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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.

"It's not enough to have great wine, you have to have a story," Chigazola added. "The stories of these families are remarkable. They would never tell these stories themselves, they are very humble, but my customers love it."

Today Chigazola Merchants represents five producers from three different Italian regions, offering a total of 20 wines. Chigazola's objective on the business end was to break even at 12 months. He has done that.

He expects it'll take three years to recover his initial investment and is the full proprietor of the business, with his adult son, who, conveniently, has degrees in finance and international business and handles the technology side of Chigazola Merchants.

"It's definitely a dream come true," Chigazola said. "The biggest surprise is I had no idea I would enjoy building these relationships in Italy so much, they've become my extended family."

Some of Chigazola's Italian wines can be found locally at John Ash, Madrona Manor, Terrapin Creek, Ca' Bianca and Riviera Ristorante as well as through his website.

Another success story from that first year's class is Jeannette Tan, the accountant for Kokomo Winery in Healdsburg who helped the winery grow from 5,000 cases to 8,000 per year.

"In the fall of 2012 we had that huge bumper crop and we couldn't refuse all those gorgeous grapes," Tan said. "We were faced with executing on our five-year growth plan in one year, but the work was already in place, we were ready to take Kokomo to the next level."

She adds that the class forces wineries to look at their business from a different point of view, drilling down into financials and issues of cash flow.

"It makes you sit down and think, what should my mission statement be?"

Not only did Tan help Kokomo take off, her own career has also taken off as a result of the entrepreneurial class. She now teaches two classes for the Wine Business Institute and has taken many of her lessons in winery cost accounting and QuickBooks on the road, speaking at trade shows across the United States.

She's also rekindled her consulting business, helping small wineries to understand their whole financial picture and the realities of the wine world, where it can take years to recoup costs.

"I'm trying to save the planet one boutique winery at a time," Tan said.

Virginie Boone is a freelance wine writer based in Sonoma County. She can be reached at virginieboone@yahoo.com and followed on Twitter @vboone.

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