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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 will be held Tuesday night 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 from an initial discussion between Armiñana and Gary Heck, owner of F. Korbel & Bros in Guerneville, to develop a business education program for wine professionals. The two 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.

“The thing we have up here that the other schools don’t have is the network,” Johnson said of the career opportunities for its graduates. “People get connected.”

Will Phelps found that out firsthand when he received his wine executive MBA in 2015. He was part of a class that included students in production, finance and sales roles — which brought a diversity of views and opinions. Phelps has had jobs in sales and marketing and now serves as director of hospitality and consumer sales at Joseph Phelps Vineyards in St. Helena, which was founded by his grandfather. His current focus is trying to better understand the direct-to-consumer sales market, which is crucial given wholesaler consolidation within the wine industry.

“The networking continues even though I’m not a student,” Phelps said. “I continue to reach out to professors and others who were adjunct professors in their field.”

Meeting workforce needs

The program exemplifies the university’s commitment to meet local workforce needs, said SSU President Judy Sakaki. When she meets with local employers, she asks: “What do we need to do better to make sure that our students are serving you and being successful in that work environment?”

Expert faculty, support

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.

“It tends to be a very conservative sector,” Wilson said of the industry.

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 — whose color changes thanks to a pigment found in grape skin combined with a plant-based dye. Despite skepticism from wine industry professionals, both of those products have taken off in recent years.

“They are usually keen to dismiss anything they don’t agree with,” Wilson said of industry executives.

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. That is notable because industry funding has been crucial to the institute’s growth, given the limited dollars at the state level for higher education and pressure to keep tuition costs reasonable.

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.

Despite the industry’s financial support, university leaders emphasize that it doesn’t influence their research. They note that the school offers courses on how to lead sustainable enterprises as well as the social and legal responsibilities of wineries.

“We are focused on delivering research that is going to be representing what is actually the facts of the world,” said Karen Thompson, interim dean of the School of Business and Economics. “The focus is not for giving things that are good for the industry, but telling the truth.”

Online, classroom learning

A major focus of the school in the future will be on bolstering its online learning programs, especially as some of its MBA students were commuting as far away as New York, said John Stayton, executive director of graduate and executive business programs.

“We realized that we should develop a program that they can come from anywhere,” Stayton said.

Later this year, it will launch a new MBA for wine executives that will combine online learning with classroom-based work in a program that will be held over 16 months on three continents. This hybrid program will have three-month segments of online classes combined with four 10-day onsite classes. It is also designed not to conflict with harvest in both the Northern Hemisphere and Southern Hemisphere so that it can attract students from all over the world.

“It’s really for students who are coming from other parts of the country as well as globally,” Stayton said of the program.

Like wine, the competition for students is also global and competitive. SSU officials said they could not rest on their laurels, which is why having the new space is desirable — besides making it more convenient for students and faculty to meet up as opposed to walking to various buildings around campus. For example, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo has just posted an opening for a professor of wine sales and marketing.

“America is the market everyone wants to be in around the world. It’s a fiercely competitive market. It’s important that people here not be complacent,” Johnson said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com.

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