Director Ray Johnson stands in the new site for the Wine Business Institute at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park on Wednesday, January 8, 2014. The institute will replace the University Commons building with a $1 million gift from Gary Heck. (Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)

Sonoma State University's Wine Business Institute gets new home

Sonoma State University staked its place in the North Coast's most visible industry 18 years ago, when it established the Wine Business Education Program, a special curriculum of business courses tailored to the wine industry's needs.

"You can make the best wine in the world but if you can't sell it and you can't manage it and market it, you can't have it," the institute's board chairman, Gary Heck, said Wednesday.

Since renamed the Wine Business Institute, it has carved a role as the business-side alternative to the renowned UC Davis and CSU Fresno viticulture and enology programs. It offers the only wine business MBA program in the United States.

"It's not a wine program, it's a wine business program, and they really stress the importance of the traditional business practices that need to be developed and put into play in order to be successful," said Don Chigazola, a Santa Rosa resident who took a wine entrepreneurship course at the institute.

In 2012, the former Medtronic executive started his own business to import, distribute and retail Italian wines.

Over the years, the institute has produced hundreds of graduates and put its stamp on the School of Business and Economics, where the dean's conference room is lined with racked wine bottles worth thousands of dollars.

"It fulfills a great need in the wine industry, for sure, for business education," said Kathy Archer, president of the Wine Industry Symposium Group, which produces wine industry educational events.

But the institute, which offers bachelors and masters degrees in business administration, has never had a particularly notable home of its own, occupying a few offices on Stevenson Hall's second floor.

That is soon to change. This week, SSU announced it had received a $1 million gift from Heck, owner of Korbel Champagne Cellars, to help create a permanent home for the institute at SSU's University Commons building.

The 14,580-square-foot facility, located near the center of the campus, was vacated when student services and other functions moved to the new Student Center that opened in November.

"It gives us a sense of place and in the wine business, that's so important," said William Silver, dean of the School of Business and Economics.

The new facility, which is projected to open in 2015, will allow the institute to have its own classrooms, an area for students to gather and collaborate on projects, and a section for industry experts and faculty who will be readily accessible to students.

Former students say such a building will expand the profile of an educational institution that has boosted their own careers.

"There is something about brick and mortar that makes it even more substantial," said Stephanie Peachey, director of marketing at Vintage Wine Estates.

Peachey, one of 57 MBAs to have come out of the program so far, is an example of the institute's reach. Formerly a marketing executive with a New York-based legal research firm, she moved to Sonoma County three years ago to pursue her masters degree in wine business, which she received in 2013.

"It gave me a really, really wonderful foundation in the wine industry and that fundamental wine knowledge you need to really execute marketing," she said.

Other students are like Nate Weis, winemaker at Antica Napa Valley, who earned his master's degree in viticulture and enology from UC Davis. He was in the institute's first graduating class of executive MBAs last year.

"Winemaking is such a narrow field of expertise. I think adding to it with this background of finance and marketing and leadership and so on, you never sit in a meeting and feel like you're the guy that doesn't belong," Weis said.

"This is the progression we are starting to see in the industry," said Ray Johnson, the institute's director. "People are starting to focus next on the business side."

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