JOE MANTEGNA HAS BEEN AT THE ACTING GAME FOR A LONG TIME. He started his career in the theater back in the late 1960s and is most well-known to film and TV buffs as Joey Zasa in Godfather III, the voice of Fat Tony in The Simpsons, Dean Martin in The Rat Pack and since 2007, as FBI Supervisory Special Agent David Rossi in Criminal Minds. But when it comes to the tequila business, Joe is a newcomer—and a passionate and knowledgeable one at that.
Earlier this year, Joe became co-owner of Señor Rio, a brand of small batch tequila that got its start in Gilbert, Ariz., in 2009. Founded by Debbie Medina Gach and her husband Jonathan, Señor Rio was named after Debbie’s father, who developed the tequila in Mexico. When Jonathan passed away a few years ago, Debbie ran the company alone—until Joe came along. We sat down with Joe at a studio in Long Beach, Calif., to ask him about his new co-ownership of Señor Rio, his work on Criminal Minds, and his life-long dedication to charitable causes.
Cigar & Spirits Magazine: So, you are a partner in Señor Rio tequila now. How did you and co-owner Debbie Medina Gach come to work together?
Joe Mantegna: Actually, through a mutual friend. A fellow named Jack Maxwell from the show Booze Traveler. It was on a few years ago on The Food Channel, I believe, and he would travel around the world. He met Debbie through that because she was in the tequila business. He then ran into her again some years later and she happened to confide in him that she had been through some things. Her father had passed away, her husband had passed away, and she’s now running this tequila business 100 percent on her own. And that she was basically looking for a partner, maybe somebody in show business, somebody who would embrace it, understand it and understand her situation. Jack in his kindness and wisdom thought of me. When I met with her, she almost had me at, “Hello.” I wasn’t looking for this kind of a thing. I have a day job and a good one, but her story and what she was about and her situation, and then the quality of the product. I’m at that point in my life where I’m not looking to be chasing criminals all my life on Criminal Minds.
I thought in every respect, it was a good fit. And this is a woman who was trying to do something for special-needs children on top of it. I said, “You know what Debbie, let’s do this. Let’s give it a whirl.” I’ve been involved just for a short period of time—months now—and it’s been great. I really enjoy everything about it, and I’m very proud of it. I’m going to do my best to be a strong ambassador for this brand.
Where you a tequila drinker before?
I always liked tequila. I’m not a big fan of mixed drinks. I like something just to sip, as opposed to a brandy or a scotch or a whisky. I like tequila because you get a euphoria with it. There’s something somehow psychedelic about it. Especially if you do it straight and you don’t mix it with sugar and this and that. In our tequila, there’s no additives or anything. Not that you’re drinking copious amounts, but you’re drinking enough to be social, and you don’t have to worry. You don’t feel like the next morning you’re going to be like, “Oh, what did I drink last night?” You don’t feel that because it’s pure.
It’s good stuff. Yes, the essence of the agave. It’s a whole different thing. It’s just a different ball game than you have with a lot of other spirits. That’s my thing. I’m a wine drinker but when I’m willing to drink something like a spirit, yes, it’s going to be a tequila. So, to finally be part of a company that I think makes a premium brand, a really quality product, to me was a no-brainer. It was serendipitous.
I just had a taste. It went down smooth.
We’ve got different varieties. There’s the Blanco. There’s the Reposado. There’s the Anejo. I tend to go between the Reposado and the Anejo, but then my wife loves the Blanco. I love to see their faces when they try it, even people who aren’t tequila drinkers. They’ll try it and they’ll say, “Oh, man. I didn’t expect this.” Then tequila drinkers will say, “Well, yes. This is really a quality tequila,” which is what you want. That’s what you’re looking for.
Do you like the Café Elegancia? The coffee liqueur?
I love it.
I’m dying to try it.
Anybody who buys a bottle of Señor Rio tequila will also want to buy a bottle of this. The price point is incredible. We’re talking about $20. It makes Kahlua seem like Pepsi Cola. The first thing that hits you is that incredible coffee flavor, then the aftertaste. You get that tequila undertaste after a few seconds, which is unique.
You don’t usually get that with the liqueurs, a cordial.
It’s like the best of both of those worlds. It’s great as an after-dinner thing. I’ve even poured it over ice cream. I think it’s spectacular. I mean, to me, it’s one of the real highlights of the company is that particular product. I’m convinced if you try both, you’ll walk away with a bottle of each. The tequila of your choice, and then a bottle of the Elegancia as a dessert wine or to put in your coffee in the morning.
Debbie recommended it with almond milk over ice.
Yes. You can do that. That’s right. She even has a few recipes. She has a few names for different things she’s created. I can see that it’s endless what you can do with it. When you try it, you let me know, because every single person who’s ever tried it looks at me and goes, “Oh my, oh my goodness. I could get in a lot of trouble.” [chuckles]
It sounds like something you can just keep drinking.
It’s only 18% alcohol. But a lot of people say, “I’m not a tequila drinker,” but they drink this, it’s like “wow.”
