Sonoma Wine Grads Talk Careers

Sonoma State event brings alumni together, highlights Wine Business Institute

by Jane Firstenfeld
Armen Katchaturian, President of the WBIAC board, welcomes guests at SSU's alumni/wine institute benefit on Saturday. Ray Johnson, director of the Wine Business Institute, is at left. Photo by Christina Lee
Rohnert Park, Calif. -- Waterfowl bobbed on the lake and a gentle breeze ruffled tent flaps on a sunny afternoon, when visiting parents joined administrators, faculty and alumni of Sonoma State University’s Wine Business Institute on Oct. 2. The “Sips, Bites & Bids” fundraiser featured a silent auction and wine tasting booths manned by successful graduates of the school’s Wine MBA program, part of its innovative Wine Business Institute, which also includes undergraduate and professional development programs.

Ray Johnson, recently appointed director of the WBI, facilitated networking among some 225 attendees. Many of the recent graduates spoke proudly of how their fresh Wine MBAs or undergraduate degrees have enhanced their careers: Several had changed jobs so recently they still lacked business cards, scrawling contact information on random scraps of paper.

Wines & Vines
followed up to learn why people already embedded in the wine industry invested the time and funds to attend night school, and how other hopefuls might benefit from the program.

Joe Webb
Joe Webb, SSU wine program grad, GM of Londers and co-owner/winemaker of Foursight.

Joe Webb, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a concentration in wine business strategies in 2005, before the Wine MBA program was established, is a textbook success story. Now general manager of Londer Vineyards and co-owner/winemaker at Foursight, both in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley, Webb worked his way through school, transferring to SSU after meeting Kristy Charles, now his wife, at Cuesta College on the Central Coast.

“While at SSU, I worked in the tasting rooms at Sebastiani and Landmark Vineyards in Sonoma,” he recalled. “I was supporting myself through school, so being able to work and attend classes was extremely helpful.” SSU’s program, he said, “did a great job of preparing me to run a small winery and manage the back end of a business that, without programs like this to lay the groundwork, you would have to work for decades to master.”

The most important thing he learned from the program, he said, “was a great look into how the wine business differs from other industries. The wine business is made up of so many family enterprises it is often very difficult to set benchmarks and goals, as well as realistic financial projections,” because family-owned businesses do not release financial statements. As a partner with his wife and her family in Foursight, he is acutely aware of this information shortage. Webb commented that even with his academic and professional experience, logistics, accounting and taxation have been tough to master.

“Logistics plays a huge role in the wine business, from production to sales, and has disastrous consequences if all goes wrong,” Webb observed.

Mastering the material

Kris Wright, director of SSU’s MBA program, said that currently Wine Business MBA enrollment is 20 students, about one-third of the school’s entire part-time MBA program. An undergraduate degree, and either 24 months of wine work experience and/or education are mandatory. On average, completion of the 10 classes required takes five semesters (two-and-a-half years).

Tyler Hancock Marketing
Tyler Hancock, now in marketing at Ascentia.

Tyler Hancock, now a wine club sales associate at Ascentia Wine Estates, working primarily with direct-to-consumer sales for Buena Vista Carneros, Geyser Peak Winery and Gary Farrell Winery, had a day job at Imagery Estate Winery, Glen Ellen, while he raced through the MBA program in only a year-and-a-half, graduating in May 2009. An active member of the WBI Alumni Council, which co-sponsored the tasting with the SSU Alumni Council, while earning his MBA he also became a Certified Specialist of Wine through the Society of Wine Educators and a Level I Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers.

With this record of near-total immersion, it’s perhaps not surprising that he commented, “I think the program definitely caters to people who have a passion for wine, and who live and breathe it every day.” During his stint at SSU, Hancock took advantage of a Global Wine Industry elective during the 2009 winter break, spending 10 days in Chile studying the wine business there.

The program demands dedication. “One of the requirements is that you must be working in the wine industry while enrolled. This way, what you study at night is reflected in your job during the day. This hands-on learning is constantly reinforced,” Hancock said. "The program’s strengths lie in its geographical proximity to wine country and access to wine professionals. We had numerous guest lectures with industry insiders who could share their insight and real-world experiences.”

Andrew Blok
Andrew Blok, now at Wente.

Andrew Blok got his MBA just last May, and has since moved from Small Vines Wines, a Russian River/Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir specialist, to his new position, assistant marketing manager at Wente Family Estates, Livermore, Calif. After earning a viticulture/enology degree from the University of California, Davis, he’d been working in the wine industry for three years; he, too, completed his master’s in just 1.5 years.

“I was ready to take my career to the next level and was looking at MBA programs around the state when I stumbled upon SSU’s Wine Business MBA. I was already highly specialized to the wine industry with my degree from UC Davis, but had gotten limited business training.” He enrolled at SSU to round out his skills set and make himself attractive to potential employers.

“I liked that the program was funded and supported by the industry, and that I would be able to work while attending,” Blok said. “My career has really taken off since graduating. Although I loved working on the boutique side of the industry, and being extremely close to the product, I wanted to work for a company where I had the opportunity to influence and educate millions of consumers.”

While he is already reaping the benefits, he added, “I would hesitate to recommend the program to anyone who had not already worked for a couple of years in the industry. I think it is important that students have some real world perspective before hopping into the program.” He feels it would be most useful for those already in the industry who are seeking to change their career path, “or vault themselves to the next level.” It would also be “a great option for anyone interested in starting their own winery or wine-related business,” he suggested. 

The silent auction of 25 wines from Arrowhead Mountain Vineyard, Buena Vista Carneros, Ehlers Estate, Foursight Wines, Jordan Vineyards & Winery, Schug Winery and Londer Vineyards at Saturday’s event contributed $2,400 to the Wine Business Institute Alumni Council. This was the first event of its kind. For more information about SSU’s Wine Business Institute, visit sonoma.edu/winebiz.

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