On the Job: Wine Educator

By Gary Twining

Anyone who has taken wine education classes in Cleveland knows Marianne Frantz. As founder of the American Wine School (AWS), teaching courses designed by the London-based Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), Frantz is at the forefront of wine training in northeast Ohio.

A passionate wine lover and former high school science teacher, Frantz started her school in 2001 in a home office with a $50 website, an extra phone line and a Post Office box. Her first classes cost $25 for basic Wine 101, taught at the Hilton Hotel off Rockside Road (now the Doubletree by Hilton). Today the school has grown from struggling to recruit 30 students a year to its current level of 600 students in five cities – Pittsburgh, Chicago, Cincinnati and Columbus, as well as Cleveland.

Teaching came naturally to Frantz, but she didn’t want to make it her entire career. She worked with Kenley Players for fun, a pastime that took her to New York City for a job with Candlewood Playhouse. It was there that she met her husband, Jerry, and they both loved New York – but she didn’t want to teach in Manhattan’s public schools. She produced and organized events such as the opening-night reception for the Broadway show Miss Saigon and another for the Vietnam Veterans Ensemble Theater Company. One day she spotted a newspaper ad for an event specialist with American Express, producing food and wine events, and she took her first step into the wine world.

Frantz got to work with the top food and wine icons – Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, Robert Mondavi, Emeril Lagasse and more. Michael Buller, author of The Winemaker’s Year: Four Seasons in Bordeaux, worked for American Express and asked Frantz to lead a tour for their platinum cardholders to Bordeaux. It was early in her wine experience and she had never tasted Bordeaux, but when she got to the Medoc the wines “blew her mind” with their quality and complexity.

She remembers hearing the late Paul Pontillier, owner of Chateau Margaux, talk passionately about his wines and thought, “this is it, this is where I belong, in the wine industry.” She realized there was much more she needed to learn and started her total immersion in wine.

Back in New York, Frantz started studying, voraciously reading and tasting wines. Windows on the World, the famous wine-centric New York restaurant, was a major client of American Express. Frantz worked there pouring wines for Cellar Manager Kevin Zraly’s wine classes and absorbing as much knowledge as possible.

Then 9/11 happened. Windows on the World was destroyed. The American Express building collapsed in the attack, and the food and wine climate disintegrated for a while.

Frantz found herself at a crossroads: she knew her strong suit was teaching and she desperately wanted to get into the wine business, but wasn’t sure what that all meant. Jerry told her, “you were a teacher and love wine, why not put them together and start a wine school?”

She launched American Wine School 16 years ago, and the first response from wine lovers was, “wine education? What do I want to learn to make wine for?” At the same time, she says, people were wondering, “why would I want to watch a chef cook?”

Obviously, consumers have come around, supporting restaurants, wine bars and American Wine School in a big way. Frantz notes she “was fortunate to start in a dynamic time for the business, before television and the Internet created food and wine celebrities.” She also realistically notes that her success might not have evolved in the same way in today’s media-driven world, a fact that keeps her grounded.

Frantz has fine-tuned her presentation skills and brings personal stories to her teaching. She is animated and funny, comfortable in front of diverse audiences without a worry about what she will say next, an enviable attribute for an educator.

She believes we need to “teach consumers to buy better, and teach retailers how to sell better. An educated consumer will buy better wines,” she says. As wine lovers learn more, she adds, “they tend to purchase more upscale bottles,” which is the strongest argument for wine training for retailers.

Frantz also hopes for more collaborative study. “Don’t learn wine in a vacuum,” she says. “Discussion and communication are very important in learning.”

For students not working toward credentials, Frantz now teaches consumer classes at Dante Next Door in Tremont, including sessions such as Wine 101, food and wine pairings with Chef Dante, and wines of specific countries. “Students enroll just for their own enjoyment, and to develop their own wine knowledge,” she says. She also offers WSET classes for those looking for accreditation by the world-renowned certifying organization. Along with those courses open to the public, Frantz also conducts wine seminars for Giant Eagle’s wine consultants and for the sales staff of a multi-state wholesaler.

Wine draws people of artistic abilities from many disciplines. Most cities don’t offer options for formal wine training, and Cleveland is fortunate that Frantz settled here and carries forth the banner for wine appreciation in our region.

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