Monday, September 01, 2008
Their tasting notes would make Robert Parker blush, their thirst would choke a camel, and their pinkies—and noses—are decidedly not in the air. Glass of 1914 Pol Roger, anyone?
Big Boy is standing in the middle of the dining room at Manhattan's three-star Cru restaurant, waving a saber, demanding that everyone shut up and pay attention. It's not easy to shut this crowd up—they've been drinking really expensive wine for four hours, and the adrenaline of big spending is in the air. But Big Boy, aka Rob Rosania, is more than capable of shouting down a roomful of buzzed alpha males. It's his party, and his magnum is bigger than anyone else's magnum. He didn't build a billion-dollar real estate empire by acting like a pussy. Signature sunglasses planted in his curly, dark mane, he's wearing a natty blue Kiton windowpane sports jacket over an open white shirt showing plenty of chest hair, and while he doesn't actually pound his chest, he often gives the impression he's about to. He's in the process of selling off $5 million worth of his wine cellar to the assembled company—plus a few absentee bidders—and even though there are 40 or 50 more lots to go, he wants to celebrate.
After commanding the attention of the room, Rosania hoists a jeroboam of 1945 Bollinger for all to see. Then he lowers the enormous bottle and props it at a 45-degree angle as he prepares to saber it—the most dramatic and traditional method of opening Champagne, certainly no less than a $10,000 bottle deserves, and one that Rosania has perfected in the several years he's been collecting. For some reason this particular jero (11 more are in the auction) is not cooperating, and it takes Big Boy a few whacks to decapitate it, but no matter. A cheer goes up as the top of the bottle goes flying, and within minutes we're all drinking Bollinger made from grapes that were hanging on their vines when the allies stormed Omaha Beach.
"Shut the fuck up, and let's finish this," says John Kapon, standing a few feet above the crowd, pounding his gavel on the podium like a judge addressing an unruly courtroom. Kapon is the 36-year-old president of Acker Merrall & Condit, which bills itself as America's oldest wine store and has, under his watch, become the world's leading vendor of fine wine at auction. It's not often that you hear an auctioneer address a roomful of well-heeled bidders this way—it's hard to imagine Sotheby's urbane, British-born Jamie Ritchie going so—but Kapon knows most of the 70 men in the room personally, and the very few women in attendance are accustomed to the high-testosterone world of competitive oenophilia.
The assembled company includes some of the most serious wine collectors on the planet, some of whome have flown in from Europe and the West Coast for this particular auction. None of them remind me of Frasier Crane. Raised pinkies and foppish horticultural analogies have been in short supply all night. Kapon tends to cheerfully mispronounce certain French names; "rock 'n' roll" and "T and A" are among his highest vinous accolades.
The L.A.-based film and television director and philanthropist Jefery Levy is in the process of dropping about $400,000 on vintage Champagne and Burgundy, including a case of '62 Rousseau Chambertin Clos de Bèze for $80,000. Levy has a distinctly Goth look: He's in his customary head-to-toe black, from his shades, formerly owned by Elvis, to his bespoke British crocodile shoes, and when he really wants an auction lot he helps his paddle in the air until Kapon tells him he's bidding against himself. Also in from L.A. is 32-year-old Rudy Kurniawan, who vies with Rosania for the title of MDC (Man with the Deepest Cellar), and is alleged to spend more than a million dollars a month on wine. Kurniawan is from a fabulously wealthy Chinese family, although his father gave him an Indonesian name to protect his privacy. He is widely believed to have had a major impact on the escalating prices of the fine wine market in the last five years, and the Rosania auction includes some of the Rudy's overstock, bottles of Rousseau and Romanée-Conti that would constitute the crown jewels of absolutely anyone else's collection.
While these kinds of multimillion-dollar auctions happen every other week in New York, what made this one—which went down in late April—unusual was the preponderance of old Champagne, a category that was a backwater in the fine wine market until Rosania began collecting it with a vengeance a few years ago after tasting a bottle of 1937 Krug he bought as part of a mixed-case lot. The auction's climax came early on, when two bottles of 1959 Dom Pérignon Rosé—the never commercially released debut vintage—provoked a telephone duel between two European bidders and quickly escalated from the opening price of $6,000. When Kapon slammed his hammer down three minutes and $64,000 later, a new record had been set for Champagne. With the buyer's premium tacked on to the $70,000 hammer price, someone had just paid $85,000 for two 49-year-old bottles of pink bubbly that very few people besides Rosania had ever tasted. The room erupted in cheers and applause. Bear Stearns had collapsed the month before, and the subprime crisis was claiming victims as the dollar continued its precipitous slide, but this and several other spring auctions proved that the market for fine vintage wine remained buoyant.
