Plenty of people dream of getting into the wine business. Few have any clue how complicated it can be.
Sonoma State University's Wine Business Institute is trying to connect interest with acumen through its Wine Entrepreneurship certificate program, an eight-week series of seminars offered for the first time in 2012 that is in session again this year.
The seminars are led by Anisya Fritz, Ph.D., who has years of experience teaching strategic management and international business as well as her own consulting work for companies like Walt Disney and Carnival Cruise Lines. She is also the former managing director of the Fritz Institute, an international humanitarian organization.
But what makes her particularly relevant to the students who come to learn the practical side of the wine world is her co-ownership of Lynmar Estate Winery in the Russian River Valley, a premier producer of pinot noir, chardonnay and syrah.
"It's so easy not to see beyond your nose," Fritz said. "We're seeing the globalization and corporatization of the wine industry. This program has been a way of expanding one's frame of reference and asking, how is the wine business different than regular business?"
In addition to winemaker Alan Baker, who was already in the midst of launching Cartograph Wines in Healdsburg, one of the students who took that message to heart is Don Chigazola, a veteran of the corporate world who was looking to turn his passion for wine into a second career.
Chigazola is a former director of operations for Medtronic in Sonoma County, and has worked for PG&E and Hewlett-Packard. Over the years he and his wife often traveled to Italy.
"I just loved finding the back roads and villages and I fell in love with the food-and-wine culture and with these small family producers," he said. "I just couldn't find similar wines here, most of the Italian winemaking it to the U.S. is from big producers."
His frustration inspired a question — how could he import these small production wines from Italy to California and make it a business?
So he enrolled in Sonoma State's first-ever wine entrepreneurship class. He was immediately floored by how practical it was, how open Dr. Fritz was about the struggles and challenges she had faced as a winery owner.
"She brought her own experience and also brought in winemakers, vineyard owners and importers, many of whom were completely transparent, talking about their own financial struggles," Chigazola said.
"They convinced me I never wanted to open a winery," he laughed. "The class was helpful in allowing me to put some definition around an idea that I had and it helped me launch my business."
Chigazola Merchants opened its doors on April 1, 2013. Its mission is to bring native Italian varieties to Northern California and through those wines to create an experience for wine enthusiasts.
From what he learned in the class, Chigazola decided to get licensed as a distributor, importer and retailer.
"I personally find these families and these wines. I develop the relationships," he explained. "I import the wines here and place them in select restaurants."
He says it's important to reach the consumer directly and he wants those consumers to meet the Italian families behind the wines, to fall in love with them as he has, to feel a connection. To that end he has done a series of video interviews for his website.