The unifying thread in the many careers of Erin Woodard has been a love of the planet. From her childhood desire to be a meteorologist, to a college internship with the National Park Service, to fundraising for The Nature Conservancy, Woodard has always had a passion for the environment. And her knowledge of the climate, ecosystems, and geology now perfectly serves her in her new career in the wine industry, after graduating from San Diego State University’s Business of Wine Program. She’s also the first-ever graduate to obtain funding through the Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act — for which the wine program is approved.
Woodard answered a few questions about her education, her career, and the journey that led her from the East Coast to a new life in San Diego.
Please give us a brief history of your education and career.
I graduated from Virginia Tech (Go Hokies!) in 2006 with a degree in political science, a focus in Spanish and international affairs, an environmental study with critically endangered sea turtles through UCSB, and an internship with the National Park Service under my belt. I’ve always been an environmentalist and wanted to work for an environmental nonprofit. I ended up working for an organization I still love and am passionate about, The Nature Conservancy, at their worldwide office in my hometown of Arlington, VA. I pursued major gift fundraising and … was able to move down to North Carolina and work for The Nature Conservancy there, then moved back to my alma mater and was an assistant director of development at Virginia Tech. At that point I felt like I had lost my sense of purpose for being a fundraiser — environmentalism — and knew I didn’t want to pursue it for the duration of my professional career. I had helped a friend out at his wine business in North Carolina pouring during educational tastings. We had connected at a party and spoke a lot about wine. It was always a hobby until that point. I decided after my final blizzard in the mountains I needed to make a change.
How did you find out about SDSU’s Business of Wine program?
I decided to move to San Diego because my best friend from high school invited me to stay with her in North County and gave me a place to crash for six months while I figured out my next career move. I knew I needed to be in California if I wanted to study wine but didn’t know which programs I was interested in or how to fund that goal. While I was establishing residency, I came across San Diego State University’s Business of Wine program online, and found that it matched my professional goals. I wasn’t sure about pursuing another degree, particularly in viticulture, as I wanted to focus on the business management side of the wine world. I wanted to transfer my account management experience that I personally enjoyed over to the wine world. The Business of Wine program fit what I was looking for. After alot of digging, I discovered that I could get funding for the program through President Obama’s Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act. Since the wine industry is a booming field and because I was changing careers, I was eligible for the funding. I had to do a lot of paperwork and work with the North County Career Center, but it enabled me to get a full grant to do the Business of Wine certificate.
What were your goals upon entering the program?
I wanted to complete the certificate so that I had something tangible in terms of wine knowledge to put on my resume. I had plenty of knowledge, but needed employers to know that. It also was a great base for studying for the various wine certifications that are out there (CSW, WSET, etc). I also wanted to affirm which career path I wanted to begin on in the wine industry.
How did the program help you attain your goals?
They always say networking is key to success and I’ve always found that to be true. The Business of Wine certificate gives you the tools to be successful in networking. It enabled me to meet others in the wine field and determine that I indeed wanted to start my career in wine sales. It also gave me the wine knowledge foundation to get my foot in the door as a marketing events coordinator and retail merchandiser at WineSellar and Brasserie in Sorrento Valley and, from there, work my way up to a fine wine specialist at the Henry Wine Group.
Which courses did you enjoy most and why?
This is a tough one. I really enjoyed the French Intensive as I enjoy in-depth study of Old World wine. I love learning about how terroir changes the style of wine (for example, Burgundy). I also LOVED the Spanish Intensive with Jesse [Rodriguez]. He made learning fun and was excellent at incorporating history into teaching about Spain. I am a history geek and it made it easier for the subject matter to “stick.” Of course, the fundamentals class [Exploring Wine] with Lisa [Redwine] was a blast as well. She is a natural-born educator.
Can you speak to the caliber of the instructors?
The instructors are what make the courses enjoyable. Each of them was willing to help me make connections in the industry and all were extremely knowledgeable and well-prepared.
You’re our first Workforce graduate for this program. Can you give a brief overview of the funding process?
Honestly, it wasn’t easy. It’s government funding, so if you’re seeking it, go into it with that mindset. I had to pursue it through the North County Career Center, which is helping to place people in all walks of life in jobs. Due to this, you have to go through their process in addition to the paperwork. Some of it was helpful, some of it was humbling, and some of it you have to take with a grain of salt because it doesn’t necessarily apply to your situation. It took about six months to procure funding. I stuck with it because I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do the program if I didn’t have full funding, and I had my career goals in mind. The staff at SDSU’s College of Extended Studies went out of their way to help with paperwork and to fulfill the government needs. They were awesome!
Were you working while going through the program and if so, how feasible was it to balance both?
Yes, I was working while doing this program and it was incredibly easy to balance my full-time job and the program.
Did you have any helpful networking experiences, either with fellow students or instructors?
I didn’t know anyone in the wine world when I moved to San Diego. I relied upon my instructors in the program, my fellow students, LinkedIn, and talking to strangers! Some of my fellow students are now my good friends and I work with them as accounts; some of my instructors have referred me for jobs; and I met the person that referred me for my current job through LinkedIn when I knew not a soul in San Diego. Stretch your comfort zone and get out there.
What surprised you most about the program?
The variety of wines I got to try! I was unfamiliar with a lot of different appellations. It made class really fun!
Would you recommend the Business of Wine program to others?
Yes! It’s great for building a foundation of knowledge if you’re looking for a career change. Or if you’re looking at this more as a hobby, it’s educational and fun!
What do you plan to do with your enhanced knowledge of wine?
I won’t reveal my future business plan in the back of my brain, but I’m currently doing what I set out to do — I’m a sales representative and Fine Wine Specialist for a fantastic portfolio of boutique, family-owned, wines of integrity with Henry Wine Group here in San Diego.
Anything you’d like to add?
I always used to joke after college with my family that if my career didn’t work, I wanted to either work in wine or sell pineapples by the sea. Now I sell wine and live two blocks from the ocean! Life is too short to hesitate. Pursue what you are passionate about despite risk.