John Kapon, Acker Merrall & Condit interview: 'Work hard and drink hard!'

John Kapon is chief executive officer of Acker Merrall & Condit. The firm is routinely named the "world's leading wine auction house" by major news sources such as Bloomberg.

Earlier this week, John kindly took time out from his busy schedule to share some of his expertise and experiences with Paul Fraser Collectibles.

Below, John discusses his highlights from his years in the fine wine business, his expectations for 2012, and why it's never a good idea to take a glass of 1945 Romanée-Conti into the bathroom…

PFC: How did your background lead to you becoming an expert in fine wines?

John Kapon: My grandfather and father built Acker Merrall & Condit into one of the top retail wine and liquor stores in Manhattan. So fine and rare wine was nothing new to our retail customers. That's apparent if you look back at the retail catalogs they produced many years ago for those customers.



John Kapon is CEO of Acker
Merrall & Condit

I was fortunate in that, from a relatively young age, I became aware of what the world's great wines were and had a chance to taste them when I began working in our store. 

PFC: What makes your company different?

JK: A few things. We only auction fine and rare wines. That's our sole business and expertise, unlike other firms that auction many unrelated collectibles. We are specialists. We are specialists that love wine so that interest, knowledge and passion is communicated to customers.

Also, we have not been held back by tradition, or how things have always been done. That's clear from many of the decisions we made that were far ahead of the industry. Plus we have very high standards in our work and work hard too. We don't rest on our success.

PFC: What is the most valuable lot you have ever auctioned?

JK: In December of 2011 we auctioned a superlot of the ultra rare burgundy, Romanée-Conti, from the vintages 1952 to 2007. It sold for over $813,000 at our Hong Kong auction.

Romanee-Conti is, in my experience, one of the two greatest wines made. So this was both very exciting for me as a wine lover and a moment I am very proud of.

PFC: Which item in your auctions has surprised you the most?

JK: There is no one wine on its own. Maybe what is most surprising, most often, is how the truly great vineyards in the world, let's use Romanee-Conti again as an example, can prove themselves in years or periods of history that are real challenges.

Either the weather was very poor, or wars were underway; meaning people and raw materials during the growing season and harvest were scarce. But seemingly these great vineyards, these great pieces of soil and place, can rise above those real challenges and make wine that is wonderful in spite of all that.

Romanee-Conti is not the only example. But it is one that has accomplished what I described consistently over decades and centuries. I can name many other European vineyards and producers that simply make great wine, no matter what.

PFC: Which fine wine would you most love to add to your own collection?

JK: Great, well stored bottles of 1945 Romanee-Conti would be a start. But there were only a few hundred bottles of that wine made! It's remarkable.

All the great 1945 Bordeaux would follow - Petrus, Mouton, Latour and Haut Brion. And I have had some amazing old champagnes, of which 1966 Krug Blanc de Blancs stands out as recently as New Year's Eve 2011. 

PFC: What is a typical day for you as CEO of Acker, Merrall & Condit?

JK: I focus on what we need to do that very day and in months ahead, so customers want to do more business with us. As often as possible, I talk to our customers about their wine collections and what I can help them with regarding those collections.

Sometimes they want to know what they should consign to our auctions for sale. Often they also want to know what I believe they should bid on at our auctions, since I know those wines so well.

Those are all great conversations, since these are often people I have come to know well and consider friends - friendships built over great places and bottles of wine around the world.


1985 DRC Burgundy Echezeaux Romanee-Conti La Tache DRC assortment

PFC: Do you have any funny stories from your career as a wine expert?

JK: I believe the first time I had 1945 Romanée-Conti. I was in a hotel room in Las Vegas and I went to the bathroom with what remained in my glass. To this day the wine remains the greatest wine I have ever had, a symphony of aromas, flowers, texture and balance.

So I place the glass down on top of the toilet and, after a small delay, it slid right off the toilet and crashed to the floor! I was heartbroken. Thankfully, I got another sip.

PFC: What is your most memorable highlight from your years in the business?

JK: I remember our first ever auction in Manhattan, how much hard work we invested. Nervousness about whether people would show up. Days and nights with little sleep to make the auction happen. It was fun and exciting.

I also remember the first time we went to Hong Kong to hold an auction. The excitement of being in that great city, and knowing we had great wine to offer. Same edginess as NYC. Would anyone show up and bid? We were the pioneers after all.

Well they did show up, and we were off. Though hard work never goes away. If it has you've probably lost your competitive edge.

PFC: What can we look forward to from Acker, Merrill & Condit in 2012?

JK: We are going to continue to work hard and drink hard! And offer the best of the best to collectors worldwide.

I am optimistic about 2012. The macro conditions of increasing global demand for the small number of wines that I consider both great and collectible has not, and is extremely unlikely, to change.

PFC: Finally, what is your best piece of advice for collectors?

JK: Continue to focus on the great wines and producers of Europe and, at least currently, a much shorter list of US wines.

Pay attention to provenance and condition. Buy the best wines from the best vintages, and try to buy by the original case if possible.


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