It’s Summer - Take a Dive into Hampton Water!
Photo by Jerritt Clark | Courtesy Hampton Water
It’s like a fairy tale. Developing a new wine brand from concept to bottling in 18 months. Receiving a Wine Spectator rating of 90 for the first vintage in 2017 and being the first rosé to ever be listed in the magazine’s top 100 wines of the year. And like all good fairy tales, this one has a backstory and even an element of learning and instruction. Although no dragons were slain, or ogres won over by kindness, this is a story of family memories, traditions and friendship. It is about creating longstanding relationships and developing a product of value and merit through hard work, creativity, energetic drive and a business-building dose of naiveté.
Jesse Bongiovi and his roommate at Notre Dame, Ali Thomas, spent much of the summer prior to their senior year at Jesse’s family home in the Hamptons. They were enjoying their last summer of freedom. As summer wore on, they affectionately started calling the ubiquitous rosé—served at every party or gathering—“Hampton Water,” in honor of a saying on the East End of Long Island that rosé is the water of the Hamptons.
One evening, rocker Jon Bon Jovi, Jesse’s dad, offered them a glass of rosé or “pink juice” as he (and many others) referred to it.
Bongiovi called him out. “Listen Dad, you’re sitting in the Hamptons, you’re drinking Hampton Water!” Bon Jovi thought that was hilarious and wondered aloud what people would think if someone put that on a bottle of wine. After much talk, imagining, dreaming and haranguing, Bon Jovi said, “You two figure it out, and if you’re serious, you’ll bring something back to me.”
For the next six months, while in school, Bongiovi and Thomas met with anyone related to the wine industry who would give them the time. Like typical college students, they had certainly raised a glass or two, but had almost no knowledge of, or vocabulary for, the world of wine. They talked to liquor store owners, wine distributors, importers and wine makers.
As a vision of what this could look like started to grow, they put together a business plan, designed the label and bottle and developed an entire marketing strategy. In their minds, they wanted this wine to really reflect the nature of the Hamptons—the summers spent there with family members and friends; the water, and sun, and sand; the activities they shared with buddies on the beach; and the feelings of comfort and safety that come from living in a small community.
The next step was inevitable. With Bon Jovi’s support, they started looking for a vintner.
Through mutual friends, the team was introduced to Gerard Bertrand, a winemaker in Languedoc, France with many brands and types of wine to his credit—including rosés. He has almost 40 years of wine-blending experience and owns multiple estates with different terroirs, making his blends some of the best in the world.
When the opportunity was presented, Bertrand was cautious. “I was careful to assure that this wine wouldn’t just be a big commercial brand,” he said. For him, it had to be an exemplary wine within its category.
During the early discussions, Bertrand suggested several ways he could be of help. If he liked the idea, after more discussions, he could be their importer or their supplier. However, as the relationship developed and trust grew on both sides, he became a full partner with his name on the label.
When it came down to actually creating the wine, the conversations centered around the types of rosés that they liked. Bon Jovi had always been a domina drinker and claims that he brought rosés to the United States (his son is not sure he believes this). Bongiovi and Thomas liked rosés with great red berry notes and peach and pear. Eventually, they came up with a taste profile: light; crisp, very fresh; dry; fruit forward. Another item of importance to the young men was low acidity. They had observed that some of the less expensive rosés were very acidic and often didn’t leave a person feeling well by the end of an evening
The team worked with Bertrand for a week in a lab-like setting tasting, talking and working to develop a taste that everyone agreed upon. “So much of winemaking is an art and having an amazing palate, but there is so much of it that is also a science,” Bongiovi said. “By the last day, we were in a white room with eyedroppers and test tubes putting one drop of a certain varietal into a blend that we had come up with and adding three drops to another test tube of the blend and asking, ‘which one do you like more?’ Literally one eyedropper of the varietal would dramatically change the taste of the wine.”
And then they had it! The blueprint for Hampton Water was created.
