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Sonoma State Students Complete First Executive Wine MBA in the United States

September 05, 2013

Twenty-five of the North Coast’s wine business leaders presented fully developed business plans this past Saturday as the capstone of Sonoma State’s first Wine Intensive Executive MBA program, paving the way for innovation and new approaches in the increasingly competitive wine industry.

“These are the future business leaders of the North Bay and the wine industry,” said Paul Bozzo, the instructor for the EMBA’s final business plan course. “The Executive MBA is about substantial skill development that will take students’ careers to the next level.”

The Napa Valley Vintners (NVV) provided a home for the lecture classes at its headquarters in St. Helena, as well as numerous resources and research materials to give the students both local and general examples about the wine industry.

“It has been an honor for the NVV to support the inaugural Executive Wine MBA program,” said Linda Reiff, president and CEO of NVV. “A number of the students are Napa Valley-based and affiliated with NVV member wineries. We are excited to know that many of these industry leaders will apply their new skills and knowledge for the advancement of our wine region.”

As the conclusion of the Executive MBA, the business plan course was the perfect capstone for students to leave the program with a solid plan of action. “The wine industry in particular is known to be difficult, so it puts a premium on the planning process and being innovative,” said Bozzo. “It’s more challenging.”

Looking to bring a fresh vision of Latin culture to Napa Valley, Dalia Ceja, sales and marketing director of Ceja Vineyards, developed a plan for “Mercado,” a wine and beer tap room that also features authentic Ceja family dishes. Through target audience analysis and contemporary marketing strategies, Ceja is certain that “Mercado” will cater perfectly to the booming Latino demographic in wine culture.

Brandye Alexander, associate brand manager for Seghesio Family Vineyards of Crimson Wine Group, presented an innovative plan to open a secondary hospitality center at Seghesio’s founding site in the Alexander Valley so that visitors could explore and learn the historical legacy of Seghesio. "A hospitality center would give us the opportunity to educate visitors not only about our winery, but also about the rich heritage of this community through the story of a pioneering family,” said Alexander.

Similarly keen to create a beneficial experience for the wine community, Christian Ahlmann, vice president and vineyard manager of Six Sigma Ranch and Winery, proposed a plan for a farm-stay experience. Visitors would prepare their food using ingredients from the ranch and farm, then cook it all themselves under the guidance of a professional chef. “We’ve had a lot of people stay over the weekend and work for free, just so they could get involved with what we’re doing,” said Ahlmann. “So I thought I could turn that into a more formal process.”

Having studied the financial realities of the wine industry, students projected realistic financial data and market trends, discussing what advantages their plan had over existing competitors. The ideas of technology and sustainability were also key factors in many students’ presentations.

Throughout the program, students took advantage of exceptional educational opportunities, including the chance to work with industry and community leaders such as Walt Klenz (The Vincraft group and formerly with Beringer Vineyards) and Delia Viader (founder of Viader Vineyards). The students also embarked on a trip to San Diego for a team sailing exercise as a metaphor for business operations and leadership, and an international trip to New Zealand, which allowed them to gain insight in the increasingly global nature in which today’s business operates.

This combination of community involvement, experiential travel and the program’s strategically planned courses shaped students’ perspectives on how to approach their business plans in creative and innovative ways. And because they studied as a cohort, Bozzo said the students have developed strong collaborative skills.

“It’s an intense program,” said Bozzo, “but they’ve all risen to the challenge and enjoyed it. Frankly, I think they may miss the intensity.”

Applications for the next cohort are now being accepted. To learn more, visit

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