Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Is Nicholas G. Karabots, Pennsylvania’s Reluctant Donald Trump?: Friction and Wine at Karamoor Estate Vineyards

Nicholas Karabots is one of the wealthiest winery owners in Pennsylvania, indeed, on the east coast. He owns a number of companies, and is on the boards of a dozen others. Mr. Karabots is the Chairman of the Board of Directors and Chief Executive Officer of Kappa Media Group, Inc., Spartan Organization, Inc., Jericho National Golf Club, Inc. and other private companies that are primarily engaged in the publishing, printing, recreational sports and real estate businesses.

Normally, someone’s business resume wouldn’t find its way into these pages, but Karabot’s stellar career needs some shedding of light, since he’s accomplished so much, but is probably unknown to numerous people outside the Philly region.

The Spartan Organization, Inc., located in Fort Washington, PA, was founded in 1990 by Mr. Karabots and provides management and legal services to the various Karabots affiliated companies including Kappa Graphics, L.P., Kappa Publishing Group, Inc., Kappa Books (a division of Kappa Graphics, L.P.), AMREP Corporation (AXR / NYSE), Universal Map Group, LLC, Bendon Publishing International, Inc., Jericho National Golf Club, Inc. and a host of other companies owned wholly or in part by Mr. Karabots that are involved in equipment and vehicle leasing, land development and real estate, vineyard production and other non publishing related businesses. Spartan occupies 7,500 square feet at Karamoor Farm and together with one of its affiliated companies employs about 25 people.

The most visible of all his companies is Kappa Media Group, Inc., which engages in the publishing of puzzle, sports, entertainment magazines, and periodicals. The company was incorporated in 2000 and is based in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania. Kappa Publishing Group, Inc. is a Blue Bell, Pennsylvania based publishing company concentrating on adult puzzle books and magazines as well as children's magazines and maps. It is a private company founded in 1955 with $11.5 million in annual sales.

Kappa Media has a number of subsidiary companies, such as London Publishing or GAMES Publications. It original owner, H.L. Herbert ("Larry") founded his puzzle business, Official Publications in Manhattan with titles including Teen Word-Finds, Superb Word-Finds, Variety Word-Finds and countless crossword puzzle, crosspatch and fill-it-in titles. Sons Anthony Herbert (Editorial Director) and Paul Herbert (Sales) helped the business grow to the success it became. Edward Tobias was the Editor. Prior to Mr. Herbert, Sr.'s passing in the 1980s, he sold the business to Nick Karabots, who owned the printer where the titles were being printed. The business was then moved to Ft. Washington, PA. Top word-find contributors in the early 80's included Rich Latta and Frank J. D'Agostino.

Karabots is also the Vice Chairman of the Board of Amrep Corporation located in Princeton, NJ, which deals in real estate development. He has been a director of AMREP since 1993 and currently serves as the Vice Chairman of the Board.

Karabots, and his wife Athena, are also ardent and generous philanthropists, endowing the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia with a wing, making one of the single largest donations to the Franklin Institute ever, and numerous other charitable foundations. Make no mistake, Karabots is a very smart business man. “Two weeks ago, The Franklin Institute received a $10 million gift from Athena and Nicholas Karabots towards its Inspire Science! capital campaign--the largest donation in the Institute's 177 year history,” wrote Citybizlist Philadelphia writer Richard Rabicoff. “Now the Institute reports in an SEC filing that it owns 368,028 shares or 6.1 percent of the common stock of AMREP Corp. (NYSE: AXR), of which Nicholas Karabots is a director and majority shareholder. The filing makes no reference to the Karabots gift to the Institute.” Nothing illegal. Very smart. It’s just the kind of clever man Pennsylvania wine needs.

This is all merely to point out the power, scope, business-savvy, and incredible wealth at Karamoor Estate’s disposal.

In Pennsylvania there are few who are as wealthy or as notable as Karabots. The Hausers probably have more money, but they are much quieter in their business dealings.

Karamoor Estate was established in 2006 within a 250-acre parcel of Pennsylvania farmland. The vineyard is nestled on 17 acres of softly sloping fields. Karamoor, it has been rumored, was supposed to be the equivalent of Boxwood in that it would be a state of the art winery, with no expense spared. It would set the standard for the rest of the state. The wines would be modeled after the red wines of St. Emillion in Bordeaux and the white wines of Burgundy. The vineyard is adjacent to their newly-constructed state-of-the-art winery that opened in the Fall, 2011.

According to their website, “The vineyard was conceived and designed with the goal of producing the highest quality of fruit and wine possible. Particular consideration was given to the choice of plant material, clones and vine density. In choosing the vines for Karamoor Estate we worked closely with the top nurseries in California to assure that we used only strong, healthy vines that clonally trace their lineage back to Bordeaux. In making the clone selection, our principal criteria were small clusters, reduced vine size, early maturing fruit and clones known to produce intense flavors.”

