Passion and Portraits John Kapon, President of Acker Wines-Part One
Interview by Simone FM Spinner
Photos by Christopher J Davies
John Kapon is a singular figure in the world of fine wine as the scion behind the illustrious Acker Wine Store & Auction. Down-to-earth and fun-loving, Kapon is an all-American boy at heart. He is devoted to his family and business, but the lure to dip into his creative side entices his attention.
Managing the machinations of a global wine retail and auction empire with deft perception into the consumer's mind came quickly to Kapon after joining his family in the wine business in the 1990s. The original Merrall & Condit Wines store opened its doors as a grocery and package delivery service in 1820 and was one of the first stores in the United States to sell the notorious "Champagne Charlie" Heidsieck Champagne along with Portuguese Madeira and Port, Spanish Sherry, and French Claret.
John Kapon's grandfather joined the Merrall & Condit team in the 1950s and soon took the reins of the business, christening it Acker, Merrall & Condit. John Kapon grew up immersed in a world that included the greatest wines and winemakers in the world. Though he dabbled in the family business, his muse was music. He flexed his musical understanding as a New York City hip-hop producer. At the tender age of 22 (or 23), his lineup had a giant entourage along with a Columbia record deal, but instinctively he turned it all down. Leaving that record deal and posse behind, Kapon joined his family wine shop.
He found working in his family wine store a welcome respite from the tumultuous music scene. He embraced wine and the in-store tastings gave him a front-row view into the grapes, expressions, and regions of the world's best wines. Kapon quickly fell in love with wine, channeled his natural creativity into crafting adventurous, often bawdy tasting notes and informative wine-centric articles, and authored The Compendium: Tasting the World's Finest Wines Vol. One.
In between musings, Kapon founded the Acker auction house in 1998 and launched an auction in Hong Kong in 2008. Twenty-four years later, under John Kapon's leadership, Acker has become one of the planet's most influential wine retail and boutique wine auction houses.
After nearly five decades of navigating the bustling streets of New York City, Kapon and his family enjoy the serenity found on the sun-soaked beaches of Puerto Rico. Speaking today by telephone from the Hamptons, John shared his philosophy on a life well lived and his insights into the tremendous success of his family’s business.
Passion and Portraits John Kapon, President of Acker Wines-Part Two A Candid Interview
Interview by Simone FM Spinner
Photos by Christopher J Davies
How are you?
Where in the world are you today?
“I am in the Hamptons, but I moved to Puerto Rico six years ago. It was a vacation spot for a long time, and it was time for a change. After 44 years in New York, I was getting worn down by the city. I was doing dinners there, business with a friend, and there are tax incentives for living there.”
“It is a great lifestyle. I love being there because of the water, sun, and wind; it is a restorative place.”
What was your childhood dream job?
“I didn’t have a real dream job. I was into music, on the producer and business side. I have an artistic side. I enjoy creative writing and writing tasting notes that are less dry and more colorful, sometimes a little raunchy.”
What is your favorite everyday drinker?
“Burgundy, hands down.”
What aspirational wine do you dream of trying?
“I have been very blessed to have most of the world’s greatest wines over the past 25 years, so I cannot say there is one in particular. I will say old and rare things are the most exciting when good, pre-1961.”
What is your sport of choice to participate in?
“I bike for exercise, and I enjoy tennis but need to do more often, and I play soccer with my 8-year-old Marshall.”
What is your favorite spectator sport?
“American football! I am a bit of a football junkie. Basketball next.”
Dogs or cats?
“Cats – have three. Dogs are too needy – four kids are enough, lol!”
What is one thing you would never part with?
“My wife 😊” John quipped, with an evident smile.
What is your favorite tradition or holiday?
“I always loved Thanksgiving the best – the big meal with family, football, and fine wine. Three of my favorite things.”
No celebration is complete without….?
“You’re kidding, right? WINE!!!”
What would you want to do if you weren’t doing what you do now?
“I still feel the creative urges of music in my bones.”
What is your favorite way to spend 24 hours?
“Wake up late, close some deals, workout, talk/play with the family, have a great dinner with great wine and people, repeat.”
Who do you admire and why?
“I admire all successful businesspeople. It is a very competitive world, and it takes a lot of hard work to build something successful.” Acker is America’s oldest and one of its most successful wine retailers and auction houses. You have pushed Acker into the stratosphere.
What makes Acker successful?
“When the pandemic first hit in March 2020, the next two auctions were planned for April. We pivoted online right away. It was an easy transition. Our last live auction was in March. We launched digitally in Delaware and then went wide.” “We had the infrastructure in place to move online. They were successful, business as usual. More active, even. People were at home and drinking more and ordering more.”
As a parent of four children, what do you think is your legacy for them? Will you encourage them to follow in your footsteps?
“I have two adult kids in college and two younger children at home. My eldest son, a real estate and wine graduate student, has a strong interest in the (family) business…. He “has a nose for sales, service, and the customers.”
