From Root to Shoot, SSU's Wine Business Institute Grows Success Stories

May 7, 2024
Group at WBI

Students and supporters of SSU's WBI gathering at the Wine Spectator Learning Center


Jessica Link, President at Davis Estates and Owner of Linked Vineyards


Paul Finn, Director of Business Planning and Analytics at Duckhorn Vineyards


Brian Shapiro, Estate Director of Amista Vineyards

Group at WBI

Like wine itself, a career in the wine industry is made through harmony and complexity, and both are created by design. Committed to this ideology is Sonoma State's Wine Business Institute (WBI), an education and research center in the School of Business and Economics with the only undergraduate and master's programs of their kind in the country. 

Ray Johnson joined SSU as Director of the WBI in 2010 and will be retiring in May 2024. He was promoted to Executive Director in 2016 after overseeing the construction and opening of the Wine Spectator Learning Center on campus. Under his leadership, the WBI Board of Directors raised over $8 million to create the center.

Considered an international leader in wine business education, Johnson said with the North Coast of California producing some of the best wine in the world, the WBI is poised to create student success.

"We're in the major leagues here. Consequently, if you get your footsteps into this area, then you're arguably working at the very top of the game," he said. 

With over two decades of wine business experience and 14 years of leadership in the WBI, Johnson knows what the institution is about: building diverse expertise and connecting students to a network of industry professionals. 

"It's pretty phenomenal when you look at this network of people that come together around this institute," he said. 

Johnson said the proof is in the success of the Institute's alumni. 

"Just look at our graduates. I'm very proud to have been a part of their journeys," he said.

Jessica Link, President at Davis Estates and Owner of Linked Vineyards, joined the program in its infancy and after graduating was catapulted into work at Beringer Vineyards

"Not only was the program my education, it was the door right into my career," she said.  

Attending the program while it was well established, Brian Shapiro, Estate Director of Amista Vineyards, wanted to study something he was passionate about.

"I knew I wanted to study at the Institute and appreciated the interconnection between business and academia," Shapiro said of attending the WBI in 2008. 

Another graduate, Paul Finn, Director of Business Planning and Analytics at Duckhorn Vineyards, is a prime example of one of the paths less traveled in wine – industry metrics and analytics. 

"There's so many pathways that you don't realize are available until you're here (at the WBI)," Finn said. 

Although considered a high-end commodity, wine is still an agricultural business. The industry of winemakers, growers, and sellers is a close-knit community, one that the three WBI graduates said fostered them in their success. 

"I fell in love with the community aspect of the wine business. We are an industry of the soil that happens to make a luxury product," Finn said. 

Shapiro said network opportunities in the WBI community helped him.

"I appreciated the opportunities to work and learn with people in the industry," he said. 

Link, whose daughter attended the Children's School at SSU while she was in the program, said what sets WBI apart from other business programs is its symbiotic component. 

"It's our county, our businesses, and our industry supporting the university and the university supporting the industry, businesses, and county. It's a very mutually beneficial program," she said. 

Finn said the connections created in the WBI are incomparable. 

"It's huge, because you get to go and expand that community around you and build it around your business," he said. 

The wine community is not just local; it is worldwide. Wine is a universal language, Shapiro said. 

"When I travel and talk to producers, winemakers, or growers, we share the same stories, yet we're half a world apart. The community is global, really," he said

Link doesn’t deny the romance intrinsic to the world of wine, but said the biggest plus for her is its work-life balance. 

"It's a passion, a romance, and a lifestyle that so many people later on strive to find," she said.

All three agree that the people, the industry, and the product are what they love and what helped them create their lives in wine by design. SSU and the WBI were the soil that helped them grow.

"I feel like you come here, and you find your path. You find you, and then the door opens to opportunities," Link said 

 - Krista Sherer, Strategic Communications Writer

Media Contact

Krista Sherer