To this purpose, Karabots hired an absolutely stellar duo to establish his vineyard – famed Pennsylvania vineyard manager Stewart Nelson and the even more famous Lucie Morton. Lucie Morton is revered, and with good reason. Her track record speaks for itself. More than me, I’ll let famed wine writer Dave McIntyre of the Washington Post tell you why:

“Morton's influence skyrocketed in recent years with the initial success of three high-profile Washington area clients: Black Ankle Vineyards and Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard in Maryland, and Boxwood Winery in Northern Virginia. She also consults for Chatham Vineyards on the Eastern Shore and Rosemont in southern Virginia, which won best of show at the Atlantic Seaboard Wine Competition in July for its Meritage. She has other clients who have not yet released wines.

“Her clients' accomplishments bolster Morton's argument that the herbaceous, underripe flavors that typically plague East Coast wines can be conquered through proper vineyard management,” concluded McIntyre. Karamoor boasted having planted 2,000 vines an acre.

The property has been years in the making. Rumors of tasting and small croppings of success trickled onto the internet…the inestimable Mason-Dixon wine writer Paul Vigna at the Patriot-News(who had tasted Karamoor wines while at Carl Helrich's Allegro winery in York County where some of Karamoor’s vintages were being stored), and another Philadelphia wine writer published small tasting notices. Interest was peaking. In fact, Vigna had drawn Helrich’s temporary ire because Vigna was so excited about the Karamoor vintages.

Then this last December, the first signs that something was wrong in paradise flared up when Vigna broke the news that Stewart was out. “I had mentioned on Twitter on Wednesday night that well-known and highly regarded vineyard manager Nelson Stewart was parting ways with Karamoor Estate, the suburban Philadelphia (Fort Washington, Montgomery County) winery that I believe remains some time away from full production of its wines,” reported Vigna on December 2, 2011. “Stewart said in an e-mail that he would be finished as of Sunday. He called the departure ‘unexpected . . . not quite the way I would have liked.’ Stewart had worked for Karamoor for almost six years.”

Still Karamoor is a mystery to most Pennsylvanians, especially just outside a city whose wealthy and powerful form a tight-knit community so inter-connected that private lives, and personal business matters are the traditional stuff of the gristmills known as the Philadelphia Daily News, and many city centric websites. Family laundry and personal peccadilloes are what magazines like Philly Mag live for.

Karamoor has announced they would follow the Virginia winery Boxwood’s lead, and open out of town in tasting rooms throughout the state, much like’s John Kent Cooke’s family winery run by the lovely Rachel Martin. This was the plan.

But let’s be frank, where is the wine and where is Mr. Karabots? Mr. Karabots has been standing just off the stage left, behind the curtains for too many years now. Pennsylvania needs Karamoor and Mr. Karabots, his flash and his style. What Trump has done for Virginia, with his brash penchant for incredible and confident self-promotion, is what Pennsylvania is waiting for from Mr. Karabots. Pennsylvania has some wonderful wineries. Chaddsford (one of the largest if not the largest in the state) has set the quality standard for many years. Blue Mountain and CloverHill have expanded their empires, while still maintaining quality. The Lehigh Valley has improved vastly. These are all nice quiet stories.

Karabots, with his bigger than life show, needs to step onto the stage. The wines need to be poured for the press. The state has been waiting for him to step forward, and put out his product, and booster the state’s industry the way Trump has done for Virginia. Pennsylvania’s time is coming. They need their John the Baptist, their Trump, their moment. (OMG, did I just mention Trump and John the Baptist in the same sentence? I think that’s heresy.) Pennsylvania needs a big name showman. Karabots should be it. He likes the limelight, he likes the press. Pennsylvania wine needs someone who can command the spotlight, withstand the glare of the media focus, and shine in it. They need someone who can swing his arms, and make the orchestra play. The Athletics had Connie Mack. The Philadelphia Orchestra had Eugene Ormandy and Carlo Muti. The Sixers had Dr. J, and Daryl Dawkins and Allen Iverson. They have the Museum of Art and the controversial Barnes. The Eagles had Chuck Bednarik, they had Buddy Ryan and Andy Reid. Now they need someone to put their winery business on the map. Karabots is the closest thing Pennsylvania has to that kind of big personality.

Now about the wines. I stumbled onto them just like any other wine writer. I found them in the booth of Eliott Mackey’s Wine Appreciation Guild. Two open bottles, and I just took a tasting of each wine.

Cabernet Franc 2008 - This medium-bodied wine is a medium-bodied dark garnet red blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot aged 10 months in French oak. It had had a big nose of dark plum and raspberry, as promised, with hints of vanilla and spice. Big bold beautiful fruit, reminiscent of the wines of Black Ankle and Boxwood. There was plenty of dark ripe fruit on the palate, with lush flavors of chocolate and anise to follow. The fruit was big and the acids and tannins low. I nice smooth dry finish. Fantastic!

Meritage 2008 - A classic Bordeaux-style blend of 48% Merlot, 28% Cabernet Franc and 24% Cabernet Sauvignon aged 9 months in new French oak. As promised, dark cassis, plum, raspberry and zesty black cherries came through on the nose and on the palate. Again, the fruit was big and dark and commanding, with low acids and well balanced tannins and a nice, long, luxurious finish. Very intense. Very, very nice.

The wines are good – very good. Black Ankle and Boxwood good. So where’s Karabots? Where’s Karamoor? The stage of Pennsylvania wine is open, the mic is on, the spotlight searching for a figure to focus its beam on….Enter Karabots?