Duyen Ha journeyed from tech to the kitchen to culinary school to founding the only American wine brand to exclusively bottle in magnum sizes.
“Growing up my Vietnamese roots inspired my love for cooking,” she says. “In my mid-twenties, I left a great tech job at Google to test the waters – I worked as an oyster shucker for six months at Marlow & Sons.”
It was there, at that hip Brooklyn restaurant, that Ha discovered two things: French natural wines and falling in love with the restaurant life. “That’s when the idea of starting a wine company first popped into my mind,” she says.
But the lure of all things culinary led her to pack her bags to head to Paris, where she attended Ferrandi, one of Europe’s top culinary schools. After graduating, she worked first at Arpège in Paris, then Mirazur, in Menton, France, then moved onto Frenchie in Paris, where she worked her way up to sous chef.
“The truth is, culinary school is not for everyone,” she says. “The sexy side of cooking quickly vanishes. It takes a lot of grit and resilience to work 15-hour days, sleep deprived, sweating through chef whites, (going back day after day) to work harder and get better.”
Still, Ha says she loved working in kitchens, and she especially fell in love with wine. “Nonetheless, while working in some of France’s most prestigious restaurants as a Michelin-starred chef-in-training, I witnessed the incredible power of food and wine to build relationships, enhance communal experiences and extend the enjoyment of life’s most precious conversations and celebrations,” she says.
Ha says Frenchie’s sommelier, Virginie Bonnet, was especially influential on her, and during her time in Paris, she kept getting drawn back to that idea to start a wine company.
“At the time COVID hit, I had so many connections, and the timing just felt so right for me to pursue my goal of starting a wine business,” Ha says.
In November 2020, she began working on her idea, and then by December 2021, she and her business partner Mehdi Samraoui launched BONDLE. “I ultimately settled on a wine brand that would specialize in selling natural French wines in a the magnum format of 1.5 liters,” she says. “As implied by the name, BONDLE is centered around bringing people together to celebrate with generous magnum wines.”
BONDLE is a direct-to-consumer business that sells French natural wines, starting at $110, to consumers in 30 different states. The company had originally planned to launch in June 2021, but was delayed by supply chain issues and other challenges, but after the initial launch last December, they now have their second collection, and they’ve expanded their customer base.
“Mehdi and I started calling wineries with an initial pitch in fall 2020, as we had complied a list of about 20 winemakers,” she says. “We set about visiting them when COVID restrictions were especially strict. There was a curfew in France so we could not drive past 6 p.m., as they would close the roads. We had to be extremely cautious.”
Then, in April 2021, she was called back to work at Frenchie so she worked her “crazy chef hours while juggling BONDLE.” But after leaving Frenchie by the end of June, she focused on her business. “The year leading to the launch was one of the toughest yet also the most exhilarating time,” she says. “But now, we’re in a good place, and customers love our wines. I would say that our number one focus is building and maintaining a sustainable business.”
The brand, she says, focuses on artisan winemakers, and its biggest seller is its champagne. “It’s the only wine from our first collection due to its incredible popularity,” she says. “I was at Bar Martin, celebrating my new job offer at Frenchie, and the wine list was really long, but we ultimately decided n a champagne, and I fell in love wit hit. I took note of the bottle, and (now), we are the exclusive importer of this wine in the U.S. They are female-owned, which is amazing, and they only make two thousand of that cuvée each year so this was a really special opportunity for us.”
Their red and orange wines are also two of Ha’s favorites. “The red wine is unique in that it comes from ungrafted vines, which make up a minority of the world’s vines, and to wine nerds, they’re pretty mind-blowing because it’s difficult to do yet result in superior flavor.
“Our orange wine is made from an extremely rare and difficult grape variety, Carignan Blanc, which very few in the UJ.S. have had the opportunity to try.”
Magnums, she says, appeals to people who are extraverted and who like to try new things and aren’t afraid to try new things. “It’s really become a no-brainer that if people knew about magnums ,they would order them a lot more,” Ha says. “A good friend brings two bottles of wine, and a great friend brings a magnum. I think it can and should become commonplace to bring a magnum to a party instead of two bottles.”
Consumers, she says, are embracing the wine, especially chefs. “BONDLE perfectly encapsulates hat chefs are trying to do, which is to create the best dining experience possible,” she says. “Many of BONDLE’s biggest fans are in the hospitality industry.”
One such big fan had been attending Art Basel in Miami, and the line at the bar was really long. “He happened to live around the corner so he ran back to his apartment and fetched two magnums of our champagne,” Ha says. “In the middle of the art fair, he popped the bottles, and poured champagne for everyone in the vicinity who was also tired of waiting in line. People were going crazy, and it was hilarious to see a guy slinging magnum champagne for random people.”