The rolling hills and half-glimpsed châteaux around St Emilion form an ancient landscape of manicured vineyards attended by rose bushes, with here and there a protestant tomb recalling centuries of contact with British claret drinkers.

A man holding a basket of grapes

Yet these quintessentially French vignobles serve turbulent markets. Talk to anyone at French business schools about the wine industry, and they’ll recount a tale of climate change, New World competition, and most astonishing of all, a looming threat from China as both wine consumer and producer.

In January, Bem in Bordeaux will launch its executive Wine MBA programme in Hong Kong, in partnership with the University of Hong Kong’s School of Professional and Continuing Education. The programme, identical to the two-year global course based in Bordeaux, is a response to surging demand from Asian executives keen to understand one of the world’s most complex industries, says Jacques-Olivier Pesme, a Bem Wine MBA professor.

ESC Dijon, meanwhile, is in talks with a “leading” Chinese university about offering its one-year, full-time masters in the International Wine and Spirits Trade in China, together with shorter courses for industry executives. Joëlle Brouard, head of wine education and research at Dijon, says the plans are partly in response to soaring demand from China for places on its course.

China became the world’s 10th largest wine market in 2005, according to data from Vinexpo, and is expected to maintain that position as both demand and domestic production increase. Steve Charters, professor of champagne management at Reims Management School, says: “China is probably the fourth, fifth or sixth biggest wine-producing market in the world. It has come from nowhere in 15 years. The Chinese wine market is going to change the wine industry substantially in 25 or 30 years’ time.”

That transformation will compound ongoing seismic changes arising from the commercial success of New World wines, the emergence of new and fast-growing markets and, now, global warming, which is changing the taste and raising the alcohol content of many European wines. Rising consumption is already making the US the world’s biggest wine market, even as consumption falls in France, Spain and Italy.

But globalisation has spurred continuing growth in an industry that retains many historical roots in Europe. Vinexpo predicts that global retail sales of wine will reach $117bn (€79bn) in 2010, with another $180bn (€121bn) of spirits: an industry big enough to merit some serious study and swallow a good many specialised graduates. But a tradition of both sophisticated wine production and management education continues to give French management schools the edge. As Prof Pesme says: “There is logic to studying wine industry management in Bordeaux.”

Bem’s specialist MBA attracts around 15 participants a year, is Amba accredited, and covers the conventional MBA disciplines, including marketing, finance and supply chain. But all the case studies are drawn from the wine industry, and often from faculty original research. Participants come from around the world, are invariably passionate about the subject, and each year include one or two from leading global distributors, a couple of executives keen to buy a vineyard, and many from individual wineries or distributors, says Prof Pesme. The course is conducted in English, and has units in Adelaide, London, and next year at University of California Davis as well as Bordeaux. Bem also offers a specialised one-year masters in wine and spirits management for those entering the trade.

ESC Dijon, too, has “shifted up a gear” in development of its wine business education strategy, says Prof Brouard, who launched its first specialised masters in the International Wine and Spirits Trade 21 years ago.

The school’s 1899 foundation statutes charged it with promoting the export of Burgundy wines, and early classes even had a still at their disposal. But this year ESC Dijon reinforced its role in the industry by creating an Institute of Wine Management, headed by Prof Brouard, and launching a wine business MSc under the direction of Damien Wilson.

The French-language, one-year Wine and Spirits Trade masters takes around 30 participants a year, and is complemented by a two-year executive masters course run in Paris, teaching 20 students a year. The first one-year Wine Business course, taught in English at Dijon, has just started with 15 participants. Competition is fierce with courses receiving five applicants for every place, with many hopeful candidates drawn from overseas countries that are big wine and spirit producers or markets, including the UK, US and now China.

With 400 course alumini now employed in the wine and spirits industry worldwide, Dijon has good access to leading companies, and good placement power for its graduates, who invariably enter the industry, Prof Brouard says. She believes business school research and education has never been more relevant, and is playing a valuable role in helping the industry cope with its globalisation.

In Reims, Prof Charters teaches wine management and marketing electives within many of the school’s business courses, providing examples from an industry that offers unusual themes from vertical integration – from grower to table – to marketing issues including luxury branding and consumption of alcohol.

International competition is also developing rapidly in wine management education. The UK’s Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester launched its MBA in wine business management in 2001. The course draws on many units from the college’s standard MBA and sits alongside a sister qualification for equine industry executives.

Although the course currently has only a handful of participants, Susan McCraith, a master of wine who is among the lecturers, says the UK, the world’s fifth largest wine market, is the “best” place to study the industry because its distribution companies, global sourcing and rising consumption make it a pace-setter in many industry marketing and health issues.

Meanwhile, Sonoma State University, a small public university north of San Francisco, became the first US institution to offer a wine business MBA in 2007. This autumn, Texas Tech University introduced an undergraduate programme in viticulture and oenology (one of a handful now available in the US) to support the needs of the state’s 162 wineries.

The University of Adelaide in South Australia offers a wine business masters degree. Lincoln University in Christchurch, New Zealand, offers an undergraduate degree in viticulture and oenology, and Prof Charters says a wine education centre is now being set up in India, where the state of Maharashtra is emerging as a wine-producing region.

Those St Emilion vineyards helped make France the centre of global wine education. But French business schools are already teaching a new generation of producers, marketers and distributors to cope with a far more diverse landscape.

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