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Sonoma State University Breaks Ground on New Home for Wine Business Institute

The Wine Spectator Learning Center will serve more than 600 students studying about the wine industry
Photo by: Jason Tinacci
(left to right) SSU President Ruben Armiñana, U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, Dean William Silver, WBI President Ray Johnson, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Wine Spectator's Marvin R. Shanken and Korbel's Gary Heck.

Tim Fish
Posted: June 2, 2016

It was a shovelful of dirt 20 years in the making. Sonoma State University broke ground on a new home for its Wine Business Institute June 1, beginning construction on the Wine Spectator Learning Center. The $9.15 million facility, financed in part by a $3 million contribution from the Wine Spectator Scholarship Foundation, will serve as the new home of the institute upon completion in summer 2017.

A group of 300 guests and dignitaries from the wine, education and political worlds gathered on the lawn of the shady Rohnert Park campus at SSU, which is part of the California State University system.

"It's a special privilege to be able to work with such a great institution," Marvin R. Shanken, Wine Spectator editor and publisher, told the crowd. "The wine industry is just now being born, getting started. The future needs and depends on institutions like this one to train and educate people to go into the wine industry."

California Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom and U.S. Congressman Mike Thompson also attended. "This is a huge day for Sonoma State and the entire wine community," said Rep. Thompson, who noted that the wine industry annually contributes $13 billion to the Sonoma county economy and $62 billion to California's.

Founded in 1996, the institute was the first academic program in the United States to offer degrees focused exclusively on the business aspects of the wine industry. Most students work toward a B.S. in wine business strategies or an M.B.A. in wine business, making it the only school in the U.S. offering a wine industry MBA.

More than 600 people participate in one or more wine business programs each year, including 40 undergraduates and 50 graduate students. Last year, the school had more than 100 part-time students participating in its online wine business management program, and more than 400 taking various seminars on a range of subjects.

Gary Heck, owner of Sonoma's F. Korbel & Bros., was one of the earliest advocates of the institute, contributing $1 million toward the program. "It was very obvious to me that we couldn't be another Fresno State or U.C. Davis. The viticultural side was already taken, but we could do the business of wine," he said.

Paul Finn, who was the institute's first graduate, in 2001, was on hand for the celebration and echoed what many speakers said about how the school's sense of community and camaraderie with the industry make it special among business schools. "It gave me a heads up in the wine industry that I simply would not have had at another business school," said Finn, 38, who is finance manager of Paul Hobbs Winery. "I'm most proud of the fact that this institute now has brick and mortar."

About a half-dozen institute graduates currently work for Korbel, Heck said, while California-based distributor Young's Market Company has 43 graduates of the program on the payroll. "It's a great source of talent," Young's president Rick Gillis said. "We believe in the school's mission."

When it's completed, the Wine Business Institute's new center will have more than 14,500 square feet of space for instruction and student activities. There will be three dedicated classrooms, a student commons with areas for collaboration and student-run businesses, and an industry center with space for professional and academic faculty and program leadership.

It will also have an international-themed garden plus a café where students, faculty and visitors can gather for lunch and a glass of wine. And the center will allow the institute a greater ability to host evening receptions and offer students an onsite location where they can learn more about the hospitality component of the industry.

"This project is not about building walls. It's about tearing them down," said William Silver, dean of the School of Business and Economics, which includes the Wine Business Institute. "Success in the wine business depends on human capital. In the future we will see the children of winemakers and vineyard workers coming through those doors."

The Sonoma State University program is just one of several that the Wine Spectator Scholarship Foundation has contributed to. It has raised more than $20 million to support wine and food education over the past 30 years. Foundation beneficiaries have included students at the University of California at Davis Department of Viticulture & Enology, the Culinary Institute of America, Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and Florida International University's Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management.

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