Sonoma State students turn grapes into wine
By KAREN PIERCE GONZALEZ / Rohnert Park Correspondent
The very first harvest of Sonoma State Cellars has been a winemaker’s dream. All 25 cases of its inaugural 2010 Cuvée have been sold — 300 bottles at $28 each.
For the student vintners of Sonoma State University’s Wine Business Institute, it was an unforgettable business launch. After two years of planning, producing and marketing, their new wine venture is a feather in SSU’s cap.
“SSU is one of the few places in the world to obtain an advanced degree in wine business,” said Ray Johnson, a professional vintner who directs the institute. “The creation of Sonoma State Cellars adds another layer to the depth of our story.”
The Wine Business Institute is the nation’s first and only program to focus exclusively on the business end of the wine industry. It’s geared toward students looking to launch, change or develop careers in the wine industry, with courses in wine marketing, wine finance and accounting, human resources management, business strategies and production.
The idea to launch an SSU label was hatched two years ago by four MBA students working with Business Professor Armand Gilinsky, Jr. It grew into a feasibility study that led to a business plan outlining start-up necessities and a path to sustainability.
“Originally we thought about partnering one-time with a local winery to produce wine, said Dylan Karahalios, one of the students. “But then we realized we wanted more than that. We wanted to do something that would last, that could be a permanent program on campus.”
Their report, presented to faculty, administrators and members of the wine industry and was met with excitement.
“They saw that with their help, our idea could bring credibility to SSU’s wine program,” Karahalios said. “Together we talked about students being engaged in wine sales that could produce revenue, hopefully, for program scholarships.”
Among those in attendance was Erik Miller, owner and winemaker at Kokomo Winery in Dry Creek Valley. He was so impressed that he offered his support.
After that year’s crush was over, he and his partners set aside a barrel of their 2010 Red Cuvée, valued at $8,400, providing the foundation for the students’ first vintage.
Miller and other members of the Institute’s alumni council met regularly with students to share their experience about marketing, branding and distribution. Most of all, they encouraged the students to keep it simple.
“From that we decided upon our pre-order purchase plan and Pick-Up Party,” said Karahalios. “We learned to keep it small, run through it the first time and then expand upon the parts that worked.”
All was not smooth. Karahalios said getting the project off the ground may have been the most difficult part. Unlike private enterprise, this private-public proposal had to meet California State University requirements, and students had to show that it could be economically sustainable year after year.
“Getting the approval to legally and sustainably sell a wine with Sonoma State on the label was the biggest challenge,” he said. “It took a lot of time, patience and help from several key people within the university.”
Johnson said he views the process as an inspiration. “The biggest challenge was our impatience to reach the finish line. In hindsight I would say that was the fuel of passion that kept us on the road, across the many months of driving to this moment.”
Their first benchmark was bottling the wine and attaching the blue and white labels.
“It was emotional,” said Andrew Pimentel, a student and member of Sbragia Family Vineyards’ marketing staff. “When (Ray Johnson) held the finished product, he looked like a proud father holding his child for the first time.”
Johnson is no stranger to successful collaborations. Before joining the Institute in 2010, he taught wine-related seminars across the country and served as Assistant Director of the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, building it into the world’s largest competition of American wine.
“Sonoma State Cellars could not have happened without him,” said Karahalios. “He’s very generous with his knowledge and was very experienced.”
The second was delivering the wine to those who had placed orders. Karahalios bought a case for himself and plans to cellar some of it to just “hang on to the memories,” he said.
Johnson considers the debut a success, saying, “There’s a power in partnership that is greater than the solo achievement.”
Pimentel agreed, saying the collaboration was “pivotal in strengthening the bond between SSU and the local wine industry.”
Plans are already being made for the next vintage with new partners, said Karahalios, creating a win-win situation for all concerned.
“As the program grows and students learn from industry experts, it can provide skilled personnel to wineries that will help them reach new markets,” he said.
Added Johnson, “Our vision is to be the global leader in wine business research and education. Every time we advance this program, it brings national and international attention back to the North Coast.”
For more information, visit Sonoma State University’s Wine Business Institute or call 664-3071.