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Wine’s Most Inspiring People 2024: Christian Oggenfuss — Leading the Wine Industry in Educational Excellence

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By Laurie Wachter

 

Christian Oggenfuss, DipWSET, Napa Valley Wine Academy founder and CEO

Under the visionary leadership of founder and CEO Christian Oggenfuss, DipWSET, the Napa Valley Wine Academy has grown into an almost $10 million company with more than 2,000 students annually. What’s more, thousands of former students keep coming back to update and expand their knowledge of the world’s wine.

Thanks to his business acumen and the contributions of partners and expert teachers, the Academy has become the world’s largest provider of Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) courses and the only one to win the WSET Educator of the Year award more than once. Together, these accomplishments make it the one to watch in WSET training circles and make Oggenfuss a deserving addition to Wine Industry Advisor’s 2024 list of Wine’s Most Inspiring People.

Academy co-founder Catherine Buggé, DipWSET, who is VP of education at the school, highlights Oggenfuss’ influence: “When we innovate or do something different with our website, we see that copied. Christian is a natural leader and the strategic business mind of our company. I call him a walking idea chamber.”

As a result, the Academy has expanded its catalog of programs far beyond WSET courses. It offers a broad selection of classes and certifications about wines, wine regions and many other topics, as well as educational tours to wine regions in Europe and South America.

Starting from Scratch

Catherine Buggé, DipWSET, Napa Valley Wine Academy co-founder and VP of education

Buggé met Oggenfuss in 2007 while taking the rigorous two-year WSET Diploma program in wine and spirits. They reconnected a few years later when they both volunteered to be WSET instructors at a small San Francisco school. 

“It wasn’t the best experience for the students because of the way it was run and organized. It was frustrating,” says Oggenfuss. “One day, I saw Catherine and jokingly told her, ‘I think you and I could do this way better. We should start a school.’ She answered, ‘It’s a crazy idea, but why not?’ So we started in 2011 and offered our first class in January 2012.” 

Oggenfuss’ leadership ability was evident to Buggé from the beginning. Although their first class had fewer than 10 students, he began using his marketing experience (from time at wineries such as Treasury Wine Estates, Benziger Family and The Plumpjack Group) to understand their students and send targeted messages. 

“He pushed the Academy to the forefront with search engine optimization and targeted emails,” says Master of Wine Peter Marks, a partner and vice president at the Academy. “His use of technology to drive the business was instrumental in getting us off the ground.”

The Academy’s student base expanded dramatically as Oggenfuss’ CRM system let them follow up on every lead and student, and they also leveraged social media to spread the word. Even the Napa Valley Wine Academy name comes from a marketing lesson learned from Dario Sattui: “Napa Valley” is a brand with inherent value. 

Coping with COVID-19

Joe Consul, partner and investor at the Napa Valley Wine Academy

“As a leader, you’re faced with challenges that sometimes you anticipate, and sometimes you don’t, yet you have to manage your company through them,” says Joe Consul, partner and investor in the Academy. “For example, COVID-19 threw a heck of a wrench in the business. Prior to that, most of the classes and revenue generation were through in-person class teaching. [The Academy] had to move to an online model very quickly. They’ve grown that into a great technology base in online course delivery that has become a critical part of the business.”

Oggenfuss’ innovative mindset let the Academy move swiftly when the pandemic hit. About four years after starting the program, he noticed an influx of international students and began developing an online education program that prospered. 

“But something itched at me,” Oggenfuss says. “You can’t taste the wine when studying online.” 

To address this, he developed wine-tasting kits to ship to students at a lower cost than buying full bottles. The Academy was one of the first wine schools to offer this enhancement to online WSET candidates. The kits were ready to launch just as COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns began; they allowed thousands of in-person students to seamlessly transition their education virtually. They also kept the Academy growing. 

Striving for Student Success 

“Our motto is ‘Put the student at the center of everything we do,’” says Buggé with the pride of a true educator. “And that’s not just a statement. We’re always asking ourselves, ‘Is that idea really going to help the student?’”

“Being customer-focused is always at the top of our company’s ethos,” agrees Consul. “We continually reinvent the ways that we offer education, making sure we give customers what they want and deliver it in the best possible scenario for them. What differentiates us is the support system that we have because we give extra attention to our students and follow up with them to make sure they’re successful.” 

Peter Marks, Master of Wine, partner and vice president at the Napa Valley Wine Academy

The Academy’s support system includes ensuring students have instructors who are experts in the field they are teaching and good quality wines to taste. The Academy is also unique in offering office hours, tutoring and mentoring sessions, and practice tests that instructors mark and return to their students. 

“The pass rates for two of the Diploma course’s six units came out this week,” says Marks. “We achieved a high 80s percentage passed, well above the mid-60s worldwide average. Those scores show we’re effective in helping our students succeed. It’s because of Christian and his direction on how we’ve put together the resources to make it more achievable for our students.”

Oggenfuss and his team’s unwavering focus on their students will ensure that the Napa Valley Wine Academy continues to lead the way in growth and innovation in the wine education industry.

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Laurie Wachter
Laurie Wachter

Laurie Wachter

Laurie developed her love of analytics and innovation while advising consumer packaged goods companies, including Kraft Foods, PepsiCo and the Altria Group, on consumer and POS data analytics and direct-to-consumer marketing. Today, she writes about the wine, food and beverage industries for a global client base from the Northern California wine country.

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