Home Wine Business Editorial The Value of a Wine Education

The Value of a Wine Education


By Elizabeth Hans McCrone

Ray Johnson WINnovation
Ray Johnson accepts a 2014 WINnovation Award on behalf of the Sonoma State Wine Business Institute

“Wine education won’t necessarily sell wine, but it gives you a reference to sell wine.”

So says Rick Toyota, the Director of Hospitality and Sales at Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville, California.

Toyota is discussing the relatively recent emergence of degree and certificate programs offered to prepare people for a variety of skilled positions within the complex world of wine. Navigating the options can be difficult, according to the experts, but potentially advantageous.

Toyota is a Certified Wine Educator and has completed the Advanced Level Exam through the Court of Master Sommeliers. He’s is a firm believer in the value of a wine education.

“I felt it was important for my credibility as a wine professional,” Toyota attests. “Even that first level (exam) was recognized by the industry … it played a role with my first wine job … because it showed that I had some level of wine background.”

Toyota’s passion for wine and wine education is reflected in his current position. He’s created an annual 20-week study program for company staff interested in expanding their knowledge about wine. He believes a more global perspective is critical to effective wine sales.

“For example, a California versus an Australian Shiraz – very different styles,” Toyota explains. “If someone is interested in an Australian-style Shiraz and comes into our winery, it may be a Bordeaux blend I show that person, not a California Syrah. It’s that background of understanding that I think is important.”

David Glancy is the founder of the San Francisco Wine School, an organization he launched in 2011 to provide, as his website states “world-class wine education and professional development for successful careers in the wine industry.”

Glancy himself is a Master Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator. He said his inspiration for creating the San Francisco Wine School came, in part, from his own experience trying to obtain an education.

“Everything was sort of self-study, frustrating,” Glancy admits. “I took a class here and there just to have a deadline … My path shaped what I saw was needed: an easier, better and more direct way to get there.”

Glancy proceeded to design a flexible itinerary to ready his students for credentialed testing through the prestigious Court of Master Sommeliers. Through the work, Glancy discovered that not everyone pursuing wine education has a master sommelier goal in mind.

“There were people who were never going to do that,” he notes. “They wanted to open a wine bar, become a wine writer … there are so many different career paths. I wanted to create different options to help people … something more tailored to their (individual) career goals.”

San Francisco Wine School currently offers multiple classes and workshops that take anywhere from several weeks to several months to complete. They cover a wide range of interest levels in the areas of hospitality, retail, distribution, journalism, marketing/PR, consulting, education and more.

The school’s instructors are all certified through four major credentialing bodies, including; Master Sommelier Diplomas from Court of Master Sommeliers; Diploma in Wine & Spirits from Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET); Certified Wine Educators from Society of Wine Educators; Master of Wine from Institute of Masters of Wine.

The Wine Industry Sales Education (WISE) Academy was co-founded by Lesley Berglund in 2008 to address, according to its website “an urgent need for well-educated, direct marketing proficient staff, managers and leaders in all aspects related to consumer direct sales programs.”

Berglund had been working with wine-related businesses since 1991 when she realized that a deficit in direct to consumer (DTC) sales education existed.

“In one week I got 10 different calls from 10 different wineries looking for new DTC people,” Berglund testifies. “Strangely, the old people were still in the job. Clearly, the need outstripped the labor pool.”

Berglund responded by creating a host of different certification programs in direct to consumer education, as well as a leadership program to help shape DTC strategic thinking skills. Five of the WISE certificates are for tasting room, wine club, sales and data management professionals, four are leadership certificates in those areas and another five are workshops designed for managers covering people management, finance, budgeting, DTC metrics and public speaking.

Berglund says the WISE Academy is both well-known and well-respected industry wide.

“We are starting to see wineries that know and work with WISE … have it in their job ads; “WISE certified preferred,” Berglund attests. “Some wineries use WISE as a benefit for employees. For those with personal experience with WISE, (the certification) means a lot.”

