A year after Aimee Chang’s father invested in a 40-acre vineyard in Napa’s prestigious Pritchard Hill area in 2010, her family decided they wanted to go beyond selling grapes to making and selling their own wine. “But we had zero experience in the wine industry,” admits Chang, 38, a licensed architect who had worked in New York.
She needed to get up to speed—fast.
So she enrolled in Sonoma State University’s Executive Wine MBA, the only such program in the U.S. She commuted weekly to California for almost a year and a half, graduating in 2015. “We couldn’t have launched Nine Suns winery without that,” she says. “Our business model grew out of a class I took on wine distribution.”
Using her architecture skills, Chang also designed the winery building. She is now the winery’s director of finance and design.
Judging by the emails I get on a weekly basis, an awful lot of investment bankers, marketing executives, software engineers, architects and more dream about working in wine. Some aspire to own and manage a winery; others wonder if they can shift careers by transferring their existing business skills to the companies producing the pinot noirs and cabernets they’re passionate about.
The answer, says Ray Johnson, executive director of SSU’s Wine Business Institute, is yes. You just need a bit of further education. “A degree gives them a road into the wine business. During the program, they connect into a network of executives in the wine community, and this gives them a great head start on their career pivot.”
While many universities have winemaking programs, Sonoma State is one of very few offering degrees in the business side of wine.
What You Get Out of a Wine MBA
John Stayton, executive director of SSU’s graduate and executive business programs, points out that many of their graduates are now in executive roles, or are even winery owners.
In other words, the courses are a good way to skip the traditional ladder-climbing in learning to run a winery, which usually starts with pouring wine in a tasting room or working in the office. For owners, they offer a quick way to gain essential knowledge, whether their wineries are tiny startups or entail lavish investments. SSU’s Wine Business Institute, an education and research institute in the School of Business and Economics, started as an undergraduate program in 1996. It launched the U.S.’s first (and only) MBA specializing in wine in 2008 (20-month course, US$25,000 to US$35,000) and in 2012 added an executive wine MBA, the first in the world (weekends for 17 months, US$49,500). Since then, SSU has conferred 112 EMBA degrees. Students come from more than 25 countries to learn the ins and outs of the industry from economists and branding experts, as well as former chief executive officers of local wineries.
Sarah Montague, 49, who spent 25 years in the advertising business working on Kraft and Pepsi accounts, discovered through her course of study that the SSU campus location in Rohnert Park, near Santa Rosa in the heart of Sonoma wine country, was prime territory for networking. She found inspiration in her fellow students, many of whom were heirs to wineries, and met her current boss, the owner of John Anthony Vineyards in Napa, at the valley’s Bottle Rock Festival. “The university is still a resource for me,” she says.
Working Your Angle
The way the industry is shifting in the 21st century offers opportunities for those with skills outside it. Texan wine lover Stephanie Fanning Peachey, 38, was running a division of technology research company Lexis-Nexis when she decided she wanted a career change. While working on her wine MBA she became intrigued by direct-to- consumer marketing. (In 2017, direct-to-consumer wine sales in the U.S. increased 158 per cent over 2016, according to a 2018 report from Sovos ShipCompliant and Wines & Vines.)
“It was a natural fit, where my previous tech and marketing experience could plug in,” she says. Now a vice president at pinot producer Kosta-Browne, she focuses most of her time on direct-to-consumer marketing and brand strategy.
SSU is not the only program of its kind. The Burgundy School of Business, for example, had long had wine business courses; it launched a School of Wine and Spirits Business in Dijon, France, five years ago, with master’s degree programs taught in English. The Kedge Business School in Bordeaux has been offering a wine MBA since 2002. Groupe Inseec (Institute Etudes Economiques Commerciale) Wine & Spirits Institute has offered wine and spirits MBAs in English since 2014 in Bordeaux. And in Australia, the University of Adelaide has a master of wine business degree.
Before getting her MBA, Chang of Nine Suns says she didn’t realize there was so much to know. “The local, state, and federal regulations, logistics, and finances for the wine business are unique and highly complex,” she says. “Not to mention branding, immigration, and sustainability issues.”
Ray Johnson explains: “Today, good quality wine is the starting point to play in the industry. That’s not enough to assure success in what’s become an increasingly competitive market.”
One former SSU student, Brent Bessire, who went from founding an online financial trading platform to eventually founding Sonoma’s Fogline Vineyards, said, “Many people are making wine as a vanity project. I needed to actually make a living doing it.”
Last month, the institute hosted the grand opening of the new high-tech Wine Spectator Learning Center, a hub for international wine business education and research, where students can connect virtually with industry groups in places such as Croatia.
In November, it will add a hybrid version of the EMBA in response to high-level students’ desire for more flexibility and convenience. This 16-month program (US$64,500) consists of in-person and online projects, with four residential immersions in California and university partnerships in France and Australia.
Last week, Stayton was shepherding students to châteaux Lafite, Mouton, and Margaux as part of a new partnership with France’s Kedge school. Among the themes was the “luxurization” of the wine industry, as well as how capitalization, mergers, and marketing differ between the two countries. This week, the group moves to California to visit iconic wineries in the Napa Valley and try out the new Learning Center’s high-tech classrooms. Naturally, they’ll eat out.
Johnson reminds me that people are ultimately drawn to the wine business because of the joy it offers. “It’s not only a rewarding career,” he laughs, “it’s a delicious career.”