Sipping a glass of 2010 Louis Latour Chassagne-Montrachet, Houston Rockets owner Leslie Alexander is explaining where he got the idea to buy a potato barn in Bridgehampton, New York and hire a Hollywood production designer to rip it up and turn it into an ultra-exclusive wine club. “I wanted to do something fabulous, grand,” he says. Cost to join: a refundable $50,000 initiation fee plus annual dues and extra charges for special events.
Clad in a red Rockets baseball cap, beat-up Top-Siders, red polo shirt and white cargo shorts with a hole over the right knee, Alexander, 70, is sitting on an upholstered chair that looks like it came from a castle in 17th-century France. His wine glass perches on a low, distressed-wood table. Three filigreed chandeliers dangle from the high-vaulted ceiling above, their blue bulbs casting a soft light.
This being the informal yet status-conscious Hamptons, summer home to billionaires like Ronald Perelman and Steven Spielberg, Alexander figures that wine enthusiasts will be eager to join and attend tastings like the two-day, $17,500-a-head extravaganza of 57 vintages of Château Pétrus the club hosted in June 2012.
“I envisioned a place where people who had great collections could store their wine and come together and hang out,” he says. For older Hamptonites, he notes, there are no inviting places to go after dinner. “You’re not going to go to a disco,” he says. “Instead you can come here and drink wine. It’s like a golf club for wine.” Though he flunked high school French in South Orange, New Jersey, he named the club Société du Vin. “I wanted something that was French-sounding and intriguing.” Intriguing is an understatement. As one observer says about the club, it looks as if the Addams Family won the lottery and blew the money decorating.
There’s a reason for that. After buying the barn in 2008, Alexander saw the opulent New York loft of actor Gerard Butler on the cover of Architectural Digest, loved it and called the decorator Elvis Restaino, whose main work has been in movies and television.
Alexander green-lighted the first 3-D designs he saw on Restaino’s iPad. They included Romanesque brown-and-gold pillars, a long copper-topped bar studded with high chairs made of upholstery and carved wood, backlit wineglass cases, two ships’ figureheads jutting from the walls and flooring made of recycled red oak and tiles that are replicas from a French castle. A huge green and gold bas-relief of Bacchus, the god of wine, surrounds two hulking dark-wood doors. Restaino says the barn’s beamed structure reminded him of the scaffolding on the inside of the Statue of Liberty.
Restaino chose the patinaed gold, brown, blue and green color scheme to offset the red wine he envisioned members pouring. Downstairs on the delivery staircase, he painted the names of top wineries–Abreu Vineyard, Harlan Estate, Château Lafite Rothschild.
“The metaphor was ascending to heaven and you’d drink all these great wines before you die,” he explains.
Alexander’s one design restriction: no leather. He is a longtime PETA member, and he donates to “a million animal rights organizations,” including his own sanctuary for abandoned horses in Virginia. The cushy chairs are made of vinyl.
Alexander’s childhood was a long way from Hamptons wine club founder and basketball team owner. He grew up in the Bronx and then middle-class New Jersey, the only child of an insurance broker and a homemaker (the accent stuck; