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Sonoma State University’s wine business program takes root with new learning center

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In wine, the French term “terroir” refers to a particular climate, soil and terrain that make certain grapes stand out from the rest in the world.

Likewise, Sonoma State University is hoping its new Wine Spectator Learning Center will do the same to further cement the school’s status as the premier location for the study and research of the business of wine.

The $11 million facility houses three state-of-the-art classrooms, a student commons area, faculty offices, meeting rooms and a café for the university’s Wine Business Institute, which is under the auspices of the School of Business and Economics. Its grand opening was held last week at the Rohnert Park campus.

“It gives us a sense of place. It’s so important in wine,” said Ray Johnson, executive director of the Wine Business Institute.

The structure also marks the last of the major building projects started under former SSU President Ruben Armiñana, a legacy that includes a world class concert hall, the Green Music Center, a new student center and a doubling of student residential housing.

The center aims to shine a spotlight on the Wine Business Institute, which was formed in 1996 to develop a business education program for wine professionals. SSU saw an opening for a wine business program in California, where schools such as UC Davis and Fresno State focus more on viticulture and enology, not the bottom line.

Standing out as a university

The university hoped the Wine Business Institute would give SSU an identity that helps it stand out in an increasingly competitive higher-education marketplace, much in the same way that Stanford University is associated with computer programing and USC is tied to filmmaking.

“We are working on building the brand equity,” Johnson said.

Since its formation, the program has conferred 980 undergraduate wine business degrees; 50 master’s degrees in wine business administration; and 112 MBA degrees specifically designed for wine executives. In addition, approximately 10,000 people have taken professional development courses in various subjects, ranging from QuickBooks accounting software to French proficiency.

It also has attracted a notable faculty specializing in research on various business aspects of the field. Professor Armand Gilinsky started the Wine Business Case Research Journal to provide research articles on industry trends, essentially serving as a Harvard Business Review for Wine Country. Professor Liz Thach has expertise on personnel and workforce management within the industry, which has higher percentage of female customers but lacks in its female representation in senior management levels. It also has attracted industry professionals such as Tim Wallace, former CEO of Benziger Family Winery in Glen Ellen, as its wine business executive in residence.

An Australian native, professor Damien Wilson, has brought a global perspective to his classroom and research as he was recruited away from the wine business program at Dijon’s Burgundy School of Business.

His goal has been to get his students and executives to take their blinders off and see how cultural forces are influencing vintners. He points to recent trends such as canned wine and blue wine. Despite skepticism from wine industry professionals, both of those products have taken off in recent years.

Wilson is the school’s first Hamel Family Faculty Chair in Wine Business, which was established by a $3 million donation from Sonoma vintners Pamela and George Hamel.

Wine industry officials provided about 90 percent of the money to create the new structure, which was repurposed from the old University Commons building. Marvin Shanken, editor and publisher of Wine Spectator magazine, donated $3 million to the project, while Korbel’s Heck kicked in $1 million.