The Big Interview: db talks rock ‘n’ rosé with Jon Bon Jovi
With the European launch of Hampton Water, musician Jon Bon Jovi and his son, Jesse, along with Languedoc producer Gérard Bertrand, have created a pink wine brand that is attracting attention the world over, says Lucy Shaw.
It’s a scorching evening in Paris and magnums of Hampton Water are on ice at Café de L’Homme, a chic French bistro overlooking the Eiffel Tower. Holding court in a black jacket and blue jeans, Jon Bon Jovi looks every inch the rock star with his big hair, Aviator shades and megawatt smile. Fans flock around him like flies to honey. He’s in Paris for the night with his son Jesse Bongiovi and Languedoc luminary Gérard Bertrand for the European launch of Hampton Water; the rosé brand created by the trio in 2017.
A longtime pink wine lover, Bon Jovi made the switch from spirits to wine in the early 1990s after hammering the Tequila a little too hard in the previous decade.
“I threw up a few times, like any other kid, then realised it wasn’t for me. I had my last shot of Tequila when I had my last tattoo,” he says.
Having first been drawn to full-bodied reds, refreshing bottles of Domaines Ott enjoyed in Provence turned him onto rosé. “I was drinking Southern French rosés 25 years ago. When you’d mention it anywhere other than the Hamptons, which had a lot of the same people going to the same places, it was foreign. Bringing bottles of Domaines Ott back to America, people thought it was a magic elixir, as you couldn’t get it in the US then.”
The idea for Hampton Water came about one summer evening when Jon and Jesse were kicking back with a bottle of rosé on the porch at their family home in Long Island. Before calling it a night, Jon offered Jesse a final glass of ‘pink juice’ for the road (his code name for rosé so his younger children didn’t clock how much of it he drank) and Jesse told him that the cool kids call it ‘Hamptons water’. Struck by the name – the water-into-wine idea appealed to the lapsed Catholic in him – and already imagining the brand, Jon believed Jesse was onto something and told him to come back with a business plan if he was serious about it. Enlisting the help of his former college roommate, Ali Thomas, Jesse did a deep dive into the rosé category to see if the idea had legs.
Early into the project they faced a stumbling block when Jon received a call from his lawyer. “I thought we’d cleared the trademark for Hamptons Water, but he told me we’d be out of business unless I made the wine with grapes from Long Island, so we took the ‘s’ off the end and were back in business,” he says.
The collaboration with Bertrand came about after a meeting with the CEO of Southern Glazer’s – the largest drinks distributor in the US – which proved to be a steep learning curve for the pair. “When we had the name and a label, we went to see Southern Glazer’s and said to the CEO that we wanted to white label a rosé. It was very early on in our education and we thought we’d just buy some rosé, label it and market it,” Bon Jovi admits. “He told us that wasn’t the way to have longevity in the industry, and started to talk about Gérard. We knew his wines already, so were thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with him. In our initial conversation Gérard said that if he liked us as a family as much as the concept then we could do something, because he doesn’t usually partner with people.”
Hampton Water is a classic Southern French blend of Grenache, Cinsault and Mourvèrdre, cherry picked from low-yielding plots in the Languedoc. Around 20% of the blend is aged in new French oak for added complexity and length. Particular attention is paid to the pressing process to ensure that only the first, top-quality juice is kept. Bertrand describes the wine as “fresh, intense and lively” with floral notes and a distinctive minerality.
“We use grapes from low-yielding vineyards to add complexity. Balance is the most important thing for us as I wanted the wine to have a long finish but also to retain its freshness,” he says.
Nailing the perfect salmon pink colour while retaining maximum character was hugely important to the trio, as was creating a rosé that would be taken seriously by critics and sommeliers. “The first restaurant to list us in the States was Marea, a Michelin-starred seafood venue in New York – it wasn’t a burger joint. Sommeliers can be snobby about rosé and wines from the Languedoc, but having been in Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list twice with four 90-point scores is an immense help,” says Bon Jovi.
Jesse adds: “From the start we’ve made a conscious effort to partner with the right types of places, and worked hard to get listings at top restaurants in New York, Miami, Las Vegas and Chicago, expanding across the US as we went.”
Both are hands on when it comes to making the wine, and the creative process is very much a collaborative effort. “We spend days on the blending sessions and by the end of it are adding a few drops here and there with pipettes to get it exactly right,” says Jesse, who turned 27 in February. “We believed the idea for Hampton Water was fun and would grab people’s attention, but we’ve always known that if what’s inside the bottle isn’t any good, no one is going to buy a second bottle. If we were going to put our names to the project then it was going to have to be something worth sharing.”
