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May 13, 2022 – John Kapon, Chairman of Acker (Acker, Merrall & Condit), a family-owned enterprise with a 200-year history in New York City that is now the largest auction house in the world for fine and rare wine, recently sold three magnums of 1945 Chateau Mouton Rothschild privately for $50,000 per magnum, a minor yet significant fraction of their $1.5 billion wine auction business.

As Allied soldiers marched through France in 1944 to liberate the country, many vineyards were left unscathed, allowing Chateau Mouton Rothschild in the Bordeaux region to produce an exceptional 1945 vintage. “The taste stays in your mouth and the feeling stays in your soul. It’s just a magnificent wine,” John said to Chaîne during an April 25 telephone interview.

1945 Chateau Mouton Rothschild (Photo: Courtesy of Acker)

John’s tasting notes reflect the unique, once-in-a-lifetime outcome. “It’s just one of the greatest wines I’ve ever had. It has this signature, minty, eucalyptus taste. There is a lot of caramel. Its fruit has such great sweetness to it – core of cassis. There’s a richness and a flesh to it that only old wines can have. The vintage was so strong. It still has a strong finish, tannins, expression and a tail. It lingers. You can taste it after it’s gone,” John said with unbridled enthusiasm for the vintage. “It’s in the hundreds, not in the thousands, of bottles left of the vintage.”

History of Acker, Merrall & Condit*

Across the Atlantic Ocean in New York City in the 1940s, Acker, Merrall & Condit was writing a new chapter in its history after the company, founded in 1820 as a grocer catering to wealthy families in Lower Manhattan, was recovering from the devastation of Prohibition from 1920-1933 and the Great Depression from 1929 through the 1930s. “When Prohibition hit, that changed everything and ultimately, it was resurrected from the ashes of Prohibition and became a single kind of spirits store,” John said.

Photo: Courtesy of Acker

The company rebounded and in 1940, Benjamin Botwinick, who owned a controlling interest in Acker but was too busy to operate the stores, turned to R. William Kapon, his partner and bookkeeper. In 1966 when William was very ill, he cashed in an insurance policy and bought out Botwinick to return Acker once again to a family-owned business, the first time in 73 years. From his hospital room before he died in November 1966, William met with his son, Michael, and Steve Green, Michael’s college friend, and asked them to run Acker during the upcoming holiday season. Michael and Steve were a good team. “Christmas came and went, and New Year’s came and went, and I was still there,” Steve said. (The Story of Acker, p. 72) The stage was set for Acker’s next 50 years.

With dramatic cultural shifts in the 1960s and 1970s, the store began catering to increasing demand for fine wine as more and more Americans refined their palates after traveling to Europe. Changes to New York’s “fair trade” laws in the mid 1980s opened up new opportunities as well. Michael and Steve realized there was money to be made in buying wine, not merely selling it. Continuing the company’s long focus on customer service and high quality products, Michael traveled around the world to bring the best of the best back to New York burnishing Acker as a trusted and innovative brand.

Then in 1993, a change in one regulation opened new marketing channels for Acker and every other wine merchant in New York City. Before 1993, a retail store could not even serve alcohol samples. Retraction of that regulation in 1993 allowed retailers to offer wine tastings. Acker took it to another level by offering wine education workshops and a wine-of-the-month club to entice people to drink wine. In 1994, Acker held its first auction, but Michael was not enamored with the new sales channel.

John Kapon, the oldest of Michael’s three sons, had just joined the business full time. After a few years, John concluded wine auctions could contribute significantly to their bottom line. He recommended to his father that they look again at its potential. “I was young and exuberant and aggressive,” John said. They were doing wine workshops and wine tastings so why not wine auctions, John thought.

Photo: Courtesy of Acker

In 1998, Acker began conducting independent, live wine auctions in New York City. John Kapon realized that partnering with an established auction house would markedly reduce profits, so he set out to make a name for Acker on its own. Rather than follow in the footsteps of traditional auction houses who, at the time, charged commissions to both buyer and seller, Acker set itself apart by removing the sellers commission entirely, attracting a new audience to the world of wine auctions and fundamentally changing the economics of selling wine collections. This move benefited Acker’s clients financially, and accelerated Acker’s growth past long established, far less innovative firms who relied solely on tradition.

