His last name may conjure the trifecta of industry, philanthropy and political activism that have marked his brothers’ influence on American political matters, but this particular Koch brother is definitely his own person – the ties that bind him to siblings Charles and David, the men in charge of Koch Industries, the second-largest privately owned company in the US, loosened a long time ago. He is William I. Koch, and Sotheby’s upcoming May auction of selections from his incomparable wine cellar presents a grand opportunity to meet the man.
A billionaire businessman, an avid sailor – his yacht America3 won the America’s Cup in 1992 – and a passionate art and wine collector, Bill Koch, as he is known, is a force to be reckoned with. As a result, the three-day auction of some 20,000 of his bottles promises to be a stellar occasion. Estimated to bring in a staggering $10 million to $15 million, the sale has one of the highest estimated totals ever for a Sotheby’s wine auction.
WILLIAM I. KOCH IN HIS PERSONAL CELLAR. © BRIAN SMITH
Equally astonishing is that these thousands of bottles represent less than half of Koch’s wine holdings – “my last count was 43,000 bottles,” he says – and that their quality is just as remarkable as their quantity. Indeed, over the decades, Koch has assembled a cellar of almost unprecedented breadth and calibre, filled with Bordeaux and Burgundies from some of the 20th century’s most highly regarded vintages, along with many other treasures.
A native of Wichita, Kansas, and one of Koch Industries founder Fred C. Koch’s four sons, Bill developed his taste for wine in his latter years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in chemical engineering. In truth, his undergraduate days were marred by an unfortunate combination of frat-house binge drinking and hepatitis, which put him off alcohol for a few years. After a while, however, Koch found that he was able to drink wine. And so his love affair with the divine elixir began in earnest, however clumsily: “I started with wine in a box, then I went to Lancers Rosé [the Portuguese rosé blend] because I could make candlestick holders out of the bottles,” he jokes. Thankfully, visits from his father provided opportunities to better his choices: “My father liked to go to fancy restaurants, so I developed a taste for very good food,” he explains. “And with good food, I thought, ‘Maybe I can try some better wines?’”
THE 1992 AMERICA’S CUP WINNER AMERICA3.
Through trial and error, he found wines he really liked, with names such as Lafite and Pétrus. “When I got a little bit of money, I said, ‘I’d like to have these at home,’” the Oxbow Group founder and CEO recounts. (His energy-development holding company is the world’s largest marketer of fuel-grade and calcined petroleum coke.) “When I got a lot more money, I developed a taste for superfine wines and eventually assembled this huge collection,” he continues. “I bought a lot of it in the 1980s – I’m afraid I drove up the price of wines in the ’80s,” he says, perhaps unabashed. “After I started buying less, the market went down.”
A BOTERO SCULPTURE ON KOCH’S PALM BEACH PROPERTY GROUNDS.
Although Koch’s collection includes superb bottles from Italy, the Americas, Australia and New Zealand, it largely focuses on France, with the majority of its vintages coming from the most hallowed terroirs of Burgundy and Bordeaux. Highlights from his collection include a case of Château Mouton Rothschild from 1945 (estimated to fetch $80,000 to $120,000) and a single three-litre jeroboam of Romanée-Conti from 1959 (estimated at $30,000 to $42,000). These are the wines Koch cherishes most: “With the great wines of France, you can really taste the love and care a vintner put into them,” he says. But he is an ecumenical oenophile, and quickly resorts to an art analogy to answer the question that has been dividing wine lovers for ages. “Asking if you prefer Bordeaux to Burgundy is like asking if you prefer Monet to Picasso,” he says. “I love the taste of both and will drink them together at the same meal. Bordeaux is more of a macho wine, a bit more powerful. Burgundy is more sophisticated, refined and complex.”
KOCH’S PALM BEACH CELLAR.
The owner of a prodigious fine art collection, Koch is naturally prone to making frequent comparisons and combinations between wine and art. In fact, his two collections were jointly displayed in Things I Love: The Many Collections of William I. Koch, a 2005 exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which featured prized Roman antiquities alongside works by the likes of Monet, Renoir, Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, Modigliani and Arp. Koch’s fascination with the American West was represented by paintings and sculpture by Remington and Russell as well as Native American works and rare firearms, including the gun that killed Jesse James. All great stuff, in terms of collecting art and rarities, which Koch has clearly no intention of putting up for auction any time soon.
So why is he parting with nearly half his wine collection just now? “I’m 75 and I’ve got 43,000 bottles,” he answers. “I’m still going to have about 23,000 bottles left after the sale, and I’d have to live another 100 years to drink them all. I’ve just got too much stuff, so I’m culling the collection.” Fair enough. After our interview, Koch offers a tour of his cellar, which a ten-man team from Austria – it came with all the bricks – built beneath his house over the course of many months. (Similar cellars are located at his residences in Aspen, Colorado, and on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.) While some racks are empty – a Sotheby’s team spent six weeks packing items from the three cellars for the sale – there is still an Aladdin’s cave worth of wine left. “I notice you’re not feeling sorry for me,” Koch says as I gape at the treasure trove. He’s right: I’m not – especially now that we can all get our hands on one of the thousands of bottles with which he is parting.
James Reginato is writer-at-large for Vanity Fair.