In the 20th century, Americans from Ernest Hemingway to Josephine Baker went to Paris to further their artistic or literary careers. These days, Americans are heading to Paris for the food and wine culture. Today's travellers, however, often need help to get past the language and cultural barriers.
Like the people who come on Tanisha Townsend’s Girl Meets Glass wine tours, for example, who are intimidated by traditional French labels.
“They come to France and they don’t know what they’re buying. They want the knowledge,” said Townsend. She understands what’s driving those tourists, because it’s the same thing that brought her to Paris.
From data to tasting
Townsend started as a computer programmer, before moving into testing. “Instead of writing code, I would try and break it,” she said. “That was fun – I like to break things.”
The child of two teachers, she soon moved into training, and then went back to graduate school in Washington DC to get a Master’s degree. “It was so stressful, I started drinking wine,” she confessed. “Because it’s me, I have to know as much as I can.”
During that period, she went to the 2006 Wine in the Woods festival in Maryland and was smitten by some of the wines. After searching for more information she signed up for the Wine & Spirits Education Trust, did the Level 2 and 3 exams and considered wine as a career.
For an African American, this was not straightforward. “To go into a room and not see anyone that looks like me,” she said. “That’s something that’s hard. It actually stopped me and held me up.” But in talking about it to other people, she was told, “Maybe you need to be that person that other people can see”.
She began working with Robert Cavanaugh of Adventure Wine, eventually taking on tastings and staff training. She also taught a wine 101 course at a community college in Maryland, and in 2009 went to Burgundy to become a Certified Burgundy Wine Educator. Shortly after her return to the US, she was contacted by the CMH International Hospitality Management School in Paris who were looking for a guest lecturer. The timing was perfect – her company had lost an important contact, and she had been given a redundancy package. “I said ‘absolutely. I’m coming next week’.”
It was a huge risk – Townsend was an unknown, who couldn’t speak French. And when she arrived, things were tough.
“At first I went ignored and unrecognised,” she said, mostly because of her lack of French. “But I was in the wine lovers’ community on Facebook and they would take me around and introduce me to people. Having someone to speak on my behalf made things easier.” Being seen around at tastings and events helped as well.
In 2015, she struck out on her own and began wine tours through city wine bars. Her approach is to get everybody to order wine, before she explains the region it comes from. Then the group moves on to another bar.
Her Girl Meets Glass tours are full of people who want to know more, without wanting to learn in a classroom. Typically, they are used to buying wine by its grape, and “so they come to France and don’t know what they’re buying.”
Her clients are mostly Americans and Australians who have found her through social media, or by word of mouth. “Mostly it’s women – men will book me as something for their girlfriends or wives.” Men never come in a group.
Many are intimidated by tasting. “I do an exercise with the tasting wheel and ask them if they get cherries and strawberries” she said. “I explain wine in terms of being a complement to the meal.” Her goal is to give people enough confidence that they can go into a wine store and clearly describe the kinds of wines that they like.
Some arrive with preconceived notions, particularly if they have only begun to drink wine. “I’ve had issues with people and Burgundy,” said Townsend, adding that some people simply don’t want to try it. So she serves wines blind, only later telling her guests it was a Cabernet Franc from the Loire, or a Chablis. She’s also careful to serve wines that are available in the guests’ home market. “I don’t want to give them something and blow their mind, and then they get back to the States and don’t have access to it.”
The wine bars treated her with scepticism at first – until they saw how much money her groups were spending. Now Townsend has relationships with specific bars and chooses which ones to visit based on what her groups want.
Bringing new consumers
Townsend said being an African American both is, and is not, an issue. When she goes into places where she’s not known, she’s often ignored while other people are served. When that happens, she speaks loudly and watches as the Parisians decide she’s just a pushy American.
Bringing African Americans into the industry isn’t just a matter of social equity; in 2018, Nielsen calculated that the combined buying power of African Americans could be as high as $1.2 tr. But Townsend feels race is a topic the wine industry struggles with, because while white professionals feel comfortable talking about targeting women or millennials, most are uncomfortable around the subject of race. What’s needed, she believes, are more African Americans in key wine positions. “If we could get into some of those positions, it would make a difference.”
Under normal circumstances, Townsend is clearly one of those models. Right now, though, she’s locked down in a small Paris apartment, where she’s spending her days developing webinars and educational material. Her professionally produced Wine School Dropout podcast is also on hold, because she can’t get to the studio. But when the novel coronavirus crisis is over, she will be ready to launch in a new direction.
It’s the 21st century way that Americans conquer Paris.
This article first appeared in Issue 2, 2020 of Meininger's Wine Business International magazine, available in print or online by subscription.