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PD Editorial: Teaching the business of Wine Country

  • Alan Baker, owner and winemaker of Cartograph Wines, went through the Sonoma State University Wine Business Institute's Wine Entrepreneurship class. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

Founded in 1996, Sonoma State University’s Wine Business Institute has become a valuable member of the community. Now it’s ready to grow, and local wineries should open their pocketbooks to support its capital campaign.

It’s no secret that wine is big business here, an economic juggernaut that brings in billions. Earlier this year, Sonoma County Winegrowers and Sonoma County Vintners released a study that found the industry contributed $13.4 billion to the local economy in 2012, up from $7.5 billion in 2005, the last time the groups did such a survey.

That sort of growth requires a steady flow of qualified workers, and that’s where SSU’s Wine Business Institute comes in. Where other colleges and universities around the country prepare students to make wine or grow grapes, SSU was the first school to focus on the business side of the industry.

What better place to get that education than in the heart of Wine Country? Students have the opportunity to learn from local experts and to intern at wineries. Many of the 600 undergraduate, graduate and professional students find work in the greater North Coast wine region.

Vintners and their professional staff, likewise, can pursue continuing education that will help them run smarter, more profitable businesses. They also enjoy the synergy that occurs whenever smart academics gather to talk about wine. Everyone wins.

All of which is why the institute’s fundraising efforts have already garnered big-name support. In January, Gary Heck, owner of Korbel Champagne Cellars, gave $1 million. Now, Marvin R. Shanken, editor and publisher of Wine Spectator magazine, has pledged $3 million more.

Those generous donations are about one-fifth of what SSU hopes to raise for its project. Officials expect a new 15,000-square-foot Wine Spectator Learning Center will cost $8 million-$10 million. It will house classrooms, a commons area and meeting and office space.

They hope to raise another $10 million to fund education programs.

The program currently has no home of its own, only a couple of offices in the business school. Classes meet whenever and whenever space is available.

In the grand old days, a state university could count on Sacramento to come up with a good portion of the money for expansion of an innovative program like this. After a decade of funding stagnation, things have only just started to improve. A big project remains a hard sell in the capital.

If this were a training facility for a football team with a legitimate shot at a BCS championship, alumni donors would step up their support. Academics, it is a shame to note, are far less sexy in the eyes of donors.

The wine industry in Sonoma and Napa counties and beyond therefore must rise to the occasion. As any business owner knows, one must invest some of one’s earning in the infrastructure for growth and success. Shanken scored naming rights for the building with his donation, but opportunities to name classrooms, commons areas and other parts of the new facility remain. Better yet, become a donor whose only reward is the knowledge that you have supported something that helps our region to thrive.


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