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For 20 years, Sonoma State University’s wine business program has helped thousands of students and working professionals gain knowledge and understanding of the global industry.

Now, it will finally have a place to call home — a really nice home. Dignitaries such as Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and U.S. Rep Mike Thompson on Wednesday were part of a groundbreaking ceremony for the new $9.2 million Wine Spectator Learning Center.

The new structure will be repurposed from the University Commons. The 15,000-square-foot facility will have three state-of-the-art classrooms, some multimedia venues to host seminars and events, a student commons, a faculty-industry hub, and a café.

“This project is not about building walls. In fact, it’s about tearing them down. We’re tearing down the ivory tower of isolation and building a learning community; one that will open our doors to the world for the career and life success of our students and for the economic prosperity of our communities,” said William Silver, dean of the School of Business and Economics.

The construction will be fully paid for by private donations, most notably the $3 million gift by Marvin Shanken, editor and publisher of Wine Spectator magazine.

The building is the final piece of the legacy of outgoing university president Ruben Armiñana, who oversaw tremendous growth during his 24-year tenure of the 269-acre campus. That includes large swaths of student housing, a new student center and the Green Music Center, the world-class concert venue.

Armiñana said he came up with the idea to focus on wine business education shortly after taking office in 1992 while meeting with wine industry professionals in Napa.

While UC Davis, Fresno State and Santa Rosa Junior College all offered viticulture and enology programs, there was a lack of academic programs focusing on finance.

“Nobody was doing the business side,” Armiñana said.

The university program has become a leader in the area under its more formal name: the Wine Business Institute. More than 600 people annually participate in programs, including 40 undergraduates, 50 graduate students, more than 100 online and more than 400 in various seminars on a range of issues that include certificate programs.

It attracted last year Damien Wilson from Dijon’s Burgundy School of Business as the first Hamel Family Faculty Chair in Wine Business. The five-year renewable position was established as a result, from a $3 million gift by Pamela and George Hamel.

The program’s first graduate, Paul Finn, attended the ceremony. Finn was waiting tables in the late 1990s in San Jose, serving dotcom entrepreneurs, when he found out about the fledgling program and was immediately drawn to it after reading a one-page brochure.

“I knew I wanted to move to Wine Country. Immediately, I got a cellar job and went to business school at night, and waited tables to make money during the day,” said Finn, who works in finance at the Paul Hobbs Winery in Sebastopol.

“This institution just gave me that foundation to step into wineries and make an impact immediately,” Finn said. He later came back to the university and took an accounting class to help further his career.

Armiñana said Finn’s story is one that has been replicated over the years and should continue, now with a highly visible landmark on campus that will attract more attention to the program.

“I do hope there will be many, many Paul Finns who graduate from this program in the years to come,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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