Wine with a Purpose

WMU business students operate a wine brand that funds scholarships

Sylvan Benton and Tyler Earnst with Bronconess wines. (Courtesy photo)

Tyler Earnst isn’t old enough to drink the wine he’s had a part in selling.

But he’s learning that there’s a lot more to the business of wine than savoring the product.

Earnst, of Jackson, is a junior attending Western Michigan University’s Haworth College of Business, where a Center for Principled Leadership and Business Strategy provides students with immersive opportunities that combine education and professional business experience.

Its students have launched a “Bronconess” wine brand that channels profits into WMU student scholarships — $35,000 to date. Earnst says it grew out of a longstanding relationship that developed between an MBA foreign study program and Tremonte Vineyards in Chile. A Haworth Leadership and Business Strategy class took on the charge of helping the vineyard expand into the U.S. market, and the result was Bronconess, which offers a white blend, red blend and Cabernet — all bottled in Chile.

“We use his grapes and his wine,” says junior Sylvan Benton of Whitehall, another student working on the project. “It’s just our label. … He wanted to help us, and he’s a big supporter of Western, so it was a great opportunity.”

About 100 students were involved in the 2019 launch, with just a handful continuing to participate in early 2020. Now there are about nine students across different majors and colleges — ranging from product design and advertising to promotion and public relations — working on everything from brand management to marketing and developing partnerships.

Bronconess’ three current products. (Photo courtesy of Bronconess)

“We do have professors giving us the green light on some initiatives, but really, it’s on the students to make sure the brand succeeds,” Earnst says. “It’s going to take a lot of learning by doing, and a lot of learning by failing.

“Every week, there’s something new that we as students learn in the classroom and transition to this project. It’s a really cool experience to be a student working on a real business project.”

Douglas A. Lepisto, Ph.D., co-directs the Center for Principled Leadership & Business Strategy. He says the program is all about “learning by doing.”

“In the professional world, everyone confronts ambiguity and new challenges on a daily basis,” Lepisto says. “We want this experience to help our students learn about the day-to-day elements of running a brand, and being resourceful as they work together to make an impact.”

The students connected with Kalamazoo-based Imperial Beverage, which is distributing their wines. They’re now available at more than 100 locations — restaurants, shops and stores that include some Trader Joe’s, Meijer and Harding’s locations.

Bronconess is getting ready to expand with a peach bubbly that St. Julian, based in Paw Paw, is going to make.

“They contacted us and asked if we would be interested in helping them create a sparkling wine option for their Bronconess brand,” says St. Julian Vice President of Sales Apollo Braganini II. “We have a great opportunity to help teach the students how to launch a wine brand from scratch, including everything from concept and label design, retail and wholesale sales strategies and a comprehensive marketing plan.”

Bronconess wines include three options: a white blend, red blend and Cabernet. (Courtesy photo)

Made with peach juices and tropical passion fruit, Bronconess Peach Bubbly will launch soon. It’s an answer to a challenge the students faced: With only imported wines, they couldn’t ship their products out of state, per Michigan regulations. One of their primary target markets is alumni, and they want to be able to expand distribution beyond the state for that reason.

“The Center for Principled Leadership and Business Strategy believes in the philosophy that the path to purpose and profit is found in creating genuine value for others,” Earnst says. “It’s a great feeling to work on a brand (whose) main goal is to support future WU alumni that exemplify servant leadership.”


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