Tawnya Falkner gave up a career in real estate design and development in California five years ago to move to France, where she planned to develop an affordable sparkling wine for the American palate.

“I had always been passionate about food, sparkling wine and traveling,” said Falkner, 41.

So she settled in France’s Burgundy region and got to work. To get a lighter, sweeter taste, she chose a special blend of grapes, including chenin blanc and gamay, and found a local production facility to make the wine. She named her wine Le Grand Courtage, “or great courtship,” in reference to the combination of French and American work on the wine. Her target consumers are upscale young women; the average price is $20 a bottle.

Falkner launched production in mid-2011, then returned to California and started the business named after the wine in West Los Angeles with four employees.

With so many wines out there, Falkner had a tough time getting stores to stock her bottles.

“It was really hard that first year to get anyone’s attention,” she said.

But she picked up distribution in three states – California, Illinois and Tennessee – and started winning wine-tasting awards. She got the wine into a few Whole Foods stores and was featured on NBC’s “Today” show. She’s also starting distribution in other states as well as China and Sweden.

In addition, Falkner scored her biggest victory last month: Virgin America airline in Burlingame agreed to buy 175,000 bottles over an 18-month period. Her wine bottle will be pictured on the airline’s menu screen and the bubbly will be served on flights.

Rob Gallagher, manager of in-flight catering at Virgin, said the company tries to focus on locally sourced offerings to stay true to its West Coast roots.

“We selected Le Grand Courtage not only because it is local, but it is also a versatile sparkling wine that pairs quite nicely with our menu selection,” Gallagher said in an email to the Business Journal.

Getting her wine on Virgin flights was one of the goals Falkner had set when she started out.

“What’s so great is that 6 million passengers see that picture on the seat-back screens,” Falkner said. “It’s a captive audience. That’s why it was such a dream of mine to score that contract.”

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.