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Meet a Member: Michael Willihnganz ’79, MPA’81

This Badger has a full-bodied love for red wines and cardinal-red jerseys.

A group of tourists gather around a red flag that reads "Wisconsin Alumni Association" on a cobblestone plaza that features a mosaic of a white capitol dome under the word "Madison."

Michael Willihnganz (left of WAA flag) with fellow WAA travelers in Freiburg, Germany.

Michael Willihnganz ’79, MPA’81 is happy to travel for good wine and football. After earning a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in public policy and administration from the UW, he landed a job in California — 2,000 miles from his beloved Badgers. He joined the Wisconsin Alumni Association (WAA) to stay in touch with the UW and even served as president of the Sacramento chapter for several years. Previously a season ticket holder for Badger football, Willihnganz used to fly back to Madison to catch at least a few home games each year.

Currently the director of administrative services at the Placer County Water Agency in Auburn, California, Willihnganz doesn’t have to travel quite as far to satisfy his other passion: wine. Living so close to Napa Valley, he became an avid collector. “I have more wine than I can probably drink in a lifetime,” Willihnganz admits. “But it’s nice knowing you’ve got the perfect wine in your cellar for whatever somebody wants.”

Willihnganz doesn’t have to travel for good wine — but he likes to. A frequent traveler with WAA, he takes advantage of trips curated for foodies and wine lovers like him. Read more from Willihnhganz about his best Badger sports moments, alumni trips, and wine recommendations.

When did you first get involved with the alumni association?
Right after I graduated. I got a bachelor’s degree in 1979. Then I went through the [Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs] and got a master’s in public administration in 1981. Then I was looking for a job and there were no jobs in Wisconsin at the time, and I ended up taking a job in Monterey, California. Gorgeous place to land. I’ve been in California ever since.

Why was it important for you to stay connected to the university?
I was born and raised in Wisconsin and very much born and raised a Badger. In fact, I never considered going to school any place else other than the University of Wisconsin. And I am a Badger fanatic, so I’ll never miss a football game or a basketball game that’s on TV. I watch women’s volleyball — they’re so great right now. I’ll watch hockey when it’s on. I’m a diehard Badger fan through and through.

What are some of your favorite Badger sports moments?
Any time I was in Camp Randall for a football game. In fact, I had season football tickets up until 2014, so I would fly back to Wisconsin for three to five games a year for football. The airfare was getting too expensive, [and] I wanted to do more international travel and spend my travel dollars elsewhere, so I dropped my tickets in 2014. But I think one of my favorite moments was [in] 2010 when Ohio State came in ranked number one in the nation, and Wisconsin won. David Gilreath ran the opening kickoff back for a touchdown and Wisconsin upset Ohio State. That’s one of my favorite memories at Camp Randall. It was a night game, and you know how night games are at Camp Randall. It was just electric the way that Wisconsin was able to beat Ohio State.

When I was in college, I went to a lot of hockey games. I was there when they won the national championship in ’77 in Michigan. So those are fond memories as well.

You dropped your season tickets for more international travel opportunities, which you often take through WAA. How many alumni trips have you been on?
I’ve been on a lot of trips. I try to take about two a year, and obviously during the COVID years I couldn’t go on any, but I’ve been on quite a few. I’m going to guess 12, 14, 15 trips or so.

Any of the trips in Italy have been some of my favorites. I really like travel centered around wine. [WAA] has offered a number of trips called “Flavors of …” [including] Flavors of Northern Italy, Flavors of Sicily, Flavors of Chile and Argentina. I really like those because they’re so wine-centric and food-centric. So not only do you get to see the beautiful countryside and get immersed in the culture that you’re visiting, but you get to taste good wine and eat good food. But I like history, too. The last [alumni] trip I went on was in [September 2023]. It’s called the Imperial Journey. It was to Poland, the Czech Republic, and Germany, and that was all historical in nature. I love that just as much as wine-centric trips.

Are there any wines you could recommend to readers as they prepare for holiday gatherings?
It all depends on what one is interested in. If you like big cabernets from the Napa Valley, there are wonderful cabernets: Schrader, Outpost, Ravena, Gemstone, Spotswood. Those are all just stellar cabernets. The Russian River area of Sonoma County has fabulous chardonnays and pinot noirs. If I was going to recommend some pinot noirs, it would probably be DuMOL or Williams Selyem or Gary Farrell. Same with chardonnay. DuMOL makes outstanding chardonnay. Kistler makes outstanding chardonnay. It all depends on what you’re going to eat and what you want to pair the wine with. There’s no shortage of good wines in California, that’s for sure. But I’ve also developed quite a palate for international wines. I love French wines. I love Italian wines, in particular, especially Brunello and the like. And I love wine from Chile and Argentina, as well. So, it seems wherever I go wine tasting, I find lots of favorites that I just love.

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