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Learning the Business of Wine

Author: Juliet Porton
April, 2015 Issue

Sonoma State University’s Wine Business Institute is poised to take its place among the world’s leading wine business programs.

 
When people talk about studying wine, they’re usually referring to the twin arts of viticulture and enology (or grape growing and winemaking, in layman’s terms). The respected programs at UC Davis and Fresno State may also come to mind, where so many of our area’s finest cut their teeth studying organic chemistry and microbiology.
 
But what about all the other professionals within a winery that make it successful? A winemaker may produce an amazing wine, but no one will know about it without an experienced staff who understands both the wine and the market enough to design an effective marketing campaign, get it into the hands of buyers and drive traffic into the tasting room.
 
Sonoma State University’s Wine Business Institute, as part of its School of Business and Economics, has come on strong in the last two decades as a source of highly trained wine business professionals. Thanks to the support of leaders in the local wine industry, dedicated alumni and a first-class array of mentors and educators, the institute is poised to take its place among the world’s leading wine business programs.
 

The next generation of leaders

The Wine Business Institute was founded in 1996 as a partnership between the university and local wine business leaders, who wanted to create a place for the next generation of industry leaders to study and saw an opportunity to cultivate that resource in their own backyard.
 
Led by Gary Heck, owner of Korbel Winery in Guerneville, the institute’s board of directors plays a key role in shaping and promoting its programs. Members meet with SSU officials and educators regularly to offer guidance on ways to improve and expand the existing curriculum.
 
“The board has really been the guiding hand behind where we go and what we should do next,” says Ray Johnson, director of the Wine Business Institute. “It all started with this idea of creating something focused exclusively on the business of wine rather than developing another program that focuses on production.”
 
In 2014, more than 600 people took classes, with students from a dozen countries participating in its online courses. The faculty continues to expand its roster of well-respected educators, researchers and industry insiders. Frequent guest speakers from local wineries and other related businesses are also helping to bring the lessons students are learning to life.
 

A well-rounded education

Educational programs focusing on the business aspects of wine already existed elsewhere in the world, perhaps most notably at universities in France, Germany and Australia. But in 1998, SSU became the first university in the United States to offer an undergraduate degree in wine business.
 
For the undergraduate program, students major in business administration with a concentration in wine business strategies. They graduate with not only a solid business education, but also with skills like marketing, strategy and supply chain management that are tailored to the wine industry and geared toward what actual employers in the field are looking for. Johnson believes this type of well-rounded education, which focuses on both the qualitative and quantitative aspects of the business, is exactly what employers are looking for today.
 
“If you’re going to hire someone in marketing, you can just look for someone who’s creative and can produce beautiful collateral,” explains Johnson, “or, you can look for someone who can do that and can analyze consumer demand, run the numbers and make a really coherent marketing decision.”
 
Certificate programs are available for those looking to get a job by learning a new skill or those seeking further education to advance in a present career. Existing certificate programs include direct-to-consumer, wine industry finance and accounting, and wine entrepreneurship.
 
A certificate program in wine business management is available online, providing students with an overview of all the financial aspects involved in bringing wine to market. Johnson describes the program as being about evenly divided between people already in the industry and those still dreaming about it.
 
“We have people in the business trying to make themselves more attractive within their own organization or to others as they’re moving along their career paths,” he says. “Then we have those who want to know about the reality of owning a winery or need a financial reality check, but don’t have access to something like this where they are. They learn it’s not just about drinking wine all day like it is on vacation.”
 
The institute also offers a full calendar of seminars, each lasting anywhere from a few hours to a few days, which welcome both students on-track toward a degree and professionals looking to sharpen their skills. Past topics include direct-to-consumer sales, state compliance issues and marketing through social media.
 
With SSU surrounded by some of the most prestigious wineries in the world, the internship opportunities coordinated by the institute are impressive. Recent examples, all paid and part-time, include marketing intern, tasting room associate and direct-to-consumer intern, all with well-known brands where students can build both experience and connections.
 

Graduate programs on the rise

The institute now offers not only a bachelors degree, certificate programs and seminars, but also a wine MBA (since 2008) and a wine executive MBA (since 2012).
 
“The purpose of the wine MBA is to provide an education to the emerging leaders in the wine industry, which is especially important during the generational change that’s happening in the wine industry right now,” says John Stayton, executive director of SSU’s graduate and executive programs.
 
The wine executive MBA (EMBA) began thanks to the support and encouragement of Napa Valley Vintners (NVV), which hosted the first cohort of wine EMBA students at its Napa facility in 2012 and was instrumental in recruiting its first candidates. A second cohort launched in 2014, and the first Sonoma-based cohort launched in March of this year.
 
Going forward, the institute plans to alternate between Napa and Sonoma, with a new group forming every year (though students can choose whichever is most convenient). Interest has been high and cohorts have grown from 20 to 30 students each, even as standards for admittance have risen.
 
According the Stayton, the typical student in the wine EMBA program is someone who’s reached a ceiling in his or her professional life and is looking to move into an executive role, general management or start a new wine business. Students are required to have a minimum of five years of professional, progressive business experience, with at least two years of that in the wine industry. Most have eight to 15 years or more.
 