In 1999, Michael promoted his son to Auction Director of Acker, Merrall & Condit. John was one of the first to recognize the high quality of California wines and in 2001, started a monthly online auction that is now weekly. From $13.5 million in auction sales in 2001, John nearly doubled sales during the next four years. Michael retired and turned over the entire operation to John who became Acker’s CEO.

“My father was like a rock, always working, He instilled a work ethic in me. I’m very grateful for that,” John said.

John, fueled by his passion for wine and enjoying wine and food with others, turned the commonly staid atmosphere of auctions into a spirited celebration at New York City’s, and later Asia’s, best restaurants. John himself enjoyed not only holding the gavel but holding court with guests and sharing tastes of wines from the collections being sold. The auctions and bidding parties were social and “bring your own bottle” friendly, transforming the wine auction archetype from a stiff, business event to a vivacious assembly of oenophiles.

Only ten years after its first auction in New York City, Acker became the first auction house to recognize the growing thirst for wine in Asia and held its sale in Hong Kong in 2008. Acker Asia’s first sale was a tremendous success, selling over $8M USD to a market recently freed from prohibitive tariffs on wine. In 2011, Acker cemented its position at the top of the wine auction market by being the first wine auction firm to exceed US$100 million in revenue between all its affiliates, setting hundreds of world records for wine throughout the year in the process.

Hong Kong wine auction (Photo: Courtesy of Acker)

In 2017, due to the demands of Acker’s successful auctions, John became Acker’s Chairman and brought in Irvin Goldman as the company’s new CEO. It crossed the $1 billion mark in auction revenue in 2018. That record was shattered in 2021, when Acker crossed the $1.5B lifetime threshold at auction, and sold over $200M across its businesses in that year alone. It was that same year that Acker launched its official Spirits Department, with global expert representation in the US, Asia, and the UK.

Photo: Courtesy of Acker

Only a very small number of companies can write a 200-year history as Acker did in 2020.* They have strategically bridged three centuries from horse-drawn wagons delivering fancy groceries in the 19th century to fancy computers bringing wine lovers together from around the globe for Acker auctions in the 20th and 21st centuries. Facing their fair share of adversity, they nonetheless prevailed when many did not. When asked what accounts for Acker’s longevity, John said, “It’s hard work and customer service. The customer is always right even when they are wrong. It takes a lifetime to build a customer relationship and it takes one bad day to lose them forever.”

It’s a commitment Matthew Hope brought with him from Scotland; Baron Philippe de Rothschild taught the world after World War II; and three generations of the Kapon family adopted as their guiding philosophy that has propelled Acker to stratospheric success.

What a fantastic story of fancy groceries!

Acker Support for Chaîne

At Chaîne’s 2021 National Grand Chapitre, held in Nashville in October, Acker graciously provided wine for two events. “Chaîne US is thrilled to have Acker as a sponsor for our National Grand Chapitre. John’s vast knowledge, coupled with his charismatic personality, is unparalleled in the industry and we look forward to our ongoing collaboration with him; Lambert Jemley, Acker Managing Director; and their capable team,” Richard Smith, Bailli Provincial of the South Central Province, said.

Acker hosts live auctions in the U.S. and Asia nearly every month, dedicated spirits auctions monthly, and a continuously running weekly web auction, providing clients constant access to the world’s best wines and spirits. The Acker name is synonymous with personalized, polished, and expert services in all areas of wine and spirits. Chaine members are invited to contact Acker’s committed team of wine and spirits experts to personally answer any questions. And they invite Chaine members to delve deeper into the world of Acker auctions via their auction starter guide.

Links

Acker Wines

Acker Auction Guide

*Reference: The Story of Acker: The 200-Year History of America’s Oldest Wine Shop, a company history published in 2020; written by Kenneth Durr

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