The celebration lasted till well after two. The exhausted Kapon slipped away. More wine was ordered form Cru's encyclopedic list. Wine director Robert Bohr glided around the room like Jeeves, serenely presiding over the chaos. It had been five hours since we'd finished a three-course meal from chef Shea Gallante, so Big Boy ordered six dozen hot dogs from his favorite East Village stand and six pizzas from Lil' Frankie's, all washed down with an $850 1990 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle.
A few years ago, I started receiving e-mails detailing bacchanalian gatherings with elaborate tasting notes about wines that most of us could only dream about, sometimes dozens of them: '59 Krugs and '45 Romanée-Contis. It was the wine porn spam, which had somehow eluded my filter. The notes were studded with references to Big Boy and King Angry and Hollywood Jef. Who the hell were these guys, I wondered, and why were they drinking so much better than me? The author of the e-mails, I finally learned, was Kapon himself. His fellow Dionysians were members of his tasting group, the Angry Men, which included Rosania, among others. (When I eventually ask why they're called the Angry Men, Kapon shrugs and says "We're New York guys and we don't tolerate bullshit. We're all busting balls and cracking on each other.")
When Kapon joined the business in 1994 after a brief foray into the music business, Acker—established in 1820—was a somewhat sleepy operation doing $4,000,000 a year. (Kapon's father and grandfather had also worked for Acker.) Sotheby's and Christies pretty much had the fine wine auction market to themselves. Like most wine geeks of his generation, Kapon's first love was California Cabernet. The Napa Valley was undergoing a renaissance in the nineties, and the big, ripe, voluptuous, fruit-driven Cabs were east to love, the vinous equivalent of Seinfeld-era Teri Hatcher ("They're real and they're spectacular.") So-called cult Cabernets—small production super-extracted wines like Harlan, Colgin, and Bryant Family—were garnering wines 100-point scores from uber-critic Robert Parker and selling for as much as First Growth Bordeaux. (Rosania and Kurniawan also cut their teeth on Napa Cabs—Kurniawan's epiphany wine was a 1995 Opus One Cabernet.) For many serious collectors, these Cabs are the gateway drug that leads them to the hard-core-addictive stuff—first Bordeaux, the motherland of Cabernet Sauvignon, which provided the inspiration for Napa, and then on to the Secret Kingdom that is Burgundy. Like most true geeks, Kapon and his inner circle are Burgundy nuts; at the Rosania auction several people booed when he announced the Bordeaux portion of the sale.
In 1997, Acker sponsored an auction with Phillips de Pury. It and several subsequent auctions, according to Kapon, were a disaster. But he persisted, even as his taste began to shift toward older wines. Sometime in late 2000 or early 2001, Rosania walked into the store on West Seventy-second Street. Neither Kapon nor Rosania can remember the moment exactly, but their meeting would eventually prove to be a milestone in the world of fine wine. Both were around 30. Rosania was a partner in a real estate investment firm, a self-made mogul who was ready to spend some of his growing fortune.
Largely by cultivating young collectors like Rosania and Kurniawan, Kapon has made Acker the leading vendor of fine wines in America, selling more than $60 million a year at auction in the past two years. "John has worked at it," says Peter Meltzer, author of Keys to the Cellar, who covers the auction scene for Wine Spectator. "I'm very impressed with him. He's really out there. The traditional houses have not been as aggressive. And he really knows what he's doing. He's learned empirically. He will be able to tell you the best vintage of La Tâche tasted in the last five years."
Kapon can talk trash as well as the next Angry Man, but he's a serious taster who, at this point, has probably sampled—and written about—more rare old wines than almost anyone his age on the planet, with the possible exception of Kurniawan and Rosania—wines like the 1870 Mouton or the 1945 Romanée-Conti. And he has the notes to prove it. He knows all the tasting terminology, but he's added some terms of his own, like "whips and chains," which he used recently to describe a young, powerful Champagne, and "vitamins," which seems to refer to the slightly metallic taste of supplement pills. Generally speaking, his notes are livelier than most critics'. Robert Parker may be more influential, while Allen Meadows, author of the newsletter Burghound—a friend of Kapon's—is the Pope of Burgundy. But neither of them has tasted some of the rare and old bottles that the Angry Men open at their gatherings, nor do they tend to pronounce upon them so colorfully: "Tighter than a 14-year-old virgin," an Angry Man said of one of Big Boy's Champagnes. "Stinky like the crack of a 90-year-old nun," another said, nosing a red Burgundy that was exactly half that age.
Kapon now has his sights set on Asia. This past spring he presided over an auction at the Island Shangri La ballroom in Hong Kong that brought in $8.2 million, including $242,000 for a case of 1990 Romanée-Conti, a new record. (One can only hope that the buyer isn't planning to mix it with Coke or Sprite, as Chinese connoisseurs are alleged to do.) The sale puts Kapon in a good position to become a leader in the exploding Chinese market.
As for the younger collectors, including Rosania, who are selling, it's hard to say whether they are locking in profits, hedging against a possible decline, or just editing their collections so they can buy even more. Probably all of the above. "All I can say is, I've only seen prices go one way," Kapon says. According to the Wine Spectator Auction Index, worldwide auctions of fine and rare wines hit a record of $301 million in sales in 2007—a 25 percent increase over 2006, and 2008 looks as if it may be another record year despite the deteriorating state of the economy.
Unlike some collectors, this group of Angry Men is drinking as much as it's hoarding. When I dined with Jef Levy on a recent trip to Los Angeles, he invited four other friends along to Spago so we could open more bottles—17 in all, ranging from a 1937 Ausone, which still had a brooding core of dark fruit, along with a spicy cinnamon note, to a 1999 La Tâche from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, with a flight of Pétrus ('55, '71, and '85) in between. After the first dozen or so bottles, my writing became hard to read, so I can't tell you much about the Pétrus. The next night, at Cut, Wolfgang Puck's Beverly Hills steak house, we limited ourselves to a more modest 12 bottles going back to the 1929 Haut-Brion.
"Life is short," Rosania says. "You've got to drink it." When I ask him how many bottles he has in his cellar, he says he has no idea. When I venture a guess of 50,000, he says, "Hell, I have 50,000 bottles of '96 Champagne." When I tell him that one estimate places the value of his cellar at $50 million, he shrugs.
Rosania grew up in modest circumstances, and his swaggering mogul manner is tempered by frequent professions of noblesse oblige. "With privilege comes responsibility," he says. (In fact, I've heard him say it four or five times.) After his father died of prostate cancer in 2005, he helped found Mount Sinai Hospital's wine auction. You can't swirl a glass at a Manhattan wine event without hearing testimony to his generosity.
The night before the auction at Cru, I consumed, by my best estimate, some $25,000 to $30,000 worth of Rosania's wine—including the 1945 Mouton and the 1947 Cheval Blanc, two legendary Bordeaux, the former marked by a signature mintiness and the latter so sweet and rich that it reminds people of Port—and I was one of 14 drinkers. And who other than Rosania could tell you that 1914 Pol Roger is one of the greatest Champagnes ever made, much less prove it by pulling it from his cellar and serving it, as he did the night before the auction? For once, the Angry Men seemed stunned nearly to silence.
Considering the age of these wines, it's amazing that most of the ones we tasted were brilliantly preserved, even as they acted their age. Poor storage can result in duds—Champagnes that have turned to sherry and red Burgs that have turned to vinegar.
Then there are the fakes. No one likes to talk about them, any more than swingers like to talk about STDs. But, just as hot art markets breed forgeries, the inexorable rise of the wine market has inevitably created a demand for counterfeit bottles. No one really knows how widespread the problem is, although anyone who has tasted enough will have come up against it. The first time I was aware of the problem was seven or eight years ago when I tasted a suspiciously fruity magnum of 1947 Pétrus, an extremely rare and prized Bordeaux, while dining at the home of Jancis Robinson, one of the world's leading wine critics. After the wealthy friend who'd brought the bottles went home, I asked Jancis if she really thought the wine, which tasted remarkably young and fresh to me, was a '47 Pétrus. "It certainly didn't seem to be," she said diplomatically. I've since heard about a lot of suspicious mags of '47 Pétrus. Given the vineyard's tiny production and the unusual nature of the magnum format, there shouldn't be more than a very few floating around these days.
Neeless to say, it's generally the most legendary wines that are being faked, like the '45 Mouton or the '47 Cheval. During the marathon with Levy in Los Angeles, we encountered at least one bottle that was obviously a fake (sent to our table by another collector). One of the reasons that Rosania's Champagne auction attracted such interest was because of its aura of authenticity: Big Boy had purchased most of the stuff from the original buyers in Europe, and the market for vintage Champagne is so undeveloped that nobody has yet bothered to fake the stuff. As for Bordeaux and Burgundy, no one knows how many fraudulent bottles are residing in multimillion-dollar cellars around the world, though sometimes we get a clue.
Recently, billionaire collector William Koch filed a string of lawsuits against dealers and vendors who sold him bottles that were reputedly fakes (see The Billionaire's Vinegar, a recent book by Benjamin Wallace), including Eric Greenberg, an Internet consulting ex-billionaire who allegedly sold some 17,000 bottles in an October 2005 Zachys auction. Koch says that before Greenberg went to Zachys, his collection was first rejected by Sotheby's on the grounds that too many bottles were fakes. Acker subsequently held a major auction from Greenberg's so-called Golden Cellar (as opposed to Kurniawan's which is referred to as The Cellar).
So far, Kapon has largely managed to stay above the fray, in part, he says, by doing his homework. For the Golden Cellar auction last October, Kapon rejected lots that he found suspect and attached an unprecedented 80 pages of documentation to the catalog. "All the great collections in this country have lemons," he says. "You've got to navigate around them." More recently, he withdrew 22 lots of Kurniawan's Ponsot Burgundy—one of the region's most legendary domains—from the Rosania auction at the last minute after questions were raised about its authenticity.
A few weeks after the Big Boy auction, Kapon agreed to meet me at Veritas, the Flatiron District restaurant that vies with Cru for the title of Wine Geek Central. Although Cru is his headquarters, Kapon is clearly a regular here and is treated as a visiting dignitary. He arrived with his new girlfriend, Dasha Vlasenko, a statuesque Estonian-born former model several inches taller than him who works in real estate. Kapon, who is in the middle of a divorce from his first wife, met Dasha at a party recently. She took a little while to warm up to him. "He was recently persistent, she says.
Kapon, who'd put together five auctions in the space of two months, looked a little ragged, pale, and slightly puffy-faced with a three-day growth. He quickly ordered a $450 1996 Drouhin Marquis de Laguiche Montrachet, a rare white Burgundy, and filled me in on his schedule. Less than three weeks after the Rosania auction, he was busy preparing three more to take place within the month, including the Hong Kong auction. Fans of Kapon's wine porn have bemoaned the fact that he's weeks behind posting his tasting notes, but it doesn't seem like he'll catch up anytime soon. His Hong Kong schedule sounds particularly daunting, at least for his liver, including dinners at which he will be inducted into the Commanderie de Bordeaux, a major Chéteau Pichon-Lalande dinner, and yet another devoted to the wines of Romanée-Conti.
After we polished off the Montrachet, Kapon ordered a $550 1998 Mugnier Musigny Grand Cru, a rare bottle from another legendary Burgundy vineyard that we both liked a great deal and should have been the wine of the night, except that by the time our second course arrived we'd finished it. So John ordered yet another bottle, a 1971 Roumier Morey-St.-Denis Clos de la Bussière, which as a premier cru, is lower in the hierarchy than the Musigny. But it blew the youngster away. In his newsletter, Kapon later observed of the $425 wine, "autumnal aromas were inviting like football season, and meat dripped from its bones like parking lot cookouts."
Halfway through the '71, Kapon spotted Danny DeVito across the room and asked the sommelier to send him a glass. From our vantage we could see that he was drinking a Colgin Cabernet—a very serious juice, if not quite Burgundy. "I don't know if he's a Burgundy man," I said.
"Hey, just open up and say Ahh," Kapon said. "You don't have to know it to love it."
And sure enough, a few minutes later, DeVito hoisted the glass aloft and waved Kapon over to his table. I felt like somebody should warn the actor that Burgundy can be extremely addictive and that he was talking to the head pusher man. But it was too late. When Kapon finally returned to our table, 20 minutes later, he had the self-satisfied air of a priest who's made a new convert.