Business-focused wine course gives delegates a competitive edge

by | May 5, 2021 | Article, Business and Marketing

Wine education in South Africa used to focus almost entirely on viticulture and winemaking. But today, educators realise that people in the wine value chain require a much broader skill set. The UCT Graduate School of Business (GSB) Business of Wine helps delegates develop the necessary business expertise to thrive in today’s globally hyper-competitive wine market.

The UCT GSB Business of Wine course is the only one of its kind in Africa. With an interactive, practice-driven approach, it focuses on case studies and the business aspects of the wine industry. Delegates receive the crucial market insight and leadership skills needed to maximise opportunities across the wine value chain. The course is targeted at professionals working in the wine space, including sommeliers, hospitality professionals, winemakers, viticulturists, wine marketers, entrepreneurs, distributors and hobbyists looking to formulate and execute their own business models.

Today’s complex, multidisciplinary wine industry demands a specialised approach. This course is tailored to meet the needs of the industry. We spoke to Jonathan Steyn, who heads the UCT GSB Business of Wine course, about what it entails and how it benefits delegates.

How have you managed to adapt to the “new normal”?

JS: We’re excited to have the course back in full swing after such a challenging period. Covid-19 made us realise we needed to further strengthen and adapt the online components of the programme. Field-altering events such as this often inspire innovation and for us it’s no different. We found that a hybrid programme format where we combine asynchronous, live online and face-to-face learning adds greater value to delegates’ experience and learning. We believe the new format provides a robust, effective long-term solution for delivering the course in future.

Wine education traditionally focused mostly on production. Have you seen a shift in this trend?

JS: Most definitely. Over the past two decades, South African wine producers have made great strides to improve the overall quality of their wine, a fact that has not gone unnoticed internationally. But South Africa must overcome its “cheap and cheerful” image and low comparative value in international markets – and that requires business-orientated thinking. About 15-20 years ago “being in the wine business” had a fairly limited meaning.  Nowadays, the typical estate business model is no longer the status quo. Young wine entrepreneurs aren’t thinking: “Okay, so I have to buy a piece of land and make wine” or “I have to grow wine grapes and sell to producer cellars”.

Today there are so many options available for aspiring wine producers. For instance, there are people who simply buy wine and create labels or buy pockets of grapes to make premium wine to create value in the industry. For years producers adopted a shotgun approach to making wine, arguably trying to be everything to everyone. Modern producers are now realising the value of brand focus and identity. To develop effective wine business leaders, wine educators need to constructively address these constantly evolving needs.

Is the development of business skills in the wine space a sign of the times?

JS: Absolutely. It’s really about nurturing skills such as critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving, people management and conceptual flexibility. The World Economic Forum’s 2020 Future of Jobs report lists these as among the top 10 skills required today and our faculty plays a crucial role in developing them.

We’ve consistently maintained an even split between academic and practitioner lecturers as it’s through the combination of strong business fundamentals and practical savoir-faire where the magic happens. The wine finance component is, for instance, run by UCT GSB graduate and Beck Family Estates CEO Chris du Toit, and delegates benefit tremendously from his wealth of experience and financial know-how. Our aim is to further develop experiential learning by creating stronger engagement with wine business practitioners, thought leaders and scholars. This empowers delegates to confront and grapple with the practical implementation of the insights they’ve been exposed to.

What else makes the course unique?

JS: Being a postgraduate course, we don’t force-feed people information or expect them to regurgitate facts. Critical discussion during live sessions is a far better way of delivering core course outcomes. As with most UCT GSB programmes, there’s a strong emphasis on group work and collaborative innovation. The UCT GSB Business of Wine course outcomes are based on three pillars of holistic leadership, market insight and business acumen.

Our delegates come from diverse backgrounds, spanning the wine value chain, from soil scientists to sommeliers. Often learning occurs among delegates as they innovate by engaging with multiple perspectives on a problem they have to solve. We’ve found that they’ve been able to take this holistic approach to their work environments. The course also covers several business-related fields such as strategy, leadership, marketing, operations, economics and finance, and therefore provides a well-rounded immersion into the wine business environment.

Are there aspects of the course that delegates find challenging?

JS: When you speak to previous delegates, they attest to the rigorousness of the course and the demanding workload. We throw our students in at the deep end. It’s all about pushing them out of their comfort zone so they can unlearn limiting practices and learn new ways of thinking. The biggest challenge is not the assignments, but rather acquiring the skills to effectively collaborate with others to achieve common goals.

We want our students to harness the talent their colleagues bring to the table. To work effectively in teams, they must recognise each other’s strengths, co-ordinate their efforts, design conflict resolution mechanisms and learn to synchronise their time. It’s important to learn these skills and not only be able to apply them in organisations, but also to build collaboration among market stakeholders.

What other practical skills do you teach on the course?

JS: We follow a teaching case study approach to learning using real-life scenarios as it develops critical thinking. We teach our students how to analyse and problem-solve cases, as well as design their own business plan or model. While a portion of our delegates are entrepreneurs working actively in the wine industry, many fulfil an intrapreneurial role guiding new projects in larger organisations to create value. The course speaks to both these groups.

Sensory aspects of wine remain crucial. Are these included in the curriculum?

JS: One day of the course is devoted to the sensory evaluation and forensic analysis of wine. The module is presented by South Africa’s leading wine authority, Michael Fridjhon, and differs substantially from what you’d learn in typical sensory evaluation courses where you analyse the aesthetics and origins of wine without interrogating any of the business aspects.

We raise questions such as how to link the sensory profile back to the market and how a wine is intended to be positioned. This kind of analysis is important because we try to provide students with the necessary language to be conversant across several realms of the wine value chain. If a wine marketer is talking to a winemaker, then at least they can understand each other. Former students who are now in top positions have commented positively on this kind of training. It helped them especially during interviews as they could clearly communicate various business and technical concepts to their audience.

There’s a huge focus on transformation. Does the course make provision for this?

JS: Absolutely. One of the founding principles of this course is to drive greater diversity across all levels of the wine value chain. It’s very much about social impact and inspiring change. There are seven bursaries available this year to previously disadvantaged candidates. The bursaries are sponsored by the EverGrow Foundation and Beck Family Education Trust. A central purpose of the course is to drive transformation in the decision-making structures of the wine industry. About 65% of our delegates over the past five to six years have come from previously disadvantaged backgrounds. We need to attract a wide array of talent to the wine industry as transformation enables growth and vice versa.

To enrol or find out more about the UCT GSB Business of Wine course and how to apply for a bursary, click here.

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