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Snapshots from Heaven

Published:  23 July, 2008

With abysmally low levels of profitability one of the biggest threats facing the wine industry worldwide, is a new qualification part of the solution? Is the image of Tim Nice but Dim about to be dispelled once and for all by a new elite of high-flying business executives? Neil Beckett investigates the world's first Wine MBA

As the WSET's motto rightly reminds us, Gustibus mens dat incrementum (Knowledge enhances sensory perception). But does it also increase profits, dismally low (generally less than 10% return on investment) in most sectors of the wine world? Groupe Ecole Suprieure de Commerce de Bordeaux/Bordeaux Business School (BBS) is betting that it does. It is asking more than 1,200 hours, and more than e28,000 (18,000) from candidates and companies ready and willing to buy into that vision. But will it be worth it? Peter Robinson, a former speech writer for presidents Reagan and Bush, described his Stanford MBA in his book, Snapshots from Hell. He says a professor there once admitted: "This business school admits proven performers then takes credit for everything they do afterwards." At first sight, moreover, a future BBS graduate might be able to describe their Wine MBA in Snapshots from Heaven. Students will be taught not only in Bordeaux, but also in Adelaide, California, Santiago and Tokyo, with only 400 contact hours, including some for tastings. And there will be no exams. So what does the programme offer and who might benefit? Will Wine MBAs play prominent roles in the industry as standard MBAs have in others? And what larger questions are raised with regard to education and success in the wine world? MBA has been much less associated with wine than TCA has - and about as welcome in many parts of the trade. Grappling with an MBA dissertation on White Burgundy in the UK Wine Market, I asked advice from the highly educated, highly intelligent, but profoundly sceptical Roy Richards of Richards Walford. "We've never been much good at marketing," he protested, proceeding to give helpful information and showing why he is one of the best in the business. (A bit like Marx saying he was not a Marxist.) But the approach is still fairly typical of many much less thoughtful than Richards. Admittedly we can all think of key players who have been hugely successful with few or no O' or A' Levels, let alone an MBA. Character and charisma are as crucial as ever. Sharp palates still matter as much as sharp wits. All the same, there is growing recognition throughout the trade of the need for higher standards of business as well as wine education (which Richards strongly supports). The more ready response to the work of the Association of Wine Educators, the Institute of Masters of Wine and the WSET, is sufficient testimony. Many key players now have not only WSET Diplomas or MWs but MAs, MScs or MBAs (eg David Williams, new chief executive of First Quench, who holds an MBA from the London Business School). As BBS rightly states: "Globalisation of wine markets requires increasingly high levels of professionalism. The Wine MBA is designed to provide training solutions for managers facing ever-more complex situations." The concept originated with the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which founded BBS in 1874. The project is being run by Isabelle Dartigues, director of the Wine MBA, ideally qualified with a degree from BBS and an MBA from a California business school. The syllabus has been devised by a committee drawn from BBS, the Bordeaux University of Oenology (BUO) and other leading universities worldwide. Baroness Philippine de Rothschild (a family outstandingly successful in business as well as wine) is the official patron. Students will be taught not only in Bordeaux (by staff from BBS and BUO), but also at the University of South Australia in Adelaide, the University of California in Davis (by staff from Berkeley and Davis), the Pontificia Universidad Catolica in Santiago, and the Keio Business School in Tokyo. (Air travel is not included in the course fee.) Augmenting the regular staff will be such recognised specialists as Pierre Spahni, author of The International Wine Trade, Marc Bertoneche, professor of finance at Harvard, and Peter Sosnkowski, former director of Remy Cointreau. The 12-month course will be taught in English only and the first session will start in May 2001. The course comprises two- or three-week sessions (about 400 hours), and two-month intersessions (about 800 hours). The focus will be on international management skills, as applied to wine production, marketing and sales (roughly 90% of the course content). Major modules will be Strategic Management, Vine and Wine Economics, Finance and Wine Marketing. Minor modules will be Organizational Behaviour, Supply Chain Management, Quality and Environment Management, and Alcohol and Wine Legislation. Attention will also be given to the more practical side (roughly 10% of the course content), with instruction in tasting and the technical vocabulary of viticulture and viniculture. Assessment will be continuous, with 60% of