Rich experience: Student Icy Liu has worked in wine distribution, auctions and retail © Leo Novel
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It is midday on the first field trip of the academic year. Claude Chapuis, Burgundy School of Business’s resident wine historian, finishes recounting the history of the Corton-Charlemagne vineyard. Then the 18 students of the school’s inaugural English-language Wine & Spirits Business MBA pose for a group photo amid autumnal yellow vines.

With an average age of 31, BSB’s students are from nine countries, including China, Russia, Italy and the US. What unmistakably unites them this year, besides a passion for the wine business, is that almost all are women.

“I just approved the strongest profiles,” says Jacques Thébault, director of the programme at the Dijon school. “This year it’s 14 women, four guys.”

BSB’s Burgundy School of Wine & Spirits Business has in fact enrolled more female than male students for the past three years. Meanwhile, at Inseec business school’s Wine Marketing & Management MBA in Bordeaux, the student body has over the past 10 years gone from 50 per cent to 60 per cent female.

Icy Liu, a Taiwanese-American student from New York, is among the most experienced members of the Burgundy School of Business’ new programme, having spent nearly four years working in wine distribution, wine auctions and wine retail in Manhattan.

She is also among a new generation of women confident about finding profitable futures in the international wine business. “I’ve always loved wine, but I never really thought of it as a career,” says Liu. “Being from a Chinese background, working in a bank was the more correct thing to do. But I looked at my future and told myself: ‘This is not what I want.’”

Hands on: BSB students visit L'Héritier-Guyot, a producer of crème de cassis in Dijon © Leo Novel

Nowadays, Liu envisions helping to promote wine regions in the US or Asia. Of the women in Thébault’s programme, half are from China, Vietnam or Taiwan. Many plan to pursue careers in Asia, where increasing wine consumption has created a demand for experts with business degrees.

“It’s starting to reflect what is happening in the wine industry,” observes Thébault. “What I’ve seen in Asia is that a lot of the young professionals in the wine business are women.”

The picture is similar at Kedge Business School’s Wine Academy in Bordeaux. “Asia has always provided a fairly important proportion of students, China coming right after France,” says academy director Jérémy Cukierman.

Zita Woo, another BSB student, is originally from Shanghai but has lived in France for years working in global logistics for a technology company. “My idea is to go back to China to develop a wine education business there,” she says. “Consumption in China is huge but the education is not keeping up.”

Her classmate Mai Huong Duong concurs, speaking for her native Vietnam. “The market is very young there. People don’t know what an AOC [appellation d’origine contrôlée] is.” She explains that many MBA students already have clear business plans — in her case, to build an ecommerce platform to import and distribute wine in Hanoi. “We really just need a degree saying we know about wine so we’re taken seriously when we get home,” she says.

Josh Ng, a food and beverage consultant who co-owns businesses in Hong Kong, China and Copenhagen, acknowledges the hurdles faced by women working in wine in Asia. “I think the wine industry in China is still very male-dominated,” he says. “But in my experience nowadays it’s the women who study hardest.”

BSB prefers candidates to have at least three years of professional experience before applying to its year-long Wine & Spirits MBA. The course consists of two semesters of between 20 and 30 hours of classes each week, covering 30 topics, ranging from International Markets & Distribution to Digital Transformation in the Wine & Spirits Industry. Included in the tuition fee — €25,000 next year — are four extended field trips: to Reims, New York, Düsseldorf and Neustadt. Students have to present a final thesis, which often takes the form of a business plan.

“The course is more engaging than I expected,” says Liu. “But wine is something that I can continuously learn.”

To underpin the new MBA, Burgundy School of Wine & Spirits Business constructed a dedicated building, including a wine research lab and offices. The investment is part of a long-term effort to cement the school’s credentials in the wine world. Jérôme Gallo, director of the Burgundy School of Wine & Spirits Business, explains that the need became clear as far back as 2012.

“For programmes like pharmaceutical management, for which the competing schools are in Paris, it was getting harder and harder [to attract students], while our wine programmes were working better and better,” he says. “So I said to the dean, ‘The direction of our postgrad programmes is increasingly about [the] wine business.’”

BSB was not alone in sensing opportunity in teaching about the wine industry. In addition to the programmes at Kedge and Inseec in Bordeaux, there is Germany’s Weincampus Neustadt, which launched a Wine, Sustainability & Sales MBA in 2016. In Milan, Bocconi University offers a Masters in Management in Food & Beverage, with an emphasis on Italian wine. Outside of Europe, California’s Sonoma State University has offered a Wine MBA degree since 2008 and the world’s first wine business executive MBA, for working managers, since 2012.

In assembling the MBA for the Burgundy School of Wine & Spirits Business, Gallo sought endorsements from senior figures in the Burgundy business: people such as Guillaume d’Angerville, owner of the Domaine de Marquis d’Angerville in Volnay, and Jean-François Curie, chief executive of Maison Boisset, Burgundy’s largest négociant house (a merchant that brings together the produce of smaller winemakers and growers to sell under its own name).

Portraits of these men, along with those of nine other important supporters from the wine Burgundy business, hang in a hallway on the new building’s first floor.

“On the second floor,” Gallo says, “I’d like to put some portraits of women.”

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