Business of Bacchus

Dr. William Byxbee is the dean of San Diego State's College of Extended Studies and the founder of its Business of Wine certificate program. Fittingly enough, Dr. Byxbee's own interest in the grape began while he was in college himself. "I was doing a senior thesis on Ernest Hemingway, and I decided that I would drink everything he mentioned." It proved a daunting task --

Connecticut was a long way from Papa's stomping grounds. "But I found this quirky little guy who could get anything if you wanted it. So I was buying French rosés, light Spanish whites. First of all, I thought I was really cool. But the other part of it was that it was so different. I had had beer and whiskey, but wine was, like, 'Whoa -- this is it. I can live like this for the rest of my life.' And I pretty much have."

Byxbee arrived at San Diego State "about five years ago." Before that, "I was overseas, primarily in Europe, for about 15 years, working with different universities." Europe had its European charms -- lots of varied places a short distance apart, locals who knew their local wines the way they knew their hometowns, and stretches where the dollar was so strong that it allowed for budget-friendly lunches at La Tour D'Argent. And European restaurants meant European waitstaffs. "In Europe, being a waitperson is a full-time job. You start early, and you stay with it all of your life."

In general, San Diego provided a different experience. Often, "Here, it's something between other gigs. There's no such thing as a lifetime career as a waitperson." Perhaps as a result of this, "We would go out to dinner, and I would notice that the waitstaff didn't have a very deep understanding of wine. I said, 'Well, that's very strange.' The waitperson is really your first contact with wine in a restaurant. If the customer is asking a question, you've got to be able to have a little interaction, so that you can figure out what they really want, what price point they're willing to pay, and all that. The more a waitperson knows, the more sales you're going to get."

So Byxbee started asking restaurant owners, "'What about if we start a program -- that you help us design? Who is the person that you would love to hire coming out of a certificate program?' Two and a half years ago, we had a big meeting over at Terra: people from North County who brought their own wines, people from restaurants, from wine distributors -- we tried to cover the whole gamut." Two hours and a bunch of bottles later, they had a rough idea of what they wanted from the College's Business of Wine program.

"We wanted it to be accessible," says Byxbee. "I've always hated when people are disenfranchised from education, either because of geography -- which is why I really got into online education -- or because of economics. It would be hard to say we're doing these kinds of programs to develop the workforce, so that people can get jobs, and then charge $800 for them so that only the rich could take them. Our top price for these courses is $249. Our purpose was to say that when somebody came out of our certification and went for a job, this would make them stand head and shoulders above anybody else applying for that job. The employer would know what the certificate meant, because they were involved in organizing it."

Low prices meant a low budget. Though the College is affiliated with SDSU, "We're a self-supporting entity -- we don't receive any money from the state. Having a major university at your doorstep gives you a lot of credibility," but it doesn't give you major funding. So Byxbee has to recruit his teachers from the ranks of those who will teach about wine for little more than the pleasure of teaching about wine. (Byxbee himself makes a cameo at the introductory course to give a lecture on the history of wine; he also gives the occasional presentation on wine at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, "for people 50 or better.")

Happily, such recruitment is not as hard as it might sound. "Last night, I met some people at the airport, and we went over to Island Prime. We were having a glass of wine, and the manager came over and introduced himself. They pride themselves on the number of wines they have open, and I said, 'Do you have any difficulty with training your people?' He said, 'It's always difficult when people first come. There's a learning curve.' I talked to him about our program." By conversation's end, the manager had been set upon the road to becoming an instructor. "The thing I like about this program," jokes Byxbee, "is just going to restaurants -- it's such a wonderful way to meet new people who can come and make contributions."

Interest was high from the get-go. Like the casino gaming program, the Business of Wine program "sells itself. Hospitality is a big industry in San Diego. This isn't going to go away. We had flyers made up, but by now, it's all word of mouth." During the program's opening year, would-be waitstaff were joined by veterans looking to brush up, by prospective grape-growers, by distributors, and by "people who had always thought about wine and who wanted to come and see. Now, we're making decisions about how we want to segment our program. Do we want to offer a more intensive kind of thing, where we really get into detail? The feedback we're getting is that people love the program, and they want to go into one that's advanced."

Byxbee mentioned his interest in online education. He approached Wine Spectator, which operates its own online wine tutorial program, about a collaboration. When the magazine declined, he started looking into going it alone. "A third of what we do in the program is just academic, and that could easily be done online. The other two-thirds we have to work out. It's interpersonal stuff. You're doing a double-blind tasting, and you have nobody to give you immediate feedback. We're thinking, 'How do we get people together? Can we identify wine bars and restaurants where they can go?' That's all in planning, but it would be a lot of fun."

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