When Thomas and Bongiovi realized this was really going to happen, they both quit their jobs to dedicate themselves to the business full time. “We literally shot this thing off the ground and quit our jobs the next day,” said Bongiovi. Thomas had graduated from Notre Dame with a major in consulting and was working in commercial real estate finance. Bongiovi had a major in political science and a minor in business economics and was working for a startup company, making cold calls.
“My mom was a lot happier about it than his, because he had a lot more serious job than I did,” said Bongiovi. “It all worked out in the end. She’s very happy with it now,” he continued, “but for a while there were some late-night calls with her saying, ‘now let me get this straight again, you quit your job to do what?’”
When it came time to actually preparing the label, there were a few more decisions to be made. Thomas and Bongiovi had designed the label using a diving figure from Google Images with the concept that she is diving from water into wine. They pictured shrink wrapping the bottle with the top half white and the bottom half clear, revealing the color of the wine. The shrink wrap didn’t happen.
“When we went to work with the French production team, they basically shook their heads at us and said, ‘You stupid Americans, you guys don’t know how to make a bottle of wine,’” said Bongiovi. “They quickly educated us to the challenges of using plastic on a glass bottle and how it changes the color.”
However, the original image is on the label as well as a letter, penned by Bongiovi late at night that reads in part, “Dearest friends, you’ve just picked up your new favorite bottle of wine.” Bongiovi said that it was the company’s mission letter designed to, “invite people into the Hampton lifestyle that revolves around good weather, good friends, good music and sharing a good bottle of wine.”
Finally, with bottles in hand, Bongiovi and Thomas began selling Hampton Water.
One of the first restaurants that adopted the wine was with the Altamarea Group headed by Michael White.
We walked in and said, “Hey what’s up?” said Bongiovi. “We’re Jesse and Ali. Want to try a new bottle of wine? And they were like, ‘who in the hell are you two?’” But the casual friendliness of the two young men won out, and the wine was tried, and enjoyed. The wine director got into it, and suddenly Hampton Water was being introduced in a two-star Michelin restaurant.
This success—and the Wine Spectator rating—helped open other doors and quickly Hampton Water could be found in restaurants in the Four Seasons in New York, The Plaza in Manhattan and the Fountainbleu in Miami. People were drinking—and enjoying—Hampton Water.
Las Vegas was among the first markets that the sales team considered. They realized that anyone visiting Las Vegas would be an ambassador for Hampton Water when they returned to their homes. Their first contact was Allan Carter, executive director of sales, fine wines at Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits of Nevada.
Carter was impressed: “Their enthusiasm was so infectious, it immediately made me want to work hard for them,” he said.
Carter also said that the timing was right. He explained that Las Vegas is behind the rest of the country in relation to rosés, because people visit Vegas and want a bigger taste, perhaps a big cabernet and a steak, than the rosés and other lighter wines they may have been drinking at home. However, in the past two years, rosé sales have picked up substantially in the Vegas Valley.
Not only were Bongiovi and Thomas involved, Bongiovi’s father participated in special events and promotions, even signing the bottles in 20 cases of Hampton Water to use as giveaways.
Bongiovi and Thomas have since spent a lot of time in Vegas, visiting restaurants and liquor stores, promoting Hampton Water. “We want our wine to be served where people want to be,” said Bongiovi.
Carter has enjoyed watching the three men work together, and seeing the pride and pure pleasure they take in their work. “These people really understand that it is about creating relationships, especially here in Las Vegas,” he said. “As young as they are (Bongiovi and Thomas), it’s amazing that they get that.”
He also speaks to their marketing skills. “Everyone is trying to figure out how to market to millennials—they ARE millennials. They speak that language and the way they present the wine, their social media, it’s all right on.”
You are invited to Dive into Hampton Water and try this “nicely crafted rosé, with a hint of creamy richness lining the strawberry, melon and white cherry flavors. A dash of minerality imparts depth through the long, mouthwatering finish. A crowd-pleaser (Wine Spectator).”
Currently Hampton Water is available in Las Vegas at Rosina Bar and Smith & Wollensky at The Venetian, The Unknown Bar (shark bar) at The Palms, Tableau and Jardin at Wynn, The Palm Restaurant at Caesars Forum Shops, Marche Bacchus and numerous others.