It’s not often that you see college hockey and football players sipping on rosé, but that’s exactly how Ali Thomas came to the wine business. Thomas co-owns Hampton Water with rock legend Jon Bon Jovi and his son Jesse Bongiovi. The French rosé, which they produce with the help of Languedoc vintner Gérard Bertrand, has become a best-seller in just a few years.
Thomas met Jesse during their first summer at the University of Notre Dame—Thomas played hockey and Bongiovi football, and all student athletes had to show up at campus early. Their mothers, realizing the boys were both from New York, pushed them together to become friends (“It was like we were in second grade,” jokes Thomas). Soon they were roommates, with a strange affinity for drinking rosé all day during vacation trips to the Hamptons, much to the chagrin of their moms.
“Our mothers were always giving us a hard time about how much rosé we were drinking,” says Thomas. “We thought the easiest way to mitigate the hate that our mothers were giving us was by calling any rosé we drank ‘Hampton Water,’ because how can they get mad at us for being hydrated?”
The term struck Jon, who imagined what it would look like on a bottle. Thomas and Jesse returned to Notre Dame to develop a business plan, researching the market and deciding that quality in the bottle had to come before anything else. “We knew that the one differentiating point that we could have to not be seen as a vanity project was having good juice in the bottle,” explains Thomas.
The team then got in touch with Bertrand. The brand has received high ratings for each vintage and is now available in most states. Thomas expects it to grow even more. "We love rosé for bringing our families together," he says. "That's really what the Hampton lifestyle is. It is all about bringing everybody together, enjoying a great bottle of rosé."
Thomas recently spoke to Wine Spectator editorial assistant Julia Larson about being young and entering an unknown business, being a Black professional in the wine industry, the Roots Foundation, and good pink juice.
WS: Do you think that some people underestimate your brand because it is rosé?
I can't tell you the amount of people, including my dad for example, that have told me, "I would never drink rosé, but I love this rosé." When talking with Gérard, we were involved with him step by step and how we're going to make the wine work with our senses—not because we knew how to handle the process of the first press or any of these things, but we understood the palate profile that we were looking for. We understood that when we were drinking a lot of Provence-style rosés, they had that tip of the tongue acidity that we didn't really love—you could have one glass but never really finish the whole bottle. We also understood that we had to break this stigma that rosé was only drunk in the summertime.
The first six years has been a lot of breaking down walls, and having people ask, "What do you guys know about rosé?". That's why we brought Gérard on. He helped us know what we're talking about when it comes to the wine, and made sure that we're able to get that liquid to lips.
Six years into this, is there anything you wish that you would have known when starting Hampton Water?
When we first started, we really thought that just because we had a celebrity on board that we were going to get all the attention in the world from [our distributor] and from retailers. We didn't realize we needed to have proof of concept before anybody like that would really take us on and give us a shot. Looking back, I would say to Jesse, Jon and myself to take it slow. This isn't going to be an overnight success. We always joke that this is a six-year overnight success.
We were very strategic in that we wanted the wine brand to stand alone on its own merit—when you look at the label, it doesn't say, "Hampton Water by Jon Bon Jovi." We've always tried to set up a family-run business. A lot of these celebrity brands don't survive for one reason and one for one reason only: the celebrity doesn't work. Jon works. Last month I had Jon in Dallas with me and Jesse, and he was going to see Albertsons, he was going to see all of our strategic partners across Texas. They knew that he was involved, and he was showing love because he really is involved in the business. Jon really is committed to the company.
What are some of your main frustrations when people talk about how the wine industry isn't appealing to younger consumers?
It's hard for me to speak to this because I don't get as frustrated when I hear it. I just don't see it in my numbers. The wine industry has been around longer than you and I have been around—it's not going anywhere. Wine is wine at the end of the day. There's such a loving magic behind every bottle that is made, I just don't think you're able to have that connection when it comes to an RTD or something like that. It's just not the same.
How has your role at Hampton Water evolved over the past six years?
When Jesse and I first started, we didn't have a sales team. We were depending on Gérard's sales team to help us out as much as possible. Jesse and I were all hands on deck with everything—we lived together and the two of us were doing everything from marketing all the way through sales.
During COVID and as we started to mature as a business, we started to build our own company, have our own internal sales team and marketing. We realized we weren't face-to-face like we were every day before that. So during COVID, we made a decision where Jesse was going to handle all the marketing for the company and I was gonna handle all the sales.
Since we made that transition, I've had a more distributor-facing role. In the beginning, I'd go to any liquor store down the street, do my thing, and now we've turned the business into something where I'm used as a strategic asset—they're sending me to go meet with the big restaurant group that they didn't have a chance to get into before. It's more of a strategic position. But I still like to go into restaurants and liquor stores. I'm happy to bootstrap because at the end of the day what I love most about this business is the people part.
You've said that your parents taught you to be comfortable everywhere. What does that mean in your professional life and especially your transition into the wine industry?
There's no secret that there's not many people that look like me in the wine business, especially making decisions at a high level. I can't tell you the amount of events I've been to where I'm looking around the room and I'm the only one that looks like me. It's nothing new—I played hockey, which is a sport where not a lot of guys that look like me are doing it.
I was very fortunate in the education that I got in my youth. My parents put me into a private school in New York City—not many kids that looked like me. I was ok feeling uncomfortable—comfortable in being uncomfortable was always the mantra that my parents gave me.
Also with being younger, I'm not walking into a room with all these years of experience. I'm not afraid to ask questions—it's a lot easier to approach this business that way.
You also mentioned that after the murder of George Floyd, you had a wake up call. How does that impact the way that you operate Hampton Water?
When you're looking at our company, you see two white guys and me. There needs to be some sort of understanding that we're doing the right thing at the top level, but we need to make sure we're doing the right thing all the way down. During our interview process, when we're looking at a resume, there's no name at the top of it. We're just looking at credibility. The first interview is a phone call. It isn't face to face, so we don't know anything about the individual's appearance—we're just working on what their merits are, who they are as an individual, and that's what we're looking at.
We've done a lot of work with the Roots Fund, which has been amazing, and really working hard to get the BIPOC community into the wine category. We're working so that [the only person] in the same position of power as I am isn't just Carlton McCoy over at Heitz Cellar. Seeing that representation within the wine industry is something that as a company we always are striving to do
With the Roots Fund, their slogan is, "to nourish and enrich the lives of communities of color in the wine industry." How important is it to have that community in an industry such as wine?
I think it's so important. If you don't have the community, I don't think enough people would want to be a part of it and want to join.
It's not easy. If you feel like you're on an island by yourself, then it's not easy for you to be able to operate as your true self. Having as much representation in the wine industry that we can so that people can feel comfortable, so that they feel like they do have outlets that they can go to if they're in an uncomfortable situation—you need to be able to go to someone that looks like you, that has had the same experience as you and knows where you're coming from. If we don't have that, then no one's really going to feel comfortable breaking into the space and they're going to feel like they're isolated and that they're only working with themselves.
The mentorship program at the Roots Fund is amazing. Not only are you able to have conversations with your mentee and understand where they're coming from, but you're also able to be helpful in getting them jobs, or the job interviews that they're looking to get.
What I also think is amazing is their program where you're able to go work at a winery, work on the vines and be a part of harvest. [It's] giving them access to every single aspect of the wine business, which, to be quite frank, I did not have when I first came in. Being able to equip these individuals with all the skills that they need to take themselves to the next level in the wine business is just unbelievable.