Sonoma State University’s Wine Business Institute offers graduate and undergraduate degrees, as well as shorter certificate programs centered exclusively on wine business practices.

Ray Johnson, the institute’s director, claims that “we’ve become a global leader in wine business research and education” and says the program is the only one of its kind in North America.

“When you look at geography, you see that we’re seated in this triangle of Napa, Sonoma and San Francisco,” Johnson says. “That’s a hub of a lot of wine industry success in California.”

The beauty of Sonoma State’s program, according to Johnson, is that participants are being taught by industry professionals and professors who have built successful brands over time, which can then translate into fantastic networking opportunities outside the classroom.

“Students study with us, and then they become connected and form a network of colleagues they can rely on,” Johnson confirms. “They can form their own advisory program; their own problem solving team. It’s pretty incredible to have that kind of brain trust around you.”

George Hamel, of Hamel Family Wines is a true believer in Sonoma State’s program. Not only did he obtain an MBA there, but he also sits on the institute’s board of directors and has hired several of the program’s graduates for positions in his own business, Hamel Family Wines.

“In general terms, my dad and I think we know the characteristics that make a business successful,” Hamel states, “but the wine industry is a different beast. It’s great to have the Wine Business Institute to provide a formal education as a foundation to use as we build Hamel Family Wines.”

Hamel has recently hired an Operations Manager, a Wine Ambassador, and a Hospitality/Marketing intern who were educated through Sonoma State’s program.

“I’m confident in these individuals and their education to immediately apply their skillset to the position they were hired for and immediately contribute,” he affirms.

Anisya Fritz, co-proprietor of Lynmar Estate in the Russian River Valley, teaches a course on wine business entrepreneurship through the Wine Business Institute. While she is a huge supporter of Sonoma State’s program, she’s more cautious about wine education generally, pointing out that many courses of study are relatively new and unproven.

“My experience has found that whether you have a wine education or not is not necessarily related to success,” Fritz notes. “It depends on the role. A person with a wine business education or a wine tasting certificate tells me they’re interested in the industry. Does it mean they have the skills for the job? No.”

Fritz believes, as she says, “that practice based learning is necessary to create professionals, even with an education.”  She also thinks it’s incumbent on the industry itself to do a better job of developing staff and bringing people up through the ranks.

“It’s important for wineries to have good, entry-level training programs for people coming into the industry,” Fritz opines. “There’s no real defined career path in the wine industry. You have to find your own way to navigate.”

Without doubt, wine education is a big plus if you’re trying to carve a career path in the wine industry, and there are several programs recognized and valued by the industry. However, with the wide variety of jobs in the industry, there’s no substitute for immersion, so come prepared and be ready to continue learning in this evolving beverage business.


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  1. Great article! We here at Napa Valley Wine Academy agree that formalized internationally recognized wine education and certifications are the cornerstone to a successful career in the wine business. We are proud to be the home of the Wine and Spirit Education Trust curriculum in Northern California. We also offer the Certified Specialist of Wine, French Wine Scholar, Italian Wine Professional, American Wine Studies, and many foundation and advanced courses.

  2. This article fails to mention the Napa Valley Wine Academy where students worldwide (including myself) have obtained their WSET and CSW Certificates–housed right in downtown Napa.

  3. Well-researched & well-written article. To clarify, Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) is offered through Napa Valley Wine Academy, Discover Wine & Spirits and our partner for WSET at San Francisco Wine School, Grape Experience. San Francisco Wine School also offers Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW), French Wine Scholar (FWS), Italian Wine Professional (IWP) plus our own California Wine Appellation Specialist (CWAS), Somm Essentials, Advanced Tasting Program, Advanced Service Program, customized corporate training and dozens of workshops for professionals and enthusiasts.

    The combination of classes, work experience, travel, reading, tasting and an overall commitment to continuous improvement are the ways to start and maintain a career.


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