“One unique feature of the wine program is the passion that’s in the classroom,” he says. “Everybody is there because they love the wine industry.”
 
Each EMBA cohort travels abroad as part of its curriculum, with this year’s group heading to Italy in April. They’ll be there not just to visit wineries, but also to learn from trade groups, marketing agencies and others involved in developing the strategies that have made Italy so successful in the global market.
 
In fall 2015, the institute will be launching a new global wine MBA program, which will be a full-time program that can be completed in one calendar year. “The purpose is to attract students from around the world to SSU, because we really see it as a globally relevant program,” shares Stayton.
 

The Wine Spectator Learning Center

The Wine Business Institute will soon have a new home on the SSU campus, marking the important role it’s projected to play in the university’s future. Expected to be completed in 2016, the Wine Spectator Learning Center will be a 15,000-square-foot complex that includes three state-of-the-art classrooms, a wine industry center, a student common area and plenty of outdoor space for both student interaction and industry events. It’s being built in the former Student Commons, a prominent location right in the heart of campus.
 
Johnson believes the common space will let students who might otherwise be coming to campus just for a morning seminar linger for lunch, get to know some of the other students in the class and make important connections. Students will also have a chance to interact more easily with peers, instructors and visiting lecturers. Space will be provided to support student-run entrepreneurial ventures and other wine-based collaborations.
 
“Just telling students that there’s this great resource coming is getting them excited and helps them realize the depth of our wine business offerings,” says Stayton.
 
Construction of the center wouldn’t be possible without the forward-thinking support of those who see the benefits it will bring to the industry as a whole and who want to invest in the next generation of industry leaders. Korbel’s Heck has been instrumental in moving the project along, both in his role as the chairman of the institute’s board and with a $1 million donation that kicked off fund-raising efforts in January 2014. In July, Marvin R. Shanken, editor and publisher of Wine Spectator magazine, gave $3 million toward construction of the Institute’s new home through the Wine Spectator Scholarship Fund.
 
Tatiana and Gerret Copeland, owners of Bouchaine Vineyards in Napa, have donated $500,000 toward the center. The Copeland/Bouchaine Terrace and Gardens will be a focal point of the center’s outdoor space, used not only as a gathering place for industry professionals and students to network and meet, but also as a spot for students to engage in hands-on learning about wine hospitality.
 
Young’s Market Company, the premier fine wine and spirits distributor in the western United States, made a $250,000 gift that will support construction of the Industry Boardroom. And continuing its support of local agribusiness at all levels, Santa Rosa-based American AgCredit has also donated $100,000 to the center.
 
“This will really give us a sense of place,” says Johnson. “We’ve grown organically across campus with a classroom here and a classroom there, but now we’ll really have a home—a hub for everything we’re doing.”
 

Setting the standard

SSU’s Wine Business Institute is still considered a young program by global standards, but its supporters are working hard to create a solid foundation on which it can compete with the best the world has to offer. By continuing to build industry relationships, expanding on its educational and research offerings, and attracting top students and instructors, the institute wants to be recognized internationally as the most comprehensive wine business education program available.
 
“We want SSU’s Wine Business Institute to set a gold standard of excellence,” says Johnson. “It’s really important to us that we continue to build that reputation, because it ultimately pays giant benefits for our alumni.”
 
Investing in this type of educational resource will likely bring long-term benefits to our local wine industry by securing a supply of well-trained professionals to fill the wine jobs of the future. But it’s also helping people, on an individual level, find careers they can truly feel passionate about.
 
“It’s very gratifying that we can provide a place where people can gain the tools they need to grow and get where they want to go,” says Johnson. “Seeing our alumni’s success out there in the industry is the most rewarding part of what we do.”
 

Welcoming a Global Perspective

This summer, the Wine Business Institute will be welcoming a new faculty member eager to share his global wine business experiences, observations and connections with SSU students and other local wine industry professionals. Dr. Damien Wilson has been appointed to the Hamel Family Chair in Wine Business, joining an already impressive list of faculty members currently teaching at the institute.
 
A native of Darwin, Australia, and recipient of four degrees in wine business, including a Ph.D. from the University of South Australia in Adelaide, Wilson is currently the director of the masters of science in wine business program at the Burgundy School of Business in Dijon, France.
 
He began his career in wine as a teenager, when he found that he enjoyed helping customers choose wines in his family’s convenience store. Since then, he’s worked in virtually every aspect of the industry, from production, sales and service to writing, lecturing and conducting research for major wine companies. He admits it’s always been a dream of his to work at SSU, though, with its wide array of personal and professional opportunities and an amazing number of great wine producers located within an hour’s drive.
 
It’s no coincidence that his appointment—and the creation of the $3 million Hamel Family Chair—comes at this time of great growth for the institute, as it begins construction on the new Wine Spectator Learning Center and expands its graduate programs to include a global wine business MBA.
 
“My role is to drive the Hamel Family Chair as a seat of leadership and education in wine business,” says Wilson.
 