the marks being awarded for a thesis supervised by both a course tutor and a director of the candidate's company. The other 40% of the marks will be for individual or group work. Students are also expected to take advantage of the course by forming their own international networks - an opportunity provided by any MBA programme but especially one taught worldwide. The applicants envisaged by BBS are executives in any wine or wine-related sector. They will normally have a degree, and at least three (preferably ten) years' experience in wine. Applications for the 2001 programme are now being received through the website (, and the class will be restricted to 20. Even before the launch of the site, Dartigues had expressions of interest from 25 prospective students in 16 countries worldwide, including Chile, China, England, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Uruguay and the USA. One was from a winemaker, but most were from marketing or sales managers, two from the same Bordeaux ngociant. Any MBA course in finance will advise investment only in projects with a positive net present value. As applied to the Wine MBA, this basically means will it be worth it, given the cost of the course, the expected resulting revenue, and the opportunity cost? Although it will always depend on the individual and the individual's employer, the evidence from the BBS side suggests that it should be worth it for both of them - not only in NPV terms. As for graduates, they should emerge (whether from Heaven or Hell) with new contacts, knowledge and skills, improved prospects and salary, and the personal and professional satisfaction of having survived. Not surprisingly, MBA surveys such as that recently undertaken by the Association of MBAs (AMBA) in the UK, show that most graduates pursue the qualification as a path to riches. The motive of some of those taking the Wine MBA will probably be the same, though unless they already combine the skills of Bacchus, Merlin, Midas and Mondavi, they are still unlikely to find fabulous fame and fortune in the wine world. As for employers which fund the qualification, they will want to be convinced that it will be worth it and, equally important, that their boy or girl wonder will not immediately offer their newly acquired knowledge and skills to the highest bidder. Employers will almost certainly attempt to apply the golden handcuffs to AWOL Wine MBAs, having previously required students to sign disclaimers. The legality of such disclaimers has still to be tested. But as long as companies manage to retain their successful students, they could help to deliver higher profitability. The recognition and reputation which the Wine MBA wins in the academic, business and wine sectors will depend not only on the perceived quality of the BBS and the Wine MBA, but on the calibre of the graduates. Although not among the top ten in recognised rankings of MBA schools worldwide, BBS has a good reputation, and is one of only ten to have EQUIS (European Quality Improvement System) status. In the context of wine, moreover, BBS and BUO have added cachet, and the credentials of all the institutions and individuals involved are strong. BBS has applied for a trademark on the Wine MBA, so it will probably remain unique, not least in that respect. A few qualifications may already be comparable in some ways. But the Wine MBA does seem to offer a distinctive education and qualification, especially through the experience and expertise of the teachers and the range of the syllabus and venues. One clear and less desirable difference between a standard MBA and the Wine MBA, however, is that the latter entails no exams. Asked what the expected pass rate might be, Dartigues seemed surprised, saying that when the cost of the course was so high, most candidates and companies would be disappointed if they did not pass. She was expressing a hope rather than a promise, but a degree which everybody passes may not be as highly regarded in terms of intellectual or professional rigour. The calibre of the graduates will also emerge only gradually, like the bottles produced in the surrounding vineyards. Any paper qualification is only an indication of diligence and intelligence, knowledge and skills: it is not the letters after your name, but what you can do having acquired them, that matters. But given the care with which it has been devised, and the skill with which it should be taught, those with the Wine MBA should be able to do things which they could not have done without it. Only the deeply envious, the philistine, or the profoundly stupid will not welcome the Wine MBA and wish it well. Wink Lorch, chair of the Association of Wine Educators, has responded in this spirit, saying that "any course which can further the understanding of the commercial realities of the business of wine will be welcome, especially if well structured and contemporary with good educators as course facilitators". Apart from having a large fortune to start with, there may now be another way to make a small fortune in wine. For additional information, contact Isabelle Dartigues. Tel (+33) 5 56 84 22 29, Fax (+33) 5 56 84 55 00. E-mail or visit