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Ray Johnson: “Making Great Wine Is Not Enough”

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By Elizabeth Hans McCrone

Ray Johnson
Ray Johnson

Ray Johnson has been the Executive Director of the Wine Business Institute (WIB) at Sonoma State University since 2010. In that position, he has successfully worked to raise the visibility and viability of the department and helped to generate millions of dollars in support of its students, faculty and programs.

Johnson’s career in the wine industry spans more than three decades and encompasses a myriad of roles. As such, he has developed a keen appreciation for the correlation of wine education and wine business and where the industry might be headed in the future.

Johnson describes how his impressive career in the wine business began and what continues to fascinate and inspire him.

EHM: How did you get your start in the wine industry?

RJ: I was working in a French restaurant in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and wine was a big part of our service. I found myself studying wine and loving it. I went to France, then to California and saw that it was more of a career for me to move away from food and wine to just wine.

I came out to California with a resume in hand and a smile on my face and found an opportunity at Christian Brothers, who still had Greystone at that time. They were looking to increase their sales force and offered me a job as a tour guide. I saw it as an opportunity to move up, and they made good on their promise.

I believe that if you work hard, it will really bear fruit someday. I tell my students not to omit an opportunity that might seem too easy at the moment. That it can truly be leveraged into something. If you’re in the right place, it can lead to mobility.

EHM:  Why wine? What is it about wine that draws you?

RJ: There’s always another region, another grape variety, another style of winemaking to explore. It’s a never-ending journey if you’re an inquisitive person. For instance, when I went to Greece on vacation, I asked myself, who could I visit? What wines can I try? I discovered Agiorgitiko, from which I tasted easy quaffers and substantial, giant wines.

Similarly, when I was in Madeira, a place for famous dessert wines, I got to experience some really profound wines that were from a place that grows banana trees. It’s exciting to have wines that are so different and in places that are so different from California.

EHM: Why is wine education so important to you?

RJ: It’s a generalized belief I have that education gives one the ability to understand a subject and experience it more deeply. In some of the beginning classes that I’ve taught, people feel awkward (about their knowledge). It’s not that they lack ability, it’s that they haven’t sat down and focused on it.

Education makes it easier to find a place in memory and hold on. That, in turn, makes for a richer experience when you’re having wine at the table, at a restaurant or at a party. Besides that, the business of wine is competitive. Education helps you to take time out, to sharpen the saw and become even more effective at what you do.

EHM: Where do you see the intersection between wine education and wine business?

RJ: We give hardworking people who apply themselves the tools that they can use to leverage their work to make it more satisfying. With education, people can move into positions of more responsibility.

It’s very gratifying to see our alumni who are so enthralled and so satisfied with what they’re doing. Not only are they working in an industry they like, it’s deeply satisfying for them to see their own imprint on the results.

EHM: How did the Wine Business Institute at Sonoma State University get started?

RJ: It began 21 years ago out of need to create a place where people could study the business of wine. Agriculture has this tendency to create zealots. Whether it’s Humboldt Fog cheese or a great Cabernet, people are passionate about what they do. But the handwriting was on the wall two decades ago; making great wine is not enough. You may still struggle.

Some forward thinking people like Gary Heck of Korbel, Walt Klenz with Beringer, Henry Trione … they worked with the university to create a program. It started out in pieces with undergraduate seminars and classes and evolved into what it is today.

EHM: What do you see as your mission as the Director of the Institute?

RJ: Clearly, to involve a greater number of stakeholders in the endeavor. My goal is to take that core group on the board of directors and build on it, to rally a greater number of people to get involved.

It’s like a flywheel – pushing and pushing and finally you have enough momentum. My charge from the beginning was to enlarge the circle of people who wanted to make it a success.

Today we’re participating in just about every wine industry function in California. We don’t sit in an office. We take the show and our story on the road to meet people where they are.

Ray Johnson and Damien Wilson at U.S. Wine & Beverage Conference 2016 (USBevX)

EHM: What are you most proud of in terms of your work at the Wine Business Institute?

RJ: That I’ve helped to increase the brand equity at the Wine Business Institute by substantially enlarging its stakeholders. That others value it to the extent that they’ll send their sons and daughters into one of our programs.

You can’t tell a story once and have it stick. You have to build quality over time so that its reputation is rising in parallel to it. That’s how you see the growth and success – when alumni tell our story to family and friends.

EHM: What are you most proud of overall about your career?

RJ: One of my signature learning experiences early on, with all of my background was ‘Ray, don’t be snotty.’ It’s important for people to enjoy the wines they like, never to push people into what they should like. Rather, invite them to learn about what they do like and why.

I think this was a pivotal experience for me. It helped knock me off some sort of pedestal I was on, helped to steer me in a more egalitarian direction.

EHM: What do you see as the outlook for the wine industry going forward in terms of challenges and opportunities?

RJ: Premiumization is really big in the industry right now. Consumers are trading up. They’re willing to spend more, but they want a deeper experience with their wine. It’s not just about the price of the bottle, but the experience that goes with it.

It’s an exciting time for wineries to decide how they’ll do that. It’s not just about raising prices. This was a big topic with the CEO’s at a financial symposium I just attended.

I’m really enjoying this. It’s a never-ending opportunity to learn, like the grapes and places. It’s very cool – and continues to be so personally engaging for me.

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