The final blend is chosen during a blind tasting of the top five contenders. “If we don’t agree then we continue until we find the perfect balance,” says Bertrand. “That’s why I need them tasting with me, as I can’t reach that decision by myself. I need their input along with their vision. It’s great because I’ve shared with them some secrets about blending and in turn they’ve pushed me to become better.”
From the get-go Bon Jovi had a clear idea of the flavour profile he was shooting for. “We wanted something that won’t hurt you if you drink a lot of it. We didn’t want the burn that some wines give you,” he says. “Having Gérard showing us how to get there has been hugely important.”
The pair couldn’t be in safer hands, as pink-wine pioneer Bertrand was flying the flag for rosé long before it became fashionable – his single-vineyard Clos du Temple is the priciest rosé on the planet. Bertrand’s goal for Hampton Water was to create a moreish pink that can be enjoyed all year round. “It was important to develop the saline aspect in the wine so that once you finish a glass it makes you want another,” says Bertrand, who explained the concept of minerality to Bon Jovi by getting him to lick a rock. Like Champagne, part of rosé’s appeal is the aspirational lifestyle attached to it, and Hampton Water cleverly taps into the ability of wine to sell the dream of a better life.
While broad in its appeal, the brand is largely targeted at millennials keen to be transported through their glass to a poolside sun lounger in the Hamptons. Both Jon and Jesse put in the hard yards on Instagram and TikTok to grow their audience and keep their fans happy. They’ve also branched out into a successful sideline of Hampton Water merchandise, which includes everything from pink bucket hats and hoodies to dog toys.
Aware of the importance of creating striking branding in a crowded category, Jesse refers to Hampton Water’s signature diver – which he has tattooed on his arm – as being the company’s “Nike swoosh”, while the dimples in the bottle’s punt reflect the strawberry notes in the wine. “People buy with their eyes, so we knew we had to come up with a memorable design to stand out and stick in people’s minds,” says Bon Jovi.
The rosé sector has exploded in popularity lately, but Jesse believes it still has a lot of room for growth. “We think rosé will become the third wine category. It’s heading in that direction – in places like New York it’s a permanent fixture on wine lists, and liquor stores are stocked with rosé all year round. As recently as five years ago that wasn’t the case, as rosé was seen as a seasonal drink,” he says.
Having long been an avid rosé drinker, Bon Jovi believes that perceptions are shifting and people have less prejudice towards the wine style now. “Real men drink pink,” he jokes. “Guys these days are becoming a lot more open to anything, whether it’s craft beer instead of Budweiser or pink wine instead of white, but we’re not there yet. In Missouri they’re having a hard time realising what a rosé is, so there’s a lot more runway ahead of us, and a lot of opportunity for growth. I’m very proud of the wine, so I don’t feel we have to fib about it being widely accepted.”
Keen to encourage his male peers to drink more rosé, Jesse created the Pink Bottle Boys club, centred around a peripatetic supper club showcasing rosé’s impressive food-pairing capabilities. “Rosé is underestimated as a food wine. For the Pink Bottle Boys dinner series we travelled around the US partnering with chefs, and asking them to create a dish to pair with Hampton Water. We did everything from Italian in New York, seafood in Miami, and smoky barbecue in Dallas, to spicy Chinese cuisine in Vegas. The chefs’ menus showed how versatile rosé is as a food-pairing wine, and I think the world has a great opportunity to continue to play with it,” he says.
Having launched in early 2018, with Gérard Bertrand’s enviable distribution network behind it, Hampton Water is now on sale in 50 markets, including the UK, US, Australia, Japan and South Korea, priced at around £17 a bottle. But Jon and Jesse are just getting started. The duo are exploring the idea of making a single-vineyard rosé, but for now remain committed to raising the profile of their core brand.
“It’s our fifth year, and this is the official European launch,” says Jon. “We’ve been very pragmatic, and that’s on purpose. To have diversified too early could have been a mistake. Why diversify when there’s still so much growth yet to be had? Our attitude is ‘slow and steady’.”
Rather than a summer fling, Hampton Water is a family business, and both father and son are in it for the long haul. “There’s so much space still to grow in the rosé category. We want to stay focused and grow Hampton Water in the right way,” says Jesse. “We’re continuing to get the word out there to get people excited about the brand. Sharing memories and helping people to create some of their own is the ultimate goal. We want to work together for a very long time.”
For Bon Jovi, who turned 60 in March, the highlight of launching Hampton Water has been the chance to spend more time with his boy. “It’s been an investment of money and time that has been worth every part of it, as being in business with your son is one of life’s great joys.”