Sonoma State University’s wine business program takes root with new learning center

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?”