A FEW MOMENTS WITH…GINA LYONS (Leader of the Champagne Squad)
Raised in Florida, Gina Lyons has spent much of her adult life outside of the US. After graduating from college, she started her career in the fashion industry and moved to Japan. After 4 years in the Far East and getting married, she moved on to Ireland and took a position with Michael Kors. She spent most of her time on the road throughout Europe, and it was here that wines, and champagne in particular, became a much bigger part of her life. After 7 years in Ireland, the decision was made to return to the States. She returned however, just in time to be locked up in her home due to Covid-19. But Gina has made the most of 2020 and seems well on her way to successful career in the world of bubbles.
BP: Tell me briefly about your early life, where did you grow up?
GL: Well I grew up here, I’m a Florida girl. My background is not in wine at all. After college I moved to Japan and was working for Abercrombie & Fitch, opening stores throughout Asia. I also met my husband in Tokyo and we got married during this time. But as an ex-pat in Asia, the lifestyle can be a little different and we wanted to settle and slow things down a bit. So we moved to Ireland, where my husband is from.
BP: When did you first see wine as something more than something just to drink?
GL: It was during my time in Ireland, I got a job with Michael Kors and I was the Director of Customer Experience and I was travelling throughout Europe 5 days a week. That’s where I fell in love with wine and with food. I was being hosted at dinners by clients or colleagues in all of these big cities and they took me to the best restaurants. I would request to have them take me to places that served local foods and wines. Through this, I really grew to love the cultures and the lifestyles surrounding all of this. It was there that I started studying wine as a hobby, mainly so I would know what I was talking about.
BP: When did the idea first arise for Champagne Squad?
GL: It was during this time. Champagne was always my favorite, so I started my Instagram account with the idea that I would open up the world of champagne for everyone. I wanted it to be fun and approachable. Not stuffy. I thought others could learn along with me. This was the end of 2018.
BP: Experience with WSET, do you feel it would be valuable to the average drinker who has a desire to learn more?
GL: It was for me. At first I was just posting pictures of myself with a glass or bottle in France or Italy. Then I thought, maybe I should get a certification or something. So I decided to do WSET, cause I’m not a somm, I’m not working in a restaurant. And as I was in the UK, WSET is very accessible there. I took the WSET 1 test and I was hooked from there. I think WSET is the way to go if you’re not a working somm. It gives you a great foundation. I’m at WSET 3 now and that level really opened my eyes. It wasn’t multiple choice questions anymore, you have to write about it and there’s those blind tastings. I told my husband, this is too hard, I’m not getting WSET 4 unless I get a distinction (laughs) Then I ended up getting a distinction and he said now you have to go for 4, and I’m like..Noooo!!
BP: Any other studies?
GL: Right now I’m doing the Wine Scholars Guild Champagne Master program. There’s a lot of information in that program, but because it’s my focus, I’m going to just take my time with it and enjoy it.
BP: Where did you come up with the idea of virtual tastings?
GL: At the start of the Covid, I put word out on my Instagram account, that if anyone wants to partner with me and you produce champagne, just let me know. Jean-Remi Barbier got in touch with me and my first one was with Louis Roederer. We had over 20 people on that first call and since I had never done a tasting before, he sort of lead that one. We’ve been doing a lot of virtual tastings since the beginning of Covid, as a matter of fact I just had my 1 year anniversary of holding tastings. I had a feeling going live with a virtual tasting was going to be a big thing, so that’s why I jumped on it right away and I was right. It’s an awesome way to bring our followers to our producers and be able to talk to them for the first time ever, really. People were also able to see wine regions they had never visited before.
BP: Tell me about A Vine Affair and being a Chief Experience Officer
GL: During these tasting I started collaborating with another wine blogger Alex (Ojeda) The Wine and Travel Girl, we hit it off right away. So we decided to start a company that would pair companies and their food with wine. People would actually buy the wine and food and taste along with us. So that’s when we started A Vine Affair. We were both Chief Experience Officers because we were selling an experience. She and I have been doing those since, mainly virtual, but now some in person because here in Florida things are opening up. Corporate tastings have become a huge thing.
BP: How did you approach and succeed at growing your brand?
GL: About 6 months before we moved back, or I moved back and brought my husband with me, there was a change in my company. They wanted everyone to live near their corporate office, I didn’t want to live in London so I declined. Now I had the 6 months to kill, so I decided to devote my time 100% to my Instagram. My husband reluctantly agreed to give me 3 months (laughing) First off, I did a lot of research on how to maximize following and engagement. Then what studied what Instagram looks for and how these things change. And most importantly, I made a strong effort to engage with the wine people. The first major thing I did was called 30 days of Champagne Summer. I focused all my posts on champagne for 30 days and I was devoting 8 or 9 hours to my Instagram everyday and that’s what brought it up to 10,000 followers. Time and engaging with those who do what you do or love what you love is the way to grow your audience.
BP: What do you see in the future for the wine world, socially speaking?
GL: I think that world is still relatively small and there’s lots of room for it to grow. When I started in 2018 there really weren’t very many bloggers or people posting about wine. Now it’s starting to grow and I think the companies and producers are taking note. They, as well as the bloggers, are seeing how much networking works. Unfortunately, right when I came back to the States Covid hit, and I haven’t been able to travel or really see anyone in person. So everyone I know, I know virtually. But it’s been really helpful and I have formed amazing collaborative relationships. I know when things open up, I can travel to places and meet the people I know virtually, in person.
BP: As a woman, any roadblocks or just hard work?
GL: Oh sure, the champagne world is fine dining and is almost entirely men. I don’t know any high rolling woman on Instagram “flexing their bottles”. But there’s a lot of different levels for women when you’re putting yourself out there on social media. It’s a fine line when you’re putting a post out there. You can pose in a sexy way and get all these likes and attention but is that really what you want to convey or do I want to pose a little more professionally so the stage is shared. I owe it do any brand I representing to them to be professional. But on occasion I still get those that dumb things down for me, which is kind of offensive because I have the education. So I do sort of feel like I needed the WSET 3 and the Champagne Masters to prove I know what I’m talking about. Now that may just be me, but I do feel that way.
BP: What’s next for you, especially as we come out of Covid?
GL: I’d really like to see what we can do with A Vine Affair. We are getting a lot of corporate bookings but I’d also like to get into the industry, especially in champagne. I love the interaction with people in a live setting, whatever that would end up being. If I could find a position with a champagne aspect that would be ideal.
BP: Well, hopefully something opens up for you in that area. But now it’s time for the Famous 5 questions..
GL: OK..(looking slightly nervous)
Red or White – White
Jazz or Rock – Jazz
Mountains or Sea – Sea
Appetizer or Dessert – Dessert
London or Paris – Paris
BP: Thanks so much for your time Gina, and best of luck as you move forward in the industry
GL: Thanks so much and to you as well.
A VINE AFFAIR: https://www.avineaffair.com/