Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Behind a Great Winery is a Carrie Alexander

I first met Carrie Alexander of Force Majeure Vineyards three years ago. Carrie was and still is the Director of Sales and Marketing, and I was among a dozen people attending the winemaker dinner. An unforeseen construction delay at the winery’s new facility in Milton-Freewater led to a last-minute change in the dinner venue. Carrie moved the dinner to the lovely home she shared with her husband and winemaker, Todd. 

Force Majeure winemaker dinner at Carrie and Todd's home
That night, from the pre-dinner social to the seated affair, Carrie made sure our wine glasses were never lacking and each course was served and timed flawlessly. Her goal was to showcase the carefully curated wines while crafting a memorable dining experience. She achieved both with the grace and finesse that came from years of experience in fine dining.

Today, Carrie wears many hats. In addition to her work at Force Majeure, she also plays a pivotal role at The Walls Vineyards, Pasxa Wines, and Holocene Wines. I am stoked when Carrie agreed to let me interview her for the blog. Let’s get to know Carrie.

You've been somewhat of a veteran in the wine industry from Napa to Walla Walla. How did you first get into the wine business? 

I got my start in the late 90’s working as a server at the Napa Valley’s Rutherford Grill and Bouchon. I had access to many amazing wines during the weekly staff tastings with winemakers. It was an opportunity you can’t get just anywhere. Later, I became a restaurant manager and wine buyer. During my time at the Arizona Inn in Tucson, I achieved the AAA Four Diamond Award for the restaurants at the Inn, a first in its 70-year history. I also elevated the wine list, which gained recognition from the New York Times.

Carrie in Molly Chappallet’s garden
After many years working in restaurants, and with my children being school-age, I made the transition to the wine industry. I managed the tasting room and marketing for Chappellet Winery. That was life changing.

Molly Chappellet is an unparalleled woman whose attention to detail and creativity had a major influence on me. When my staff think I’m being overly specific about how I want things done at the winery, I have been known to mention that Molly would make us measure all of the edges of a table cloth to ensure they were perfectly even on all sides. 

People tend to romanticize working in a winery, and yet the business part of running a winery is just as important. Tell me how you developed your business skills.

While in the the Napa Valley, I worked for Chef Cindy Pawlcyn of Mustard’s Grill fame. What an amazing business woman she is. Her partner Sean Knight was instrumental in developing my skills as a manager. He took time to train me on financials and really seemed to believe in my potential.

Carrie with Chef Cindy Pawlcyn
What is it like to be a female in the wine industry, and how has it changed over the years?

I think it’s really common for women to deal with gender-related challenges at some point in their career. I have been extremely fortunate because I have worked with, and for, some truly amazing and inspiring women - and men, for that matter.

In recent years, I have observed that “women in wine” is being used more frequently as a marketing angle. It’s certainly a driver for consumers, who are particularly interested in supporting wineries with female winemakers.

In your experience, what has been done to champion women in the wine industry?

There are winery owners out there who really champion women in the wine business. Mike Martin, owner of The Walls, is one of them. Early on in our discussions about my joining The Walls, he expressed an appreciation of my experience and knowledge in the wine industry. He was really the first person in Washington who didn’t see me as Todd Alexander’s wife, but as an individual with her own set of skills and accomplishments. 

Carrie showcasing The Walls wine
I can understand why some might see my position in the industry as having to do with being married to a very well-respected winemaker. There are certainly benefits to being so close to someone so talented, creative, and dedicated. But we both work very hard and have our own set of skills contributing to our overall success in this industry. 

To me, feminism is about equality. It may be somewhat controversial, but I actually don’t try to involve myself in groups that are specifically for women. I prefer to be a part of groups that are diverse and then work toward improving women’s recognition within those groups. 

Is there one woman in the industry who has inspired you throughout your career? 

Absolutely. I don’t even have to think for two seconds about who it is. Blakesley Chappellet is someone I admire and whom I consider a mentor. I worked with Blakesley at Chappellet in the Marketing Department. Her uncompromising quest for excellence in experience and aesthetics are an inspiration to me. I will never forget her saying, “Fine is NOT fine.” That is, if it’s “fine,” it is not good enough. 

What is your advice for young women who want to venture into the wine industry? 

Find people who care about purpose-driven businesses. A purpose-driven business is one that cares not just about gender equality, but about equality for all. It cares about economic and environmental sustainability and providing a living wage to all those along the supply chain. Sustainable, purpose-driven businesses are inherently going to care about your future within them. 

Also, try to find people who inspire you and believe in your potential. Those who work with me know that I care about their careers, not just the job they do today and for our winery. I try very hard to nurture their passions and their skills so that they can go on to create a life they love. Sean Knight, Cindy Pawlcyn, Blakesley Chappellet, Molly Chappellet, and Mike Martin have all done that for me, and for that I am eternally grateful.

"Find people who inspire you and believe in your potential" - Carrie
Outside of work, you are also passionate about giving back to the community. Can you tell me about your volunteer work?

I sit on the Executive Board of the Walla Walla Alliance for the Homeless, and that is currently the main focus of my volunteer work. The Alliance is celebrating its 5th anniversary on May 22nd with a fundraiser at The Walls. The goal is to raise money to create fifteen transitional shelters for those who have demonstrated that they are ready to take a step toward housing. It provides an opportunity to practice more independent living before being assisted to move into an apartment or a house.

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