Raised in Chicago. Then off to college in North Carolina. Next was a move to the nation's capital for 12 years. And now Paris for the past 5 years. That's wine expert Tanisha Townsend's ex-pat story in a nutshell. But then there's the wine....
Uncorked on Netflix
On Friday, March 27, 2020, Netflix premiered Uncorked, a well done fictionalized story about a young African-American man named Elijah who wants to become a Master Sommelier and his bumpy journey from Memphis to Paris and back again.
If you've seen it, you know Elijah gets a chance to venture to Paris, and for all of my fellow Francophiles out there, it might have even sparked a bit of longing to see our beloved Paris on screen, particularly since it is currently out of reach.
Life Imitates Art
The first person I thought of when I saw that Uncorked was making its Netflix debut was my friend, wine expert (and Tracey Friley Travel Trip Leader) Tanisha Townsend, CSW, CSS, FWS of Girl Meets Glass. Tanisha's interview below uncorks her very own wine story which led her from Chicago to Paris.
Q: First things first. What did you think of the movie?
Tanisha: "I really enjoyed it! It SO reminded me of my life and telling people I was moving to Paris. I also loved seeing the Black family dynamic play out; seeing Black people in the streets of Paris; Elijah at the museum; and of course all of the emotions that go along with a journey like this."
Q: How specifically does Elijah's life parallel yours?
Tanisha: "My parents didn't really understand what I was doing, but there wasn't really any pushback. They were confused but supportive. Once I got to Paris, I initially felt a little overwhelmed and didn't see a lot of people who looked like me in the wine industry. The feelings that come with stepping out of the box and doing something completely different was something else I could relate to."
Q: Before we go any further, what's your background in wine? How did you get started?
Tanisha: "I got my Bachelors degree in Computer Science from NCAT and worked as an IT Security Consultant in D.C. after college. I worked on the side for a wine marketing company called Adventure Wine. That was my start; doing wine tastings and wine demos in wine shops and grocery stores around D.C. on the side. Mainly weekends."
Q: Where and how did you get those letters behind your name?
Tanisha: I got them in D.C. I'm a Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW), a Certified Specialist of Spirits (CSS) and a French Wine Scholar (FWS). Those flash cards in the movie brought back memories of the wine exams I took and passed. [Laughter.] I am WSET Level 3. People either go the WSET route or the Sommelier route, like in the movie. I never wanted to work in restaurant service, so I took WSET. I also did CSW because I'm Black and knew I needed all of the letters behind my name for people to take me seriously.
Q: Were you taken seriously?
Tanisha: "Yes and no. Yes because I taught Wine 101 at Prince George's Community College in Maryland and yes, because I submitted a proposal to speak at the International Wine & Tourism Conference in Croatia in 2013 and it was accepted. No, because the owner of the conference later referred to me as "the colored lady" so I never did anything else with them after that. I did meet a woman who attended the conference in Croatia that changed my life though."
Q: How so?
Tanisha: "I got an offer from a woman in Croatia who was at my presentation. She invited me to be a guest lecturer for some wine courses at a business school in Paris."
Q: So off you went to Paris?
Tanisha: "Pretty much. I taught 'Luxury Wine & Spirits' and 'Wine Science & European Wines' to second and third year business students for one semester, about 3 months, at a business school in Paris."
Q: Did you go back to D.C. after that?
Tanisha: "Yep. I waited 3 months then applied for a student visa so I could go back to Paris."
Q: A student visa?
Tanisha: "Yes. I took French classes full time when I came back. I was a student for two years, then changed my student visa status to a Profession Libérale visa. Basically, I'm a freelancer."
Q: What kind of freelancer?
Tanisha: "I host wine tours, teach English classes, host wine tastings, lead group trips for you." [Laughter]
Q: Do you speak French?
Tanisha: "I can get around. I'm still taking classes. I'm B1 Level."
Q: So let's get back to the wine. You said you didn't want to go the sommelier route. What else can you do with your credentials?
Tanisha: "Sales, marketing, brand ambassadorships, importing, distribution, wine education, and more."
Q: Is there any type of stigma or rivalry associated with not being a sommelier and instead going the route you went?
Tanisha: "I personally don't think so. They are two separate lanes entirely. In the movie, Elijah was working towards becoming a Master Sommelier. There are also two other levels before becoming a Master; certified and advanced. People at various levels are sommeliers all over the world. You actually have to have some restaurant/service experience in order to apply to even take the courses and then the exam. But of course having the MS after your name is so much more prestigious. You will work in Michelin star rated restaurants, be asked to consult, speak at conferences, etc."
Q: What are you doing now during this disrupting time of COVID-19? What's next?
Tanisha: "I really want to see how wine education can become more digital and I'm curious about education technology in general. In a few weeks, I'm teaching a 'Business of Wine' course for CIEE (Council on International Education Exchange) to study abroad students who have returned back to the U.S. from France because of this global pandemic and it will be online for the first time. I'm curious about what this is going to look like."
Q: Are you chasing any other certifications?
Tanisha: "No, I'm not chasing any additional certifications right now. I'm more into the business side of wine and understanding consumer behavior."
Q: When I think about the movie, I think about regrets and sacrifice. Do you have any regrets? Do you feel like you've sacrificed anything?
Tanisha: "When I was leaving D.C. for Paris, I didn't think I was sacrificing anything because I had nothing to lose in leaving the States. I had just gotten out of a long term relationship, so leaving was much easier. But over time, I realize that I actually did sacrifice a lot...but just in the beginning. Relationships, money, stability, comfort. Those are real things and things I now see from a distance."
Q: One last question. What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue a life of wine?
Tanisha: "Since school can get expensive and you really want to be sure that's what you want to do, I'd recommend starting off doing some research. Start reading wine books, pick a region that fascinates you and learn more about it. Taste wine as often as you can; take notes on it. What you sipped, what it smelled and tasted like, the region, grape vintage, etc. Like Elijah did (working in a wine shop) and what I did (working for a wine marketing company), consider a side job in the industry. Have fun with it. And then look into the different certifications to see what path you want to take. All of the different areas of wine all have different paths with different classes and exams. Definitely savor the experience, just like you would a great glass of wine."
Tanisha Townsend is the Chief Wine Officer of Girl Meets Glass, a wine lifestyle and education agency. She currently lives in Paris, France where she creates wine and food pairing experiences for expats and tourists, hosts a wine podcast named Wine School Dropout, and teaches wine courses at universities in Paris. Insightful and educational, GirlMeetsGlass is the English speakers anchor lady in the beating heart of the French capital. She holds the WSET Level 3, Certified Specialist of Wine, Certified Specialist of Spirits and French Wine Scholar certifications.