“My daughter attends George Washington University, where she is pursuing a degree in psychology. She works at the shop part-time and during the holidays and summer.”
Acker thrived during the pandemic, do you think your weekly online auctions will continue to grow now that people are leaving their houses to shop and dine?
“We have a weekly live auction now, but we still have nine to ten major in-person auctions in the U.S., and some private pre-bidding parties. We host groups of people in rooms to bid during the auctions, not always but more frequently now….Yes, the online auction is continuing. Bidding absentee can be very appealing. People can bid anywhere, anytime, they like that.”
How did you and Acker pioneer the Asian wine market?
“I visited Hong Kong* during the summer of 2007 and liked the energy, size, and scope of the city. It’s English friendly and business there is rapidly growing. We opened our auction in 2008. Since May 2008, we average six to seven auctions each year in Hong Kong. When we started, there was an 80% tax on wine! It went down to 40%, and then in a matter of months, it was zero. If wine is stored in a bond system (free-port storage facility), the tax is only paid when the wine is consumed.”
“Launched, May 2008, the first auction was only 20% sold. I was getting worried because typically auctions are 80% presold with anonymous bidders. We just didn’t know what to expect and expected it to be a failure.”
“Then, 300 people showed up to bid in person, live. They like the action. The auction ran three hours longer than expected because there was so much action. It was exciting. It was fun to watch that enthusiasm. There were little battles, it was getting raucous, with some people getting more attention than others and buying a lot.”
There is a growing focus on wine as an alternative asset to hedge against inflation, and recession, and to outpace the equities market; is wine a great alternative investment strategy?
“Wine is a great investment, without question. In the context of the last 40 years, wine is one of the greatest investments, period. Historically. The indices are up 43% in the last two years alone. The most frequently traded and collected fine and rare wines are in the secondary market.”
Do you find many people investing in wine strictly as an alternative asset, never to be consumed?
“Most collectors like wine, but few use it as a passionless investment. Most collectors have a passion for wine and like to collect it and watch it grow in value.”
New wine investment firms are popping up in the USA and internationally, claiming double-digit returns. What do you think? What are the risks?
“I’ve heard of them, but I haven’t researched their models–what they buy, where they buy, how they buy (the wines)”
John is concerned about the viability and reality of investment funds. “Where is the wine, who has the wine, who picks the wine?”
The skeptic in John advises that “It is important to be careful with any investment. The safest way to invest in wine or anything, is to buy it and have it under your control.”
With the recent press around several fraud cases involving wine investment funds, he may be right. Investment funds might be a good way to go but vetting and researching the firm in great detail is critical in protecting your assets.
What wines are investment-worthy?
“Burgundy! It’s all about the Burgundy right now. It is dominating the market. It is the most desirable and collectible wine category. It has seen a 55% increase in overall dollars…. Bordeaux is still an icon but it is at 20% (market share) now: it goes back to Thomas Jefferson and Haut Brion, who made Bordeaux big.”
“California is 10% now with Champagne, the Rhone, and Italy about 5% of the wine collecting matrix.” That leaves just 10%of the market share for the rest of the wine world including Spain, Portugal, Chile, and Australia.
What about Champagne?
“With Champagne, go for the collectibles. Global distribution for these brands is enormous if you think about it…between restaurants and hotels and shops. It goes quick.”
“My favorites are Krug and Salon. Taittinger, Pol Roger Winston Churchill, Bollinger, and Champagne Louis Roederer Cristal is still good too. Jacques Selosse is a grower superstar, his (Millesime Champagne) wines are great.
“Vintage Champagnes are taken for granted and are great values. Seek them out. Boutique producers are showing gains, but they are tiny production. Look there.”
What wines and wine regions are trending in 2022 and into 2023?
“In real estate, it is all about location, location, location. In wine, it is producer, producer, producer. Icon wines are iconic because of the producers and the wines they produce.”
“2022 and 2023 are about Burgundy. That is the trend. Burgundy is the most important commodity in wine. The big names are Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Domaine Dujac, Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair, Domaine Jean Fournier, and Domaine Roulot for Meursault, amongst other iconic Burgundian producers. It’s about supply and demand.”
Kapon continues that in Burgundy, “Premier Crus offer a real value.” The wines are often produced from the same or adjacent vineyards as the Grand Crus, but little variations nick these wines down one rung on the ladder.
Think magical dinner party: if you could invite six people living or dead to a dinner party, who would they be, where would it be, and what cuisine and wine would be on the table?
“There are some very good friends I drink with more often than others. They know who they are. Food is so dynamic; it is great to try new expressions and new experiences, so anything heralded is just fine. Burgundy is usually the beverage of choice, but 1961 and older Bordeaux is always exciting, but a 1945 tasting from wines all over the world would be one of the best. I hope that heaven will have a great dinner every night with different friends and the best of wines over and over and over again!”