ourselves and leave the dirty business of wine distribution and retailing to the people that like that stuff. You have a choice of where to shop, but I'd only ban a place for ethical reasons, terrible service, or crap selection. I say keep the curtain down on the Wizard of Oz -- as long as the trains run on time, I don't care who the conductor is.
And share your passion here any time -- I'm right there with you : )
Hope I didn't lose your respect in this...healthy debate is good. Share you thoughts below or on Facebook!
**Update: I got a few comments on the scene in which Ms. Alvarez-Peters says, while sampling 20 wines at Kunde, that one of the wines smells like an eraser to her. I watched it again and I just want to say that this event was a blending exercise in which the winemaker was trying to get a feel for the the buyers' top wines that would go into a blend. They aren't finished wines, but blending components that will be combined to make a wine for sale.
Since Kunde is making a custom blend for CostCo, it's actually totally fine for everyone to render criticism in an honest way. Although it seems offensive, the winemaker generally understands that these rough components aren't going to appeal to everyone. He probably appreciated the honest feedback and strong reactions so he can figure out the top choices and make the wine his clients want. I've been in these meetings before myself and it's completely acceptable to say you think one tastes terrible, in front of the winemaker. They get it. Could she have softened her language, maybe, but she's not completely out of line for what goes on in these meetings.