Wine Business Institute gets big tech upgrade in new Sonoma State University center

The first classes aren’t set to begin inside the new home of the Wine Business Institute at Sonoma State University until August, but on Tuesday the public will get to get a first look at the high technology that is connecting the world to top-class industry education in Sonoma County.

Renovation of the 15,000-square-foot at the Rohnert Park campus began two years ago, but in that time the former University Commons student center has been transformed with large windows cut into the brick and concrete structure, modern office-like interiors and classrooms festooned with flat-panel monitors, high-definition projectors and videoconferencing cameras and network infrastructure.

The new building, called the Wine Spectator Learning Center, brings together wine business classes that have been held across the university campus as the program has grown, according to Ray Johnson, institute director. It will also be a hub for the institute’s participants in the new hybrid MBA program globally.

“The capabilities of this building allows for people to come together from around the world,” Johnson said. “Students from three countries - France, Australia and here - meet each other virtually then get together in person.”

For example, participants in the wine MBA program in the North Coast for a number of years have been paired with industry trade groups or businesses in France’s Bordeaux region and Croatia in Eastern Europe.

“It’s great for the MBA students to work on problems in a completely different environment, where the way of doing business is different,” Johnson said.

Then the students set up meetings there by conference call and multiple emails.

“In the new building, (students) will have technology in the classrooms and small rooms to meet people who, many times, are a long way away,” Johnson said.

The institute’s new high-tech new home also will come in handy for the expanding offering of online courses. For example, the wine business management certificate program is fully online, with participants from around the world. The option to attend the video lectures live, disregarding the big time differences, or view recorded sessions opens the curriculum to more places of the world, Johnson said.

“For people around the world to connect face to face is great,” he said. “So much of what we do is not just about book learning but about creating a wider network of people.”

The main attractions of the new learning center are the Peter Michel Executive Classroom and Young’s Market Theater. The former has two large projection screens at the front and flat panels at the back. Cameras capture what’s going on in the class and on the whiteboards. The technology will allow students abroad to participate in classes and bring in guest lecturers virtually, giving them a view of the students in the classroom.

The theater can seat about 200 and has screens on two sides of the room that can show the same image or different ones. The room also has cameras for guest lecturers and students from elsewhere.

There’s also a Fetzer Vineyards classroom with seven group-project stations, each with a large flat-panel monitor, whiteboard and multiple audio-video connections to allow students to “throw” their projects from laptops to the screen.

The building also has conference rooms and offices for wine industry professionals to meet, as well as a café, veranda and garden.

Since the Wine Business Institute started remote-learning projects about five years ago, the technology has improved significantly, Johnson said. Used previously were commercially available software-based videoconferencing platforms.

“In those situations, we did not always have control of the quality,” Johnson said.

The MBA programs typically have 25 students per cohort, and multiple cohorts start throughout the year. Professionals take advantage of the nighttime classes, and the new online courses expand the reach further.

Over 1,000 wine industry professionals - such as winemakers, winery executives, viticulturists, brand managers, distributors and growers - participate in Sonoma State University wine business certificate and degree programs or in Wine Business Institute conferences and symposia.

Over the years, the School of Business and Economics has conferred 980 undergraduate wine business degrees, 50 MBAs in wine business and 112 executive MBAs in wine business. About 10,000 have pursued professional development courses in wine business from 25-plus countries.

In the 22 years since it started, the Wine Business Institute has achieved a number of firsts. Two years later, the institute launched the nation’s first bachelor’s degree in wine business. A decade ago, the first MBA in wine business program launched in the U.S., followed four years later by the globe’s inaugural executive MBA in wine business program.

The institute’s faculty are busy outside the classroom. They have completed over 150 research projects, touching on public policy and innovations in products services, and best practices.

Contact Jeff Quackenbush at or 707-521-4256.

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