So, what do you think sets Señor Rio apart from all the other tequilas out there?
At end of the day, people are going to go by taste. If they like something, they like it. If they don’t like it, they don’t like it, they move on to something else.
It’s a premium brand of tequila. I think the taste of all three varieties speak for themselves. Plus, we have a double barrel Anejo that’s almost like the next step up and then a special Anejo version—we offer a little variety. At the end of the day, for me, it’s a combination of these things.
One of the big factors is that Debbie and I have a very strong association with special-needs children and families. I’ve had a special-needs daughter for 36 years. Debbie has a couple of grandchildren who are special-needs, so we both have been part of that community. I’ve been part of that community for the majority of my life, as has she. We donate a portion of our sales to a the We Care Crusade, a special-needs foundation. To me that’s important. As the business hopefully thrives, a portion of this is going to a good place.
How did you and Debbie get involved with We Care Crusade?
Is it something that you guys created for this? Well, the We Care Crusade is something Debbie had already created. Now I have the Mantegna Family Foundation. It’s a similar kind of a thing. We work in conjunction.
It’s just been a few months, right?
Yes, just a few months with the two of us. We’re not at the Jerry Lewis Telethon stage yet, but who knows? [laughter]
You’ve been involved with philanthropic ventures for a long time. Can you tell me about the Mantegna Family Foundation?
That’s actually fairly new. For a long time, especially since my daughter was diagnosed with autism like 35 years ago, I’ve lent my name and support to all kinds of different groups, organizations and functions. In fact, Easterseals Chicago has an incredible autism school there, and they were very sweet to honor me just a couple nights ago because of that. Now it’s gotten to the point where I’m often doing certain things where I’m an MC of this or a representative of that.
I figured, you know what, we’ll start this foundation because now we’re starting to do bigger events. I can easily give all the profits of something like that to different charitable organizations. Now at least I know exactly what’s going where.
You’re intimately involved with that process, making the decisions?
Yes, I am. Me, my wife and my daughter are the foundation. The Mantegna Family Foundation and that’s it. There are no other officers.
The direction’s going to a be a little different. Partly because I think special-needs adults don’t get as much attention as the children. As a parent of a daughter who is 36 years old, I’m well aware of it. I have the wherewithal to take care of her and to provide for her. I look at these other families. Yes, when they’re little babies and little children, there’s all these kinds of programs and things, and they go to school. They have the IEPs where they go to. Regional centers help them in this, that. Almost in many instances, you start reaching, you get a lot of high school age, and it’s like, “Well, that’s it. Good luck.”
I’d never thought of that.
Those people don’t go away.
They still need help.
They need help and they’re going to be adults a lot longer than they were kids. Now what do you do? Where do they live? Because they’re getting older, they’re not going to maybe have the same family support group. They’re going to lose their parents. What’s going to happen? All you got to do is walk on the streets of Los Angeles or any major city. You think all those homeless people are just people who are out of work? So many of them are actually special-needs individuals that just have nowhere else to go because they aged out. So that’s a factor.
Let’s switch to Criminal Minds. Why do you think the revival of the show has been such a big hit?
Well, I think in some ways some of the restraints were off in a sense. With network television, there are certain restraints you have. First of all, there’s a time restraint. You have 44 minutes to tell the story because you have commercials. With streaming we don’t, so we’re able to tell an hour’s worth of story.
Second of all, you have none of the FCC restraints, meaning language. Things like that I understand when you’ve got just a regular television that anybody can flip the channel to. But if you’re paying for something else, you’re making that choice. We’re able to then tell the story with a lot more realism. Let’s face it, sometimes people use different words that you might not hear on network television. Especially with my character, they figured Rossi, every once in a while, might lose it and might say something.
[laughs] Let one fly.
You might let one fly. You can’t do that on CBS, but you certainly can do it on Paramount Plus. I think the show has matured. It’s a little deeper, has more of an edge. It’s darker, a little edgier. I think we’ve upped it. I think the responses we get have been that way, too. It’s like, “Oh my, you guys.” We’re also able to tell the story in a little bit more linear vein. Rather than just taking these single episodes and telling the beginning, middle and end. You can stay on the story, which we did over the last season. It blends through 10 different episodes.
Do you have any other projects coming up?
Well, I’ve got a few things in the hopper. I’ve been on a show called Gun Stories. We’ve been doing it on the Outlaw channel for 13 years now. It’s not as ominous as it sounds. What we do is we trace historical firearms, a lot of history. That’s cool. We’re working on a few other different projects. That’s the excitement of my business. I didn’t know when I got that phone call from Criminal Minds that I was going to go do that for the next 15 years. I could get a call on Monday that on Tuesday changes your whole life. Right now, we’re in the middle of the actors strike. When the strike is over, I go back on Criminal Minds, which I’m happy to do. I love the people.
I’m pretty busy now. My goal is to just try to build this company up as big as we can for Debbie and me. I’m not the youngest guy in the room. I want to use whatever time and energy I got left to just have a good time and move forward.