Girl Friday: Tawnya Falkner, CEO of Le Grand Courtâge
Photography by: Isabelle Ratane
I was serendipitously invited to a benefit event, Simply Divine, where naturally, I was drawn to the Champagne display, as my double-x chromosome dictates. Initially, I was enchanted by the display and promise of inebriation, but in short-order was drawn in by the effervescent blonde who was pouring bubbly and chatting up party-goers. Tawnya Falkner, proprietor and CEO of Le Grand Courtâge, (a French sparkling wine), stood out at this event as a rare bird, a female wine merchant pouring her rosé and brut with the earnestness of a protective mother, imploring you to have more. Equally intriguing was the origin story of Le Grand Courtâge, with the twists and turns of a journey worthy of its namesake. As she recounted her story of having quit a career as a real estate developer to pursue her Champagne dreams, I immediately recognized the familiar blueprint of the transformative fantasy that many people have, but few make reality. I am pleased that she could share her story with our readers and I hope that her journey inspires many more of us to take that leap of faith and follow our dreams.
Tell us how Le Grand Courtâge was born.
Several years ago, I took a leap, gave up my career as a designer/developer in California, moved to Nuits-Saint-Georges, in Burgundy, France with my then boyfriend, to follow my second passion: travel, food and wine. This journey resulted in Le Grand Courtâge, a new French
Long ago, when a boat left on a long voyage, it was referred to as a “courtâge,” and similarly, my wine was named to symbolize the journey through life and love.
bubbly that’s quickly growing and gaining ground.
In truth, our name relates to my story. Long ago, when a boat left on a long voyage, it was referred to as a “courtâge,” and similarly, my wine was named to symbolize the journey through life and love. Additionally, as our name means “the great courtship,” this wine signifies that of French and American wine culture, the old and new world, and grapes from different terroirs.
My vision was to create an innovative sparkler which offered French cachet and elegance, combined with American appeal and price point. I wanted an affordable luxury for Tuesday night with your girlfriends, because ‘life’ is a special occasion. Tiffany’s jewelry served as inspiration as we wanted timeless, yet contemporary packaging that would catch the eye of consumers. The result is a delicate, cuisine and cocktail-friendly wine which delights the palate. My personal philosophy and that which is on every bottle is “Embrace Life. Dream Big. Accept all Invitations.”…. and with that I hope to encourage people to live life to its fullest, follow their dreams and find the joy in the every day and all the simple pleasures: picnics with friends, BBQs in the backyard, a lazy Sunday afternoon in a hammock reading a book… while drinking bubbly.
Le Grand Courtâge marks a distinct shift in careers for you, what made you quit your successful job as a real estate developer to make French sparkling wine?
Life is short and while cliché, I love the quote,“twenty years from now you’ll be more disappointed by what you didn’t do, rather than what you did.” I decided that rather than wait until I was retired to explore
I wanted an affordable luxury for Tuesday night with your girlfriends, because ‘life’ is a special occasion.
and do some of the other things I loved, I’d do it while I was young and healthy. Knowing that I could always come back to my development career gave me confidence.
Travel has always been my passion. I’ve often traveled on the cheap – with little more that a few dollars and my backpack, and I’ve been to 25+ countries and counting. These experiences showed me that no matter where you go, food, and usually wine, (or at least drinks), are the great common denominator of all cultures. So to me, wine is the instrument of friendly exchanges and laughter and if you can be a part of people sharing a meal with friends and family, well, that’s pretty fantastic. In reality, I see myself as being in the ‘happiness’ or ‘lifestyle’ business.
You had never done anything like this before. Making wine was so far from your chosen profession. What gave you the strength and resolve to believe that you could create this company?
When you fall, pick yourself up gracefully. Learn from the experience and see ‘failure’ as an opportunity for growth, and ‘criticism’ as an opportunity for correction.
I’ve had amazing role models; I’m tenacious to a fault, and at my first job out of college, my boss would say, “no means maybe, and maybe means ‘yes’,” which I hated then, but at 21, it forced me to view life differently and not to accept impossibilities. I see possibility everywhere I turn. With too many people, their natural response is “no” or “it’s not possible,” and then they doubt their capabilities.
