Of Wine and Research

Liz Thach in her vineyard"To be out here in my own vineyard... gives me first-hand knowledge of what i'm trying to teach my students." - Liz Thach

Dr. Liz Thach brings knowledge and passion to Sonoma State's one-of-a-kind wine program.

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Tending to a small backyard vineyard might sound like the perfect hobby for a wine enthusiast living in the bucolic back roads of Sonoma County. But to Liz Thach, it’s more than a fun and rewarding pastime. It’s what makes her a better professor.

“To be out here in my own vineyard…gives me first-hand knowledge of what I’m trying to teach my students,” she said in an October interview, while checking her almost-ripe cabernet franc grapes.

A professor for the Wine Business Program at Sonoma State University, Thach teaches three different classes each semester ranging from wine business and strategy to human resource management and leadership. “When I saw the job description for this position, I knew it was for me,” Thach said.

That was seven years ago. At that time, Thach had completed her Ph.D. in human resource development and was taking a hiatus from the business world, of which she had been a part for more than 10 years. “I knew I wanted to be a professor some day,” she said. “I just didn’t know it would happen this quickly.”

Liz Thach with the harvest of her own hobby vineyard in PenngroveLiz Thach with the harvest of her own hobby vineyard in Penngrove.

Before coming to Sonoma State, Thach worked in human resources at Fortune 500 companies such at Texas Instruments, Compaq, Amoco and U.S. West (now AT&T). For fun, Thach and her husband, Michael, traveled to various wine regions around the world.

“The job description said something like ‘this candidate will hold a doctorate degree, have HR experience in the business world and have an interest in the wine industry,’” she said. “That was me.”

Wine & Millenials

Along with high-level teaching, dozens of scholarly articles and a few book publications, Thach’s time at Sonoma State has produced nationally-recognized research. A recent study — which received press from around the country — revealed what the Millenials’ (adults between the ages of 21-29) think of wine. After Thach and several of her students interviewed 228 Millenials, they found that this age group drinks wine for all the reasons older adults drink the beverage: they love the taste, it enhances food and it helps them relax. “These young people do not use wine to get drunk,” said Thach. “What is really amazing is how sophisticated their palates are.”

Also called Echo Boomers, Nexters and the Y Generation, Millenials are the children of the baby boomers. Born between the years 1976 and 2000, there are about 76 million Millennials in the U.S. according to Thach. Even at their current young age, they have annual incomes totaling about $221 billion and are considered to be the largest consumer group in the history of the U.S. in terms of their buying power.

And here’s the clincher, according to the professor’s research: the wine industry, until recently, has been ignoring this age group. “This sets up important scenarios for wine marketing,” said Thach.

In an article Thach wrote last year for Wine Business Monthly, she laid out some traits of Millenials that might aid wine marketing campaigns: this generation is the first to have grown up connected to the Internet; they are optimistic, but practical; they are environmentally conscious; and they believe in balance and fun.

When probed on the type of advertising that would be successful in encouraging more people to drink wine at reasonable levels, Thach’s Millenial sample kept coming back to the theme of young people drinking wine moderately in social, fun, and relaxed settings.

Books in Demand

Because Sonoma State’s Wine Business Program was the first university program in the United States to focus exclusively on the business aspects of the wine industry, there was not one comprehensive book Thach could find that provided an overview of the business of new world wine. So together with Tim Matz, president of Jackson Wine Estates International, Thach published Wine: A Global Business, a text she now uses in her classes.

In the next few months, her second book, Wine Marketing & Sales: Success Strategies for a Saturated Market will hit book stores. With a forward by wine mogul Robert Mondavi, who acknowledges the industry’s need for wine marketing, the book is a hands-on text that guides those in the wine business through current marketing and business strategies. Colleagues Janeen Olsen of SSU and Paul Wagner at Napa Valley College are co-authors on the book.

Thach is also working on another wine text book, which should be published by next year. Again, it’s a book that has eluded other writers and publishers.

But the books that most excite Thach are her fiction novels, where the main character is a woman wine writer. “They are strictly escapist books, but they also each teach about different wines.” Those books, the most recent entitled Reisling Riddles, are awaiting a publisher, however. Fiction, Thach acknowledges, is a much harder sell than nonfiction.

Thach’s World of Research

wine glass

The world according to Liz Thach is full of potential research material. Along with teaching, writing and winemaking, Thach is involved in a number of research projects on the SSU campus. Here’s just a taste:

Sustainability Research Thach and SSU colleague Robert Girling are looking into environmental and social practices of local businesses. So far, those practices are looking positive, said Thach. “Businesses in Sonoma County look to be very responsible.” Thach and Girling analyzed survey results from 153 local small-to-medium-sized businesses ranging from Whole Foods to mom and pop landscaping businesses. Their findings will be submitted to an academic business journal.

Ethics in Leadership Highly publicized unethical business practices over the past few years has spawned great interest in the moral rights and wrongs of businesses. Thach, along with some of her SSU MBA students, is interviewing local business owners to understand what type of ethics policy they are using, if any at all. Data on ethical practices for large corporations is plentiful. It’s the smaller businesses that Thach is interested in. What she’s after in Sonoma County is a “benchmark” of where local businesses are in this regard. She is currently collecting data and hopes to publish the findings in small business literature.

More Millennial material Thach has been invited to duplicate her local Millennial study in France and Australia come spring semester 2008. Both of these universities have large wine marketing programs, the University of South Australia being one of the most famous in the world.

Tasting Rooms Thach, colleague Janeen Olsen, and a handful of their trained students, have been mystery shopping local wine tasting rooms in an effort to find out the impact customer service has on brand and purchase intentions. What have they found thus far? “In some cases, tasting room staff only talk about the wine, rather than encourage customers to buy it,” said Thach. “There is opportunity for more professional wine sales in tasting rooms.”

Consumer Choices Joining in with university researchers from around the world, Thach is conducting a survey that asks how consumers make choices about the wines they buy in the market and in a restaurant. Along with colleagues from France, New Zealand, UK, Israel, Germany and Australia, Thach hopes to publish these findings in the next year.