Northwest Wine Schools Embrace Business Coursework

Programs in Washington and Oregon expand beyond viticulture and enology

by Peter Mitham
wine washington oregon education business
Washington State University and Oregon State University both are working to incorporate more business courses into their wine industry curriculum.
Richland, Wash.—Viticulture skills? Check. Top quality grapes? Check. Business skills? Northwest schools are hoping to address the final item on that list by bolstering wine business, economics and tourism training in the coming months.

Washington State University and Oregon State University both are boosting activities in this area with a vision of giving the wine industry the information it needs to extend success from the vineyard into an increasingly competitive marketplace.

Certificate in Washington
A new online certificate program at Washington State University will start in January, complementing the school’s six-year-old degree program in wine business management as well as similar certificate programs in viticulture and enology (V&E).

“We have a number of students in V&E that are also taking courses with us to get a minor or a stronger background in wine business,” said Bob Harrington, a professor of hospitality and wine business management affiliated with the Carson School of Business at Washington State University Tri-Cities in Richland. “If they finish and want to get some more business background, if they have a strong wine science background, they can also do the certificate.”

Harrington told Wines & Vines that the one-year program evolved out of discussions his predecessor Dennis Reynolds initiated with Theresa Beaver, who oversees the viticulture and enology certificate programs, as well as V&E director Thomas Henick-Kling and faculty of the WSU Wine Science Center and industry advisors including Ted Baseler, CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.

The one-year program includes six modules covering strategic planning (which Harrington will teach), wine business marketing, business planning, legal matters, small business management and hospitality (including wine tourism). Two residencies at WSU Tri Cities will bring students together and give them a chance to experience and interact with the local wine industry.

Harrington said the program aims to enroll 25 people in its first year, and expand to 35 as it becomes established. The existing wine business management program has 51 certified or pre-certified majors, while WSU’s existing certificate programs in viticulture and enology each accommodate 35 students per year, with waiting lists for participation.

Those who complete the program will receive a certificate rather than academic credit. The training is all some students are seeking, particularly if they’re seeking to shift from one field to another.

“Several of the students that have contacted me before are looking to change careers,” Harrington said. “As the industry continues to develop and grow, not only in the Northwest but across the United States and even different parts of the world…(there’s) a lot of interest on understanding business, and business as applied to wine.”

Growing in Oregon
Meanwhile, a subcommittee of the Oregon Wine Research Institute is drafting priorities for a research program focusing on wine economics and marketing.

OWRI program coordinator Mark Chien told Wines & Vines that the initiative is still in the early stages but received impetus from two three-year projects the institute funded in 2015.

Robin Cross, an assistant professor with OSU’s Department of Applied Economics, is studying how AVA designations affect the valuation of vineyard and winery businesses, while another assistant professor in the department, James Sterns, is developing a database of consumer preferences in relation to Oregon wine. OWRI has allocated funding of $50,000 per year to the projects.

The business of wine is one of the research mandates of the OWRI, but it has been secondary to viticulture and enology until now.

“About a year and a half ago the industry and some of our faculty came up with a project on production economics, and that kind of got things started,” Chien said.

This fall, the institute will welcome Nadine Streletskaya, who conducted postdoctoral research in wine marketing at Cornell University, to the university and undertake the hard work of plotting a long-term direction for its wine business research. One focus group took place in the Columbia Gorge this summer, and further meetings will take place in the Umpqua and Willamette valleys after harvest.

The initial feedback from growers has been positive.

“People in the industry consider the viticulture and enology pretty standard; anything we can do to help them with research, they’re glad to have,” Chien said. “But selling wine, we’re finding out, is first and foremost on everybody’s minds.”

Those skills aren’t something everyone has—especially if the business has emerged from a passion or a desire for a change of pace.

“They’ve seen the growth in the wine industry in Washington and other places, and so it’s something they want to get involved in,” he said. “Small businesses of all types, particularly in leisure-type fields—and I would say wine falls into that—evolve out of hobbies, so understanding how to operate it as a business is key to that success.”

Posted on 09.22.2016 - 09:19:43 PST
Linfield College, in the heart of Oregon's wine country, also has a wine studies program focused on the business-side skills needed in the industry. It's the first university in the country to offer an interdisciplinary, liberal arts minor in wine studies -- and is in the process of developing the major. More info at linfield.edu/wine-studies.html
Scott Nelson