I have experienced many curveballs and failures in life, but if you adopt the survivor, (rather than victim), mentality in all that you do, no one can keep you down, unless you let them. As Barbara Corcoran says, “the difference between people who are hugely successful and those who aren’t is the time it takes them to get back up after getting knocked down!” When you fall, pick yourself up gracefully. Learn from the experience and see ‘failure’ as an opportunity for growth, and ‘criticism’ as an opportunity for correction.
Your champagne will now be available on Virgin America domestic flights, due to some serious pavement pounding on your part. How did you make that happen?
Most people spend far more time planning their vacation than their life. If you don’t envision what it is that you want your life, or in this case, company, to look like then how can you create the road map to get there?
If you don’t ask you don’t get. Two years ago I did a vision board and put Virgin, among other things on it, and decided to make it my goal. As a new small company, I have limited marketing dollars and I knew that if I could land an amazing contract like Virgin that it would help put me on the map.
I knew I had a beautiful product that aligned well with Virgin and Branson’s approach and philosophy. In whatever I do, I try to find the angle, see the tie in, and help people to help me. If you understand your audience, their motivators, create win/wins and have integrity with your word, you always come out on top. I talked to people, asked for introductions, used LinkedIn and believed that things are possible, because even companies like Apple and Virgin were once unknown.
I read a comment earlier this year about the fact that most people spend far more time planning their vacation than their life. If you don’t envision what it is that you want your life, or in this case company, to look like then how can you create the road map to get there?
Clearly you love to travel, what are some of your favorite places to visit?
When I was younger I wanted to do and see it all, hit every hot spot, culture mecca, and cheap eats, but now I love those vacations where you can recharge and have a hammock, umbrella drink, a great book and music perfect for your mood. Stay-cations or local get aways like Palm Springs, Sonoma, Catalina, and Paso Robles are all good for the soul.
I prefer authentic, off-the-beaten path as a general rule. One of my favorite quotes has always been, “We don’t remember days, we remember moments” –Pavese. It’s the moments and people that define the experience.
Favorite places are [difficult to pinpoint] as every place teaches you if your eyes are open. I love every place for different reasons. That said, I can’t even fully articulate the impact of places like Machu Picchu, Vietnam, Ko Phi Phi or Santorini. I also adore New Orleans, Burgundy and the French countryside, Italy, Mendoza, San Francisco, NYC, and Wine Country. Shocker.
Do you have any advice for would-be-wanderlusts?
Don’t put off travel because of money. Often it’s cheaper to travel than live in many metropolitan areas like LA, SF, or NYC. Get creative, do a house swap, volunteer, AirBnB, hostels, whatever it may be, but just go! Travel is hands down the greatest learning and life lesson and it breaks down stereotypes, prejudices and gives amazing insight as you realize that people are very similar. We all want the same things. In the end, everyone wants to be happy.
What is the greatest challenge running your own company? What prepared you for that role as entrepreneur?
The sheer volume of work and new things to learn related to an alcohol company is daunting and overwhelming–compliance, legal, government regulations for every state and country, production logistics, supply chain, importing, marketing, getting distributors. In my previous role as a developer, there were many of the same factors so it was amazing training. Both industries are fast-paced, multi-faceted, and involve huge budgets, dealing with lots of people and a phenomenal amount of logistics and ever-changing priorities.
The reality is that every job has provided me with tools, and if you approach life correctly, you realize that it, too is nothing but a training ground. For me, that was babysitting, working at a hardware store, at a spa, for a Congressman and for a difficult real estate developer. My recommendation is work for a small company and learn everything you can about running a business and read anything and everything about your business, so that you can talk the talk with anyone. It will give you phenomenal insight and you truly become a Jack (or Jill) of all trades – you aren’t compartmentalized. The work you invest when you are young pays huge dividends.
