By Paris Wolfe
Shortly after the attacks of 9/11, events producer Marianne Frantz decided to move from Manhattan to Shaker Heights and started the Cleveland Wine School. In 2021, the renamed American Wine School celebrates 20 years of growth. It now has two locations – Cleveland and Chicago – and presents classes in Midwest cities such as Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Indianapolis. The school has corporate clients from coast to coast.
When the pandemic hit in early 2020, in-person classes were abruptly cancelled. That’s when Frantz shifted her paradigm to virtual learning. She was already on that path and, in 2018, had earned a Master of Education degree in Instructional Design for Digital Learning.
Pivoting to Zoom classes has given the school a broader reach. Students now log in nationwide. When the pandemic lockdown ends, Frantz plans to do both virtual and in-person classes and experiences.
The building blocks of the school start with Frantz’s experience as a high school chemistry teacher. The next block came with a move to Manhattan, where she became an event producer for American Express. In the early 1990s, before celebrity chefs and the Food Network, she forged a career specialty in food and wine.
One of her first wine-focused events took her to Bordeaux.
In the cellar at Chateau Margaux, Frantz listened as the winery’s managing director, the late Paul Pontallier, “was talking about wine passionately,” she says. “That was my ‘aha’ moment, that I would take this seriously and focus on wine-driven events.”
Frantz studied wine at the International Wine Center in New York City. Today, she is a Certified Wine Educator awarded by the Society of Wine Educators, an Advanced Sommelier awarded by the Court of Master Sommeliers, and she holds a Diploma in Wine & Spirits awarded by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust in London.
When she started freelance event production in the 1990s, she worked with heavy hitters in the food and wine industry such as Julia Child and Robert Mondavi. When the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center happened, she knew she had to shift gears. So, her husband took a job in Cleveland and she followed.
“I never considered myself to be an entrepreneur,” she reflects. A teacher? Yes. A student of wine? Yes. An event planner? Yes.
All three prepared her to be a wine education pioneer.
When she started the wine school, she had to explain it to people. “America was a beer-drinking country until about 10 years ago,” she muses. “The average American didn’t grow up with wine unless they had old-world roots or made it at home.”
Today, a wine school is self-explanatory — and in demand. In addition to consumer classes, the American Wine School offers the prestigious, four-level WSET professional certification and diploma program. Most of that program’s students are in the wine industry, but many enthusiasts pursue the certification as well.
Frantz recently wrote a 60-page text to support her Introduction to Wine Series. The book, “An Introduction to Wine,” is also being used in the hospitality degree program at DePaul University in Chicago.
Wine information hasn’t changed as much as the students have, Frantz says. Today, they’re younger and more sophisticated.
“In 2001, my attendees were mostly in their late 30s to 50s,” she says. “Today, my classes are filled with students of all ages, including those in their 20s and 30s.”
“Twenty years ago, if I asked who knew what the word ‘tannin’ was all about, I would be lucky to get one hand in the air,” she notes. “Today, wine students walk in our door knowing way more.”
Online classes have tweaked the demographics of her enrollment a bit as homebound Americans seek ways to combat boredom. “Entire families take the classes online,” says Frantz.
Virtual learners are scoring higher than previous classes. “They’re focused in front of their screen with no outside distractions,” she says. “They sit at home, learn, taste wine and focus.”
Still, Frantz says she looks forward to being able to offer in-person tasting sessions to support online classes. Live classes could return sometime this summer, she says.
“My focus is shifting to consumer classes, and I am currently writing the second part of my consumer book with hopes of launching a consumer intermediate series this summer.”