2021 is here! New year, new things. When I was younger, I made these long elaborate lists of all the things I planned to accomplish. Soon I learned to shorten my list and focus on attainable goals. Instead of losing X amount of weight, I will make progress on improving my overall health. Instead of pushing to get promoted, I will focus on the skills that make me a better professional. Instead of drinking great wine, I will…wait, I will continue to drink great wines.
Diversity comes in all shapes, sizes, regions, and positions in the wine industry. I want to speak with not just winemakers and owners, but those that work in the front and back of house. How hard could this be? I typed into Google search, “Black Wine Professionals Napa Sonoma” to see what would come up. That didn’t work. My wife reminded me that I had connected with several people in the wine industry over the last several months – why don’t you just ask? After asking a few people for recommendations it was suggested I reach out to Kelly Carter, Director of Communications – Alpha Omega Winery. I reached out to discuss scheduling an interview but was in for an interesting turn of events. Kelly was open to discussing her background but suggested I speak with someone else at Alpha Omega who deserves to have his story told, Jesse Garcia, Tasting Room Manager at Alpha Omega. I learned some details about Jesse from Kelly so I was excited to meet him. My only ask was for Kelly to join us if she was free. She agreed and we were all set. Where would the world be without strong and thoughtful black women? That’s a topic for another day…
When I visited in late October it was still 100+ degrees. All I could think of when I first arrived was, “Would it be bad form to jump in the fountain?” but I digress. Kelly met me at the entrance with a huge smile. For context, I should share that we had a surprising meeting the night before at a restaurant in Yountville. I heard someone say “Noel?” so I looked around and saw a statuesque black woman waving at me. She could see the bewildered look on my face as we have never met so she said, “It’s Kelly.” Laughing I responded, “What are the chances we would meet? Tell me honestly, Kelly, was it the hair or the big head that gave me away?” Kelly laughed and said, “it was the hair.” So, when we met at Alpha Omega Kelly joked with me as we were walking towards the outdoor tasting area, “this time I knew it was you from the big head.” We sat down in the seating area facing the fountain with beautiful views of the mountains. After a few minutes of Kelly and I chatting, Jesse walked over and introduced himself. (Dramatic pause) Saying Jesse was dressed to the nines is an understatement. This “sartorial assassin” was impressive but I was equally impressed with how he was pulling this off in three-digit weather.
Jesse, it’s really a pleasure to meet you and thank you for the time. Before we get started, I have to ask – how are you not boiling right now!?
I knew you were coming so I had my team spritz me in the back.
(Smirking) I look at Kelly and state, “I think we all are going to be good friends.”
Tell me about yourself, Jesse.
I’ve been in Napa since 1990. I love cars and working on them. The only thing I love more is my wife and 4-year-old daughter.
Does that mean your passion for wine is a distant third?
(Laughs) I wouldn’t say distant third. Depending on the day, cars and wine are vying for 2nd. I grew up in the industry as my father was a vineyard worker. I loved watching and listening to the conversations wine brought about. It’s great to hang out with friends, family, and new people and learn about wine and each other.
As someone that grew up in the industry and presumably been exposed to all the different opportunities in the wine industry, why did you choose “front of house?”
I want to experience people! There wasn’t a lot of opportunity outside the cellar and vineyard during my father’s time for people of Hispanic/LatinX decent. That is changing and I’m happy to be included in that.
Why do you think there aren’t as many people from the Hispanic/LatinX community becoming winemakers or working front of house in this country?
I’m glad you said “this country.” In other regions of the world there is but, in the US, I think its two-fold. Obviously the systemic and institutional challenges all underrepresented minorities face regarding access. However, even now some families don’t expose their kids to the variety of formal/informal educational opportunities in wine. We shouldn’t be afraid to introduce all of the varieties of wine, in and out of the glass.
What would you say to anyone that is interested in getting into the wine industry?
Manage your expectations. There is a difference between a wine enthusiast and wine professional. Jump in, make mistakes, and learn!
I heard a rumor you are the “Tasting Room Manager” around here. Tell me about your team and your overall leadership philosophy.
I manage 24 people which includes 5 Sommeliers. My management philosophy is simple. I lead from the front. I will do every job at Alpha Omega to support my team.
Speaking of your team, how have you all adjusted to COVID protocols?
Because of the restrictions we have fewer in-person visitors so we transitioned floor workers to indoor sales. In addition, we contact trace and everyone stays at least 8 feet apart.
Alright, one more question before we go into the lightning round…
(Smiling) Lighting round?
Yes, it is when I burst into flames from this heat. No worries, it will be painless. In your opinion, why should people come to Alpha Omega?
Many places have great wine which includes us so I’ll let people make up their own mind regarding that. I will say we treat everyone the same – with dignity, respect, and understanding. That includes staff, vintners, and the consumer. Everyone will have a great experience with Alpha Omega…
(Jesse pauses, sits back in his chair, and looks directly at me)
I will make sure of that!
I raised a glass of the 2017 Beckstoffer to Kalon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon to toast.
Cheers to that, Jesse, and to you, sir!
Alright, it’s time for the lighting round. I will ask you a few questions and you must answer quickly.
Favorite Wine at Alpha Omega?
Best Event at Alpha Omega?
“Era Weekend” in the Spring (April/May)
Favorite Tasting Experience at Alpha Omega?
Private Cabana Tasting
Plans for the future?
GM or Director. I would be honored to run a winery someday.
Any last words?
Sorry, I got nothing…
Respectfully, Jesse, I must disagree. I think you definitely have “something!”
Location: 1115 Mee Lane at Hwy 29, St. Helena, CA 94574