In the beginning of a business, you are capital and human resource constrained. Both time and money become precious commodities. There are days where you wonder how you got yourself into this mess and how you are ever gonna make it happen, but “to-do lists” become your friend. Every morning and evening I reprioritize given the ever changing realities of business: I create an A, B and C list and focus on the urgent and what makes money first. By breaking things down in steps, it becomes manageable.
Owning Le Grand Courtâge has been surreal, exciting, scary. Every time I see a bottle on a shelf or in a restaurant, I’m still a little surprised and smile. It’s hard to believe that this dream has turned into a reality and I’m doing it against the odds. With any success comes a lot of work and perseverance. There will be days when you want to collapse in exhaustion or cry. The hustle, sweat and tears make the successes even sweeter in the end.
If you could go back in time and give advice to the younger you, what would you say?
Don’t discount your abilities. Act confident even if you are shaking in your shoes.
Don’t get so caught up in being busy that you forget to pay attention to you.
Don’t discount your abilities. Act confident even if you are shaking in your shoes.
Take time off from life and technology to learn about yourself and what truly makes you happy and feeds your soul.
Be authentic, make time for the important things like deep conversations with family and friends, travel and life’s simple pleasures–like sunsets, sitting and watching the waves.
Remember that life isn’t always rainbows and butterflies as Maroon 5 so aptly put it. It’s compromise and picking yourself back up even when you fall and feel battered and bruised.
Do you plan to have kids in the future? Why or why not and how much does your career play a part in that?
I always thought I’d have kids, I adore them and believe I’d make a great mom, but like so many of this generation, I occupied myself with professional development, travel, and personal growth. Modern women don’t want to settle or have mediocrity, because life is full of possibility and we have a pretty kick butt life and there is an entire world out there! Also, adoption is an amazing option at any age, and it’s helping children that need a home. My life has taken a far different path than I’d ever imagined, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. I want it all, but for now I’m living my life, having an amazing (and sometimes tough) second career, and when the right guy and the right time come along, I will create that next phase of my life.
What do you consider to be your hardest won or most treasured life lesson?
Learning to cherish the journey, and trust in the process that is life, has been the greatest lesson. I’m a perfectionist and a Type-A that isn’t very patient. I’ve been tested in every way through the years, but all the trials and tribulations have taught me that above all else, I should
This specific journey involving Courtâge has been one of the most bittersweet of my life…. In a way, this project and this bottle changed my life forever.
seek a benefits package for my soul.
Whether you are talking about life, love or business, I’ve used this philosophy as my litmus test the past two years and it’s a great place from which to make a distinction and cut to the chase. If something doesn’t feel good, then don’t do it. If it’s not a “hell yes!” then it ain’t worth it! Respect yourself enough to walk away from anyone or anything that no longer serves you, grows you, or makes you happy.
This specific journey involving Courtâge has been one of the most bittersweet of my life. In a way, this project and this bottle changed my life forever. I have amazing stories, a great love and enough adventure to last a lifetime, but in the end, I’m not with the boyfriend I moved to France with, and I didn’t get the fairy tale ending I thought I’d have. But then again, I got sooo much more than I ever could have guessed. Le Grand Courtâge is indeed the ‘courtship’ of life and ultimately the journey of oneself. And despite tough times and things not always working out, I’ll never stop dreaming, following my heart, taking risks and pushing myself in the name of growth.
What advice would you give to women following in your footsteps?
Have the audacity to believe and never let reality get in the way of your imagination. As I’ve gotten older, and I hope wiser, I’ve gained the perspective, maturity and confidence to know that I will succeed at anything I try. Sadly, too many of us give up just before we reach success or we let fear rule us. Be kind to yourself. Believe in yourself, learn to diffuse ‘no.’ And never, ever let anyone dull your sparkle.
Girl Friday is a phrase more common to the 1940s and 50s, defined as “a female employee who has a wide range of duties,” and is most recognizable from the film His Girl Friday. Here at Move LifeStyle, we’re resurrecting its saucy vibe for the title of our last column of the week which profiles inspiring women in the workforce. If you like this series, click here for more Girl Friday Interviews.