His dad leads one of the best selling rock bands of all time but when Jesse Bongiovi wanted to partner with his father, Jon Bon Jovi, on a project he was interested in wine not music. The result is Hampton Water, one of top selling rosé wines in the country. I spoke with the pair about how the brand started, why you want to lick rocks in a vineyard and how the Languedoc is the New Jersey of winemaking.
Jesse, what’s the first drink you had that your dad knows about? And what’s the first drink he doesn’t know about?
Jesse: (laughs) My 21st birthday at midnight. Well truthfully growing up we’d go down to the Caribbean and like any young man there were probably plenty of unapproved beers before 21. And we’d go to Europe. That’s where I first started enjoying rosé.
What was it about rosé that you enjoyed?
Jesse: Even for 20-year-old you feel kind of embarrassed pretending you know something about the red wine that you’re having at dinner. But rosé was fun. It was easy and you could sit out on the beach and have a glass with mom and dad and it was like I get it. Then obviously I started to see the opportunity of rosé.
Jon, what was your first drink?
Jon: I don’t know if I can remember a first but when I was younger we would buy a quart bottle of Colt 45 or it’d be like Michelob nips. You’d get a guy to go in the liquor store and get it. The drinking age was 18, so by 16 or 17 you could start playing the clubs and drink a beer.
Was there wine at the dinner table in the Bongiovi house?
Jon: There was certainly a lot of wine at my table. It was the typical Italian family and on Sundays the red wine would come out with the pasta. Wine has been my drink of choice my whole life. And I knew about the rosé craze twenty years ago because of all of my travels. So when Jesse came to me with the idea for Hampton Water I loved the name and the concept. But I’d asked him to go back to school and come to me with a business plan — and if it was sound than I certainly was interested in pursuing it because I did see the opportunity in America for rosé to catch on.
So your rock star dad made you take business classes?
Jesse: My dad said “if you’re serious and want to start a a company, figure something out.” It was my senior year at Notre Dame. I studied political science but took a minor in business economics. I started calling liquor stores and restaurant owners to get an understanding of the rosé category and what people were looking for. We learned that 85% of wine consumers buy entirely on the label. So we felt that if we had a catchy name with a strong story and a beautiful label it would jump off the shelf — but then when they opened the bottle and it was good people would say ‘I’ll remember that one and I’ll come back to it.’
Did you enjoy working with Gerard Bertrand on the winemaking side?
Jon: We hit it off immediately. He said “if I like the family as much as the concept I would like to do more than just sell you wine. I would like a partnership.” And then I was curious, is this a guy I want in our business? But I think that the Languedoc is similar to New Jersey. It’s in the shadows of Provence as we are in the shadows of New York. I think he felt like he had something to prove. I’ve always felt like I had something to prove.
Thank you forever for a New Jersey-Languedoc analogy. What did you enjoy learning most about winemaking with him?
Jesse: We came into it very green so Gerard really got us up to speed on everything. From why the limestone in the ground is important and the rain and the moon. He literally talks about things at a level that even seven years in we’re like (laughing) what are we talking about?
Jon: Well we comprehend a hell of a lot more than we once did. We created the blend. When we were learning about the terroir Gerard said “here, lick this rock.” (Laughing) I thought he was trying to mess with us. Then you realize that it’s the salt water in the air that is helping with the grapes, making the Languedoc region as unique as it is.
Did you have any initial concerns about Hampton Water being taken seriously and not a vanity project?
Jon: We knew we had something great in the bottle. So now how are we going to create a family business and not a celebrity brand? We’re here six years later with 90-point ratings and the number five premium rosé in the United States. Like in anything else luck plays a factor. But really it’s the hard work. It’s anything but a celebrity brand. (Laughing) I stopped my day to do an interview with you. We’ve put years into this. I think it’s proof that we’re serious.
Where do you see the brand going from here?
Jesse: We’ve definitely got some things on the horizon in the way of expansion that we’re excited about. Our major focus is continuing to grow our distribution. We plan to do over a hundred thousand cases this year. We’re in about 9,000 accounts nationally and in about 50 countries. Although we’ve had a lot of great initial success the runway ahead of us is still very long.
Any plans for other wines or a second rosé?
Jesse: We’re currently staying in rosé. I’ll give you that little teaser.
What are your favorite foods to pair with Hampton Water?
Jesse: My friends and I will go out to the Hamptons at the beginning of June and we always end the trip with a big clam bake. So shellfish, lobsters, oysters, clams, mussels, shrimp is always perfect with some really cold rosé. Rosé is so versatile and it doesn’t have that same pressure that comes with what are you doing serving this with that? I think it allows people to be way more creative.
Jon: You can go with spicy stuff too. Thai food. Mexican. Or a Japanese restaurant. With sake or beer I might have one glass, with rosé I could have a bottle. I haven’t really found a situation where I don’t feel great about it.
The brand is also involved with some charitable causes.
Jesse: We partnered with the ‘It Gets Better Project.’ It’s something that was important to me and to the brand. We’ve raised quite a bit of money for that organization and their amazing work. During the pandemic people were at home and they weren’t buying a bottle — they were buying a case. So I can’t say that business wasn’t doing very well for us. It inspired me to want to give back.
The restaurant world had also really been affected during the pandemic so we partnered with José Andrés and World Central Kitchen and raised a ton of money for them with a livestream charity concert. And since we’re pink juice we work with Speed Rack and The Pink Agenda raising money for breast cancer awareness and research. Speed Rack has been a ton of fun because you get to go to these crazy cocktail competitions all over — but it’s all for raising awareness for a great cause.