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North Bay Business Journal

Monday, May 6, 2013, 6:00 am

SSU wine program launches finance certificate

Response to need in industry; ‘capital-intensive with a long cash cycle’

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    Ray Johnson, Rick Boland, William Silver

    ROHNERT PARK — Few would disagree that the North Bay is a hub for the production of award-winning wines, a region synonymous with quality grapes and home to a roster of expert winemakers from around the world.

    Yet while those wines are a subject of widespread intrigue, enthusiasm for the first-ever Wine Industry Finance and Accounting certificate program at Sonoma State University speaks to another key concern for current and would-be wine industry professionals — romance aside, winemaking is pure business.

    “A winemaker can create great wine — there’s certainly an artistic and scientific side. But there’s also a financial side,” said Ray Johnson, director of the school’s Wine Business Institute.

    Offered for the first time this year, the eight-course certificate program took many of the financial skills taught in the school’s full-blown wine business degree programs and broke those topics out for focused instruction to a non-student audience, Mr. Johnson said.

    Participants could elect to take individual courses, or the full certificate involving four core financial courses and four electives on a broader variety of topics.

    Enrollment was double the average seen in other seminars offered by the Wine Institute, with as many as 50 participants per course, Mr. Johnson said.

    “It’s short, sharp content for people who didn’t have time to go back to school for a full degree,” he said.

    That high level of attendance pointed towards a growing demand for number-savvy professionals in an industry that has seen margins narrow in the past few years, said Rick Boland, senior wine industry consultant at Moss Adams in Santa Rosa. After surviving inventory shortages and recession-driven changes in consumer habits, small-to-medium-sized wineries in particular are embracing skills that allow an analytical approach to their operations, he said.

    “I don’t think people have a choice. When the economy changes for the worse, you have to have more scrutiny,” said Mr. Boland, who taught a course in the new certificate program and was involved in its planning process.

    A call for those skills inspired the Wine Institute’s board of directors in March of last year to push for further emphasis on quantitative topics, with efforts that included the formation of the new accounting certificate, Mr. Johnson said. Those skills are also increasingly in demand in areas beyond finance, informing the Wine Institute’s other areas of instruction as well.

    “It’s not just a necessity for someone who’s managing the money,” he said. “They want people who can do research and approach marketing from a quantitative standpoint.”

    Instruction in the certificate’s core curriculum included courses in financial, cost and managerial accounting, as well as budget forecasting and best practices. Electives included courses in social media, industry trends, Quickbooks, marketing and general finance.

    While those skills are applicable across a broad range of industries, the nature of the wine industry leads to some specialized nuances, said Mr. Boland of Moss Adams.

    “It’s a very capital-intensive business with a long cash cycle. Not everyone understands that,” said Mr. Boland, who taught the forecasting course in the core curriculum.

    The accounting certificate is the latest such offering for the Wine Institute at Sonoma State. The program added an online wine business management certificate in fall 2011, and also offers a certificate in tasting room management and a certificate in wine entrepreneurship.

    The certificate programs have proven popular, offered alongside a bachelor’s degree in wine business strategies, an MBA in wine business and a recently launched executive MBA in wine business, Mr. Johnson said.

    “People want more. There was a common theme in feedback that people wanted to take these four core sessions and expand them to eight,” he said.

    At a time when state funding to higher education is highly constrained, the School of Business and Economics at Sonoma State has pushed for entrepreneurial ways to expand its programs. The new certificate is supported by enrollment fees, as well as contributions from the wine industry, Mr. Johnson said.

    “At SSU we have an ethic to put into practice in our operations the same lessons we teach our students,” said Dr. William Silver, dean of the business school. “The Wine Industry Finance and Accounting Certificate program is an example of this. We surveyed the industry to assess the market needs, and our faculty worked with our Wine Business Institute board and other industry leaders to design a program that is relevant, timely and provides the tools needed by wine business professionals to succeed.”

    Those involved with developing and teaching in the new program also included Ted Elliott of TR Elliott Winery and Emeritus Vineyards, Corinne Meddaugh of Landmark Vineyards, Toni Moheng of BPM, Accountants and Consultants, Jay Silverstein of Moss Adams, Betsy Stewart of Zainer Rinehart Clarke and Jeanette Tan of Kokomo Winery and Sbragia Family Vineyards.

    The program will be offered again in November, with registration available through the Wine Institute’s Web site at http://www.sonoma.edu/sbe/wine-business-institute. Individual courses are $150, with a full certificate offered at $1,200. Those wishing to complete both the accounting certificate and the Tasting Room Management certificate can take a total of 14 seminars for $2,100.

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