Teaching will be a key element of his role, as will recruiting top talent and helping to shape the curriculum to bring students a deeper understanding of the challenges currently faced by the global wine market and how local markets can learn from other wine growing regions’ successes and challenges.
 
Wilson notes that, while the wine sector in the United States has grown steadily in the last 15 years, consumption across the global wine sector has dropped 20 percent in the last 30 years. (Ironically, the number of overall consumers has more than doubled, but those consumers drink much less wine). He believes some of the old models still being taught to wine business students either don’t apply anymore or need to be adjusted for the new reality of a worldwide, hypercompetitive marketplace.
 
“The wine sector is very wound up in its idea of what great wine is and should be,” Wilson says. “That’s all good and well for people who are passionate about wine and believe every single glass should be in search of the greatest sensory experience. The problem is that, for most people who drink wine, it’s just nothing like that.”
 
In the quest to create highly credentialed wine enthusiasts, many producers have unknowingly alienated themselves from potential customers to the point that consumers are now nervous about choosing the “wrong” wine and may shy away from purchasing it altogether.
 
“My job is to find ways to prepare the managers of tomorrow’s wine sector to act as a bridge across the different areas of the industry—to understand what they need to do to attract new consumers and make wine more appealing,” he says. “At the same time, we need to figure out ways to get people who’ve already started drinking wine to want to drink wine more regularly and to experiment a bit.”
 
Wilson’s knowledge of the history and business practices of other winemaking regions and his ability to communicate a clear vision for building a stronger local wine community should be a great asset as the institute moves forward as a recognized leader in wine business education and research.
 
“I’m hoping that, with my background and the experiences I’ve had across the world, we’ll be able to integrate what’s being done at Sonoma State with the needs and direction of the global wine industry,” he says.
 
Wilson is looking forward to forging strong connections with colleagues and wine business professionals throughout the region and, in a sign that he’ll fit right in, is keen to check out the local food and wine scene, drive his family across the Golden Gate Bridge in a Tesla and watch the Giants win the next World Series at AT&T Park.
 

Wine Business Alumni Council

Brian Shapiro’s decision to attend the Wine Business Institute began with an “a-ha! moment” over grilled miso salmon and a really great Russian River Pinot Noir. He’d always loved food and wine, but in 2008, he finally made the decision to make the wine industry his career.
 
Today, he’s the hospitality and direct-to-consumer manager at Stryker Sonoma in Geyserville and president of SSU’s Wine Business Alumni Council. He credits the institute’s instructors with providing him both the conceptual knowledge and the hands-on learning opportunities he needed to dive into the wine industry and be successful.

“The teachers in the wine business classes are there because they’re so passionate about wine themselves,” says Shapiro. “There’s a real focus on enjoying your job compared to some other degree programs.”
 
Stephanie Peachey, director of marketing at Vintage Wine Estates in Santa Rosa, is also a member of the Wine Business Alumni Council. Before moving to Sonoma County, she had a successful marketing career in New York, but frequently made the trip west to Wine Country when her husband traveled to the Bay Area for business and she could work remotely. When a sales manager in a tasting room they visited mentioned the wine business MBA offered at SSU, a seed was planted in her mind.
 
“I did my research and talked to people in the industry. I discovered through those conversations that for me—for my needs and what I wanted to do—the Wine Business Institute was very much the right fit,” says Peachey.
 
She began the evening MBA program while seven months pregnant and still working remotely for her New York employer. Within one year, she was offered the job at Vintage Wine Estates. Peachey says Vintage Wine Estates was very supportive while she completed her degree and now employs four graduates of SSU wine programs, with another employee doing online classes and preparing to apply to graduate school.
 
Shapiro reports that response to his degree has been overwhelmingly positive, with hints of jealousy thrown in. “Some people say, ‘Wow! There’s a degree in that?’” he laughs. “It’s a challenge for the program, while it’s still in its infancy, to get the word out that there are wine professionals focused on the business aspect of wine.”
 
Getting the word out is exactly what the Wine Business Alumni Council is all about. It hosts multiple events throughout the year, offering chances for networking and socializing among current and past students. Some events are designed to introduce potential students to the program, while others are to raise funds for the institute or keep alumni active and invested in the program.
 
“Networking is definitely one of the biggest aspects of the alumni council,” says Shapiro. “Graduates go into many different aspects of the industry, so it’s great to have the opportunity to hear about what folks are doing, where they’re going and what they’re up to.”
 
He notes that he’s hosted eight interns, and Stryker Sonoma was their jumping off point for full-time careers in the wine industry. He’s also hired two employees after meeting them through alumni networking events, and would like the council to be able to create more opportunities like that for SSU’s wine business graduates. He’d also like to help more students gain hands-on experience by facilitating projects between alumni and current students.
 
This spring, Peachey will be joining with another colleague and fellow graduate to mentor a class of undergraduate students for the semester and hopes to continue to play an active role in promoting the institute’s programs.
 
“I think a big part of an MBA program is networking—maybe a third of its benefit is in the network you build,” says Peachey. “For me, a giant part of it was being able to interact with people inside the industry both in a classroom environment and in a social environment. Sonoma State is doing a really great job of helping us have those opportunities to network among our peers and future colleagues.”

 

 

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