Jean-Francois Bonnete, founder and president of BCI Bonnete Inc is leading the terroir revolution in the United States.
With nearly two decades of experience building brands, Jean-Francois and his wife and business partner, Nathalie Bonnete, import, represent, market, and build spirits brands that have passion at their core and thrive for excellence, authenticity, and are made by people with an ancestral savoir faire. We ask Jean-Francois about BCI, his business and marketing strategies, and the life lessons pushing him to succeed.
Talk to us about BCI. What inspired you to start the company/portfolio?
BCI is first a love story. When our last daughter was born (our 6th daughter and 7th child) in 2015, Nathalie and I decided it was time to leave our corporate careers to create our own company, as partners, 50/50. I have had the opportunity to build exciting brands for more than 20 years in the United States, starting with Citadelle Gin, Pierre Ferrand Cognac or Plantation Rums when I first managed and developed Maison Ferrand in the United States for ten years. Nathalie, an engineer, and geophysicist had a great international professional journey. We both always shared the same passion for terroir, people with talent, values, and a desire to make a difference. We felt it was the right time for us to start our entrepreneurial journey.
Tell us about the brands in your portfolio, what makes them stand out?
Our choice for our company is to have a small but staggering collection of terroir brands (as it takes a tremendous amount of time and investments to build brands correctly in the United States). We want to partner with brands which first have passionate people at their core, thrive for excellence in their quality and represent an ancestral artisanal savoir faire. We identify categories which we care about and in which we believe we can bring additional value and excitement because of the depth and identity of our brands. We also are huge history buffs so having an opportunity to bring to United States consumers historical iconic brands from different regions of the world and participate to build or rebuild categories that were once thriving or new in this country (like Dutch Genevers pre-prohibition or Rhum Agricole, Calvados or Armagnac) is a lot of fun.
In the vermouth and bitters category, we are privileged to represent Suze (the iconic French gentian aperitif dating back to 1889), Boomsma Cloosterbitter (the Dutch herbal Bitter which recipe was developed by Cistercian monks in the early 1400s), La Quintinye Vermouth (made in Cognac by Jean-Sebastien Robicquet from Maison Villevert—our “Rouge” Vermouth was awarded the Chairman’s Trophy at the 2016 annual Ultimate Spirits Challenge) and Azaline Vermouth (a new fantastic artisanal Vermouth elaborated by Gabriel Boudier in Dijon based on Burgundian Pinot noir).
We offer an exciting collection of brandies starting with Coquerel Calvados (owned and operated by third generation Pierre Martin Neuhaus), Marquis de Montesquiou Armagnac (recently acquired by Alexander Stein, the creator of Monkey 47 Gin), Coutanseaux Cognac (Maison owned by the Frerejean-Taittinger and Dassault families we will re-introduce in the United States in 2023) and Aqua & Lucien Bernard Brandies (elaborated by the eponym Bernard family in Bordeaux).
In the gin and Dutch genevers segment we are proud to propose the eponym line of artisanal Dutch Genevers from the Boomsma family, Normindia Gin (crafted by Pierre Martin Neuhaus at the Domaine du Coquerel in Normandy), Gabriel Boudier Saffron Gin (from the eponym Maison in Burgundy) and G’Vine (made from grapes in Cognac by Maison Villevert). We are proud to represent and have launched in the United States the iconic Trois Rivieres Rhum Agricole AOC de la Martinique as well as the collection of New Grove Rums (crafted by the Harel family in Mauritius). We also proudly foster the amazing collection of Gabriel Boudier Liqueurs, Excellia Tequila or Ostoya IGP Polish Vodka.
In addition to our beautiful collection of Terroir Spirits, we also wanted with Nathalie to develop our own lines of French wines, going back to our roots. We started with the launch of a great collection called “Libération de Paris” (in partnership with our friends Catherine & Laurent Delaunay, owners of Badet Clément) as well as our own line of “Bonneté” wines from the region of Bordeaux where I grew up. We also started importing and representing the exclusive Premier & Grand Crus wines from Champagne of the Maison Frerejean Freres (created by Rodolphe, Guillaume and Richard Frerejean-Taittinger) that we are strategically launching in selected states and targeted accounts in the United States.
