Episode 1: Living in America!
In 2004, at age 24, I was a new business school graduate looking for my first real job. I sent my resume to dozens of French wine producers in the hope they would send me abroad to sell and represent their wines. That did not happen.
Instead, I was lucky enough to be offered a 2-year contract as Trade Attaché for Wines and Spirits at the Embassy of France in Washington DC. How exciting to start my career like this!
Plus… I was not alone to jump into this adventure. I was in a relationship with a wonderful woman—Celine. We opted to quickly marry so that she could get a visa also and join me in living the American dream! There was no time for a fancy dress, ceremony or pièce montée (elaborate wedding cake)… but frankly, that wasn’t much of a concession compared to everything this decision meant for us both.
My mission at the Embassy was to help French wine producers find importers in the USA. But we arrived at a time when the French President and Minister of Foreign Affairs had told the Bush administration that despite France’s sincere and profound sympathy for the 9-11 attacks, the West should not invade Iraq.
The United States and some of its people responded with anger. French fries became Freedom fries and French wine was poured into the gutter. In the midst of this anti-French cyclone, it was obvious that no French wine would sell unless there was demand…and there was no demand.
I could not change my job at the Embassy—the administrative complexities formed insurmountable barriers… so I came up with the idea of creating the French Wine Society (which later became the Wine Scholar Guild) in direct response to the needs expressed by importers: boosting French wine sales.
Three months later, we hosted our first promotional event at the “Maison Française” within the walls of the French Embassy. It was attended by 700 wine enthusiasts. Over 25 French wine importers showcased their portfolios and sold tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of wine through local retail partners.
I cannot overstate the role that Celine, my wife and business partner, has had and has in the operation of this organization. She is organization itself.
Episode 2: Time for Reconciliation
As always, true friends reconcile their differences. Slowly, the anti-French sentiment faded and Americans started to regain their appetite for all things French: wine, food, cheese, culture and that je ne sais quoi!
In just three years, the French Wine Society hosted over 350 wine events! Most were in DC—but we also held events in Chicago, San Francisco, New York, Miami and Atlanta. One of these events, a French wine tasting, took place within the walls of the US Capitol itself.
This just underlines the unique nature of wine. It unites us and transcends us. In a globalized world where everything can be standardized and mass-produced, wine remains one of the very few products that, for the most part, stays true to its roots.
This is especially true of French wines. Fifteen years ago, French wines were viewed as old-fashioned compared to the well-marketed New World bottlings. But I think I can comfortably say that French wine, by sticking to its core values of land stewardship and the sanctity of origin, is now viewed in a different light. The locavore movement is strong today. Many now share “pride of place” and recognize “origin” as something of meaning and worth. The old has become new again.
Episode 3: Questioning the Market & Making a Turn
The first three years of the French Wine Society were quite intense. It was work and fun, stress and success. Our events were popular at a time when everyone had money. That changed in 2008.
We quickly realized the challenges of being an events-based organization during an economic downturn. We also watched as everyone tried to set themselves apart within an increasingly competitive job market.
We hired, Lisa M. Airey, CWE, who was tasked to develop a study and certification program on the wines of France. The far-reaching scope of this certification program was such that the French government knighted her for this work. Under her directorship, specialized wine courses became our forté.
We developed regional Master-Level Programs on the wine regions of France tapping into the talent of Masters of Wine (including Essi Avellan MW, Charles Curtis MW, Elizabeth Gabay MW), sommeliers (including Pascaline Lepeltier MS, MOF and Christophe Tassan MOF) as well as respected journalists such as Andrew Jefford, Jane Anson and Kerin O’Keefe.
Episode 4: Conquering the World Without an Army
Early on, the school network that offered our programs was small and largely based in the United States. In order to extend our reach, we put our content into an e-learning platform that could be accessed from all over the world.
We adopted technology very early on and continue to do our best to stay current. During the first decade of the new millennium, we were a pioneer in online wine education; today, our distance-learning platform includes hundreds of educational webinars, interactive e-learning modules, quizzes, online flashcards, pronunciation exercises, and learning games.
Meanwhile, our school network began to grow. A wine school in Canada picked up our programming, then one in Hong Kong, then one in the UK. The world had found us. Today, our network includes over 90 partner schools in 30 countries with many more in the pipeline.
In 2015, in response to student and instructor demand, we decided to expand our study and certification offerings to include the wines of Italy and Spain. The French Wine Society became the Wine Scholar Guild (WSG). The name change was pivotal to our continued growth.
Episode 5: Preparing for the World of Tomorrow
Wine Scholar Guild has always been a student-centric organization. We pride ourselves on our customer service and responsive feedback loop. We want our students to pass our exams and we give them every tool and all the attention and support they need to succeed. It has always been our intention to create a welcoming, inclusive community of wine scholars.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that we could do even more.
We are focusing on community outreach and social media as a way to stay connected. We have ramped up our online program offerings and boosted the number of our monthly continuing education webinars. We have also instituted three new series for members under the directorship of Andrew Jefford, WSG Academic Advisor:
- The WSG “Meeting of the Minds” online panel discussions bring together experts and insiders to explore a single topical issue within the wine world
- The “WSG Live” interview series introduces members to internationally renowned wine professionals, exploring the minds, personalities and stories behind some of wine's most celebrated over-achievers
- The WSG “Great Debate” series presents two diametrically opposed points of view on critical issues within the wine world argued at length… with the gloves off!
We also recently added live, online “option games” allowing members to learn while competing for prizes and bragging rights!
We are currently working on implementing new online exam software. (Demand for this test-taking format has increased exponentially because of COVID.) We are increasing the number of scholarships for students with limited financial needs and assessing ways to economize shipments and reduce our use of paper.
And importantly, we have taken several measures to support our program providers. They can now offer WSG programs online or use our online faculty to teach their students. We also instituted a WSG membership drive that gave 100% of the proceeds back to our school network
All these shifts required thoughtful research and careful transition, but the direction is set.
Last but not least, we are two months away from the public debut of a new education program! But that’s worth a post all by itself. More on this soon!
WSG’s 15th Anniversary…
We had organized some spectacular happenings to celebrate our 15th anniversary: four simultaneous educator trips in France, Italy and Spain plus a program provider retreat in Alsace filled with learning, good food and fun.
A tiny virus got in the way, but we will be celebrating this fall with two global happenings: The “Wine Scholar™ Challenge” and a series of “Wine Scholar Fab 15” tastings at participating WSG program providers around the world.
The “Wine Scholar™ Challenge” is an international wine knowledge competition formatted as a series of “options games.” WSG program providers will host local “options games” during the month of September and send their winners on to the “Wine Scholar™ Challenge” Grand Finale taking place in October of 2020.
Time for a Toast!
We are extremely proud of the work we have accomplished over these past 15 years and are both grateful and delighted to have been joined by so many kindred spirits. Wine is a celebration of the earth and of the peoples of the earth. It brings us all together…and in so many ways!
Each and every person at WSG loves what they do and cares for this organization and its students… so a special shout out to Lisa, Rick, Andrea E, Andrew, Kirra, Kate, Sharon, Nancy, Andrea M, Pierre, Solange, Nicole, and Alex. Celine and I sincerely thank you for all that you do and for how much of yourself you put into your work.
Thanks to all who have been a part of this organization, whether student, instructor or co-worker. To you all, we raise our glass!
WSG Founder and President
15 Year of Memories...