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Sonoma State University Unveils Wine Spectator Learning Center

New $11 million home for the Wine Business Institute will help train the future leaders of the wine industry
From left: Rep. Mike Thompson, SSU Provost Lisa Vollendorf, Marvin R. Shanken, SSU President Judy Sakaki, Dean Karen Thompson, Korbel's Gary Heck, WBI Executive Director Ray Johnson and Logan Pitts
Photo by: Jak Wonderly
From left: Rep. Mike Thompson, SSU Provost Lisa Vollendorf, Marvin R. Shanken, SSU President Judy Sakaki, Dean Karen Thompson, Korbel's Gary Heck, WBI Executive Director Ray Johnson and Logan Pitts

Aaron Romano
Posted: May 30, 2018

It's not every day that an $11 million, 15,000-square-foot temple to wine-industry knowledge opens its doors. More than 600 guests, including industry leaders, gathered yesterday in Sonoma County for the grand opening of the Wine Spectator Learning Center at Sonoma State University. The facility is the new heart of the University's Wine Business Institute, a one-of-a-kind program working to train tomorrow's leaders of the wine industry.

"Get crackin'," was Wine Spectator editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken's advice to the students in the crowd. The Wine Spectator Scholarship Foundation anchored the financing of the new building, contributing $3 million.

Wine and food flowed freely, and guests were encouraged to explore the center and all its facets, including three contemporary classrooms, a student commons, 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.

In her opening statement for the ceremony, Dr. Karen Thompson, interim dean of the School of Business and Economics, said, "Twenty-two years ago, Gary Heck had a vision." The president and owner of Korbel, Heck believed the community needed to prepare future generations for leadership roles in the wine industry.

"Twenty-two years ago, we didn't know we would need this," Heck told Wine Spectator after the speeches.

Heck teamed with Sonoma State's then-president Ruben Armiñana and several local industry leaders to develop a business education program that would meet the demands of the wine industry. Together they founded the Wine Business Institute in 1996, the first academic program in the United States to offer degrees focused exclusively on the business aspects of the wine industry.

Since its inception, the program has awarded 980 undergraduate wine-business degrees, 50 master's degrees in wine-business administration and 112 MBA degrees specifically designed for wine executives. "What started as an opportunity to have a few classes, turned into the building of a tremendous school that is focused on the business of wine," said Heck.

Heck donated $1 million to the building of the new center, which took two years of construction. Additional contributors include Tom Klein, proprietor for Rodney Strong Vineyards; the Gallo Family of E. & J. Gallo Winery; Chris and Vern Underwood of Young's Market Company, and several other industry leaders and organizations.

Shanken called the building a symbol of the last 40 years of hard work and journalism at Wine Spectator. 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, including students at the University of California at Davis Department of Viticulture & Enology, Washington State University's Viticulture & Enology program, the Culinary Institute of America, Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and Florida International University's Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management.

Tatiana Copeland, a donor as well as the proprietor and president of Bouchaine Vineyards, loves what the building stands for. "I know people that are great creative winemakers, but I also knew that no one was teaching them business," she explained. With a CPA background, Copeland believes that vintners need to be financially responsible and practical marketers, as well as make exceptional wines.

Congressman Mike Thompson, who represents Sonoma County, presented a plaque to the school with remarks he recently made on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives recognizing the new Learning Center, noting that the research and data that will be coming out of it will be important for policy makers in both Sacramento and Washington, D.C. "What's happening today is important to the continuation of a $180 billion economy," said Thompson, citing the significance of students getting an education in the wine business, which supports all facets of the industry.

The Wine Business Institute is already gearing up to take its education to the next level. There are plans in the works to strengthen its online learning programs, and later this year it will launch a new hybrid MBA that will combine online and onsite classes spanning three continents.

Several former Sonoma State Wine Business graduates were in attendance, pouring wines from the wineries they now represent. Prema Behan, COO of Three Sticks winery, was among the first to graduate from the university's executive MBA program. She called the center an investment that validates her degree, saying, "This is a true launching point to legitimize the center for the wine business, and an investment back into the industry."

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Palmer B Emmitt
San Francisco, CA —  May 30, 2018 7:45pm ET
Congratulations to all involved! It was a very nice event and is a spectacular facility that will serve students and the industry well. I only wish it had been there when I was part of the first few groups of Wine MBAs!

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