What is important for bartenders to know about the brands in your portfolio?
First is when they try any brands from our BCI collection, they need to know that they will be presented with a product of the highest quality made by passionate people with an exceptional savoir faire. I am personally a big fan of the “Pepsi Challenge” method as there is nothing more compelling than a side-by-side blind tasting. I always encourage bartenders to do so with our collection.
We are privileged to be presented many brands every month for our consideration. When a brand is of potential interest, we first gather as much information as possible regarding the company, the brand, and the category. We speak and meet with the people behind the brand. We then share all those learnings with a panel of friends and industry leaders as well as conduct blind tastings (as this is for us the best way) to gather feedbacks and learn from those discussions. So, when a family and a brand become part of our BCI family, this is a result of a thorough process.
We understand you hit many obstacles when starting BCI—tell us about adversity strengthening your business model/success story.
Life is a journey.
Both Nathalie and I have always had to fight for everything we have built in our lives, nothing was handed to us. We knew obstacles and daring challenges come with the territory once you decide to start your entrepreneurial journey maybe even more when you decide to do it as a couple, investing your own resources and by both jumping in 100% from day one.
The last few years have not disappointed from losing our home, office and everything we had during hurricane Harvey in 2017 (as we are Houston based) and the all the trauma and consequences that hit your family afterwards, to going through Covid (for a company which had just launched its importing activity and whose business is largely generated from On Premise with Super Premium artisanal terroir brands), to managing structural changes such as the episodes of dramatic increases in federal taxes on French wines and spirits for instance; in addition to all the daily “regular” challenges you always face when building a company.
Our ability to always quickly adjust and adapt was constantly put to test. Saying that at some moments, like when we ended up with our seven children downtown Houston without a home during Harvey, were not difficult would be a lie. But we always made a point to remain positive and appreciative of our blessings starting with the love of each other as a family, doing our best to preserve the health of our children and always having faith.
I have learned that resilience is the main trait allowing you to deliver on your objectives in life. You also always need to look at yourself in a pragmatic way, take responsibility, keep learning and moving forward because everything is possible and nothing of substance will ever come easy.
As it was once said, what does not kill you makes you stronger! That’s what those last years have done to us, both as a business and as a human being, we are much stronger now than we were two years ago or when we started.
Talk to us about BCI’s Brand Building Philosophy/Objectives.
Our first goal at BCI is to partner with people who have a passion and exceptional savoir faire for terroir wines and Spirits. We have therefore crafted a collection made from a handful of brands to import and represent in the United States. I always say BCI is not an “épicerie” (French word for grocery store) meaning we do not want to pile up hundreds or thousands of SKUs, sell a little bit of each here and there just to keep the lights on. We purposedly focus on very few brands to be able to build them strategically and for the long run.
As I mentioned earlier, it takes a tremendous amount of time to build brands correctly and intelligently for the long term in this market. As we always say “Rome was not built in a day” so the first aspect we share with our supplier partners is not to expect things to be built overnight. For us, the priority is to build very strong foundations for our brands, based on their identity and category, generating growth based on organic velocity in targeted accounts sharing the authenticity and the savoir faire behind our brands with bartenders across the United States. It is our passion. It is the same philosophy as haute couture versus ready to wear. True brand building is not a sprint, it is a marathon.
Talk to us about becoming a leading importer of Terroir Spirits and Wines. What does this mean?
We believe that more and more United States consumers are looking (and will keep looking in the future) for artisanal spirits and wines with authenticity, roots, heritage made by people who care, with an ancestral savoir faire. Our passion and “raison d’etre” at BCI is to partner with such brands and then connect them with this growing base of consumers. To do so we work hand in hand with our distribution and on and off premise accounts’ partners. Our goal is to keep assembling as much talent as possible within BCI to lead this revolution from an importer standpoint.
Anything new and next for BCI you’d like to discuss?
We indeed will share some exciting news coming up in 2023: first with the unveiling of new blends and designs for some of our current brands, a couple of iconic ancestral brands joining our collection or the launch of a very exciting project we have been working on for the last couple of years where we are partnering with exciting leading people in their fields of expertise. The journey continues.