France’s Champagne region isn’t like Napa Valley. It doesn’t thrive on tourism and organized visits to wineries. The region has only recently started shifting from its closed-door attitude with immersive experiences. Still, at many large maisons, or Champagne houses, you often feel like you’re getting the theme park experience, thanks to the hefty admission fees and lines.
When Gina Lyons, who began writing under the moniker Champagne Squad in 2018, toured the wine country as an industry insider for the first time in 2021, she felt like she had entered a secret society. In getting direct access to the maisons and introductions to small producers, she realized it was possible to intimately connect to this seemingly alienating world. “What I love about Champagne, the producers and the maisons, is that there’s a beautiful story to tell,” says the Punta Gorda-raised 37-year-old, who grew from blogging about bubbly to creating her Champagne and caviar concierge company, A Vine Affair, three years ago. “There is so much craftsmanship behind the bottle—the blending of hundreds of wines, the selection of plots and crus.”
Gina spent three years educating followers on her blog and Instagram with Champagne 101-style lessons and tastings with producers like two-century-old Louis Roederer and a youthful darling in the region, Frerejean Frères. Followers could join for free and sip along with bottles purchased from their local wine shop or online. The social media sessions evolved into Zoom tastings and pairings with specialty truffle and caviar producers. As guests sipped, Gina would explain how crisp, zesty cuvées beautifully balance the salinity in caviar and how older vintages with more wood notes are ideal alongside fragrant truffle. She shifted to in-person tastings after the pandemic and now helps imbibers deepen their knowledge and love of Champagne through seated dinners, tastings and biannual small-group trips (in June and October) to meet producers. Her offerings range from cellar consultations, where she’ll help build your collection, to curating bubbly-centric gifts to brokering relationships with top maisons.
In Florida, Gina’s tastings and pairings primarily unfold in private homes or on yachts she charters anywhere from Tampa to Naples to Miami. She hosts about one cocktail-style tasting or dinner a week, working with private chefs who traverse the state with her. “I love getting people outside their comfort zone, whether that is drinking grower Champagne, different styles they don’t normally do, or pairing Champagne with food in ways they didn’t think they could,” Gina says. Four times a year, she visits France to taste new vintages, meet different producers and stay up-to-date with the latest happenings.
Gina designs her trips—capped at 12 people—to give visitors the same kind of insider access she gets, with cellar tours that travelers couldn’t arrange without the right connections. Education and experiencing Champagne at its source is part of the appeal, but fostering intimate relationships with the producers is at the heart of the operation. Imagine starting your day at Champagne Geoffroy, where Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy’s daughter, Margaux, prepares dishes to pair with her father’s wine. You then journey to Champagne Doyard before wrapping your day with dinner at Frerejean Frères’ private cellar with the family. The next day, you clink glasses with Billecart-Salmon’s Mathieu Roland-Billecart, or you might enjoy a private dinner at Le 25bis by Leclerc Briant.
Before moving back to Sarasota in early 2020, Gina and her husband, Richard, a retired British professional racer, lived in his hometown of Royal Hillsborough in Northern Ireland. At the time, she was a customer experience manager for Michael Kors’ European market and often wined and dined European clients, who were natural oenophiles. Gina needed to boost her wine I.Q. to better serve her clients, so she started studying.
She had already fallen in love with Champagne years before while on a date in 2010 in Tokyo, Japan, with her now-husband. As she sipped a glass of Dom Pérignion 2000, she knew it was special, even if she couldn’t yet understand why. As Gina developed her wine knowledge, she gravitated more and more toward Champagne.
She’s long appreciated smaller artisan producers and has been heartened to see a stronger spotlight on grower Champagnes and vignerons who are becoming superstars. “When I was blogging about some of these growers in 2018, they were fairly unknown or just hitting the market in the UK,” she says.
She’s a firm believer that Champagne is a democratic drink to be enjoyed enthusiastically and for all occasions. “People are learning how to drink Champagne other than for celebrations and realizing it’s OK to have on a Thursday or with burgers or fried chicken,” Gina says. “They’re understanding how versatile Champagne actually is.”