From hip hop player to fine wine purveyor

John Kapon went from breaks and beats to Chateau Lafite, writes Mischa Moselle

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 January, 2013, 9:58am

If you are looking for wine writing that lies somewhere between the useful but dry notes of nature style - "resembles berry and spices" - and a high-falutin style that might compare fine wine to classical music, John Kapon may be the writer for you.

It's difficult to imagine Hugh Johnson or Jancis Robinson describing a 1964 Chateau Latour as having, "flavours of chocolate, coffee and minerals combined with a lip- and ass-smacking finish".

Kapon is the third generation of the family that runs New York-based wine merchants and auctioneers Acker Merrall & Condit.

A player in the early 1990s hip hop and rap scene, at one point a career in music seemed to beckon, but the call of wine was too powerful. Now 41 years old and sounding a little more like Kenny Rogers than LL Cool J, Kapon says: "I took a year off to find myself and wine found me instead."

Despite a contract and the sale of several thousand records, Kapon's hip hop career didn't attain the dizzy heights of Run DMC or their ilk.

Kapon says his interest in wine takes two forms: what it tastes like, and how much it sells for.

Now a well-known figure in the world of fine wine, he is comfortable auctioning lots that total in the range of tens of millions of dollars.

As an auctioneer and in person, he has, according to French winemaker Jeremy Seysses, a "relaxed, dilettante exterior" that doesn't fit the common stereotype of New Yorkers as bundles of neurotic energy. Kapon suggests he might not be so much laid back as recovering from the hectic schedule of dinners and meetings that surround major auctions. It surprises him how relaxed he can be under the intense pressure of deadlines, he says. "I'm not sure how to account for that."

While the past five years have seen a boom in business for wine auction houses, it has also been a period of legal wrangling. In 2008, billionaire Bill Koch alleged that the indicted fraudster Rudy Kurniawan knowingly and intentionally sold him 149 bottles of counterfeit wine through private sales and auctions held by AMC. According to Koch, Kurniawan made material misrepresentations about the producer and vintage of the bottles purchased, and Koch purchased these wines from AMC, allegedly relying on Kurniawan's misrepresentations.

Kapon says that the Kurniawan case has been a sobering experience for the entire market, not just AMC. In the case of his own company, outside specialists are now used to inspect wines so that "multiple sets of eyes" examine the rarest and oldest bottles.

Fine Wine Editions has just published a collection of Kapon's wine notes called The Compendium, Tasting the World's Finest Wines, from tastings of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Rhone and selected regions of Italy and Spain. He may now be sober suited, but anyone who uses descriptors such as "marijuana and old money" has not entirely left the hip hop scene behind. Here he is on the rappers' favourite Roederer Cristal, this sample from 1979: "Clean and pure, it was full of butter, scotch, butterscotch [yes, all three!], and grain aromas, with a pinch of flower in a gourmet soap way. The palate was fresh and zippy, still young and mineral-driven."

If "zippy" and "gourmet soap" strike you as odd descriptors for a champagne, his assessment of the 1962 Dom Perignon may have you dropping your knitting. "The bottle was just f****** delicious. Forgive my French, but it was French, after all."

I took a year off to find myself and wine found me instead
John Kapon

It's clear that Kapon's wine writing is somewhat left field. It doesn't avoid common descriptors such as "cassis or cedars" and, he says, there is always going to be a fruit component to the top notes and more geological words required for the structure, but "everything in the middle is where the fun stuff happens". He says that his writing might be "a left turn off the main road; close enough to the highway but on my own back road".

Kapon awards marks out of 100, but believes a perfect 100 is impossible. The book ends with a list of his 99 pointers, a mere 26 from the thousands sampled. All of the wines on the list are from France, which is where Kapon believes 90 per cent of the world's finest wines are made.

While the vast majority are from Bordeaux and Burgundy, he does rate two from the Rhone Valley at this level. The 1966 E.Guigal Cote-Rotie La Mouline, he says, upstages the 1945 Haut-Brion and other legendary wines. "It had a 'wow' nose, full of white pepper and sexy supporting singers named violet, bacon and beef."

The 1961 Paul Jaboulet Aine Hermitage La Chapelle gets another "wow" and a "yummmmm". He writes: "The nose on this thoroughbred had coffee and royal garden, intermingled with Indian spice and sumptuous dark chocolate."

Kapon came to wine late in life for someone whose family business revolves around it. He says there was no "epiphany moment" of drinking a wine that was so amazing he became a convert. "That's what happens when you drink too many wines," he jokes. Instead, Kapon says, becoming a wine lover was a gradual process.

He wasn't encouraged to try wine as a child or forced into the business later. He worked nights at the family firm while majoring in business at New York University, with a minor in music. It was only after his hip hop career fizzled out that he decided to spend a year working there full time and that was enough to launch him on a life in wine.

Kapon's role includes not only edging bids upwards but persuading collectors to sell. Last week's auction of Bordeaux and Burgundy lots reached HK$52.9 million, some HK$12 million over the estimate, and included 270 lots from the collection of a New York doctor. "I've been trying to get him to sell for five years," says Kapon, adding that he had been collecting for up to 40 years.

A second collector's 284 lots included what the auction house described as a "roll-call of greatness" from Bordeaux - including Angelus, Haut-Brion, Margaux and Mouton. The consignee was "one of the great collectors" who had been buying 100 cases of Bordeaux wines every year for 30 years, Kapon says.

For collectors seeking to invest in regions other than Bordeaux and Burgundy, Kapon advises looking to Champagne, which he says has huge potential. In most of the world, champagne is seen as synonymous with celebration and there is little realisation of how well it ages. Kapon is a fan of it as a drink, saying he has had fantastic bottles from 1914 and 1928. "Aged champagne is on my heavy rotation," he says.

What Kapon doesn't have is a personal cellar. As he points out, "the company has an inventory of US$5million of wine at any given time and that's enough to pick and choose from".

The Compendium, Tasting the World's Finest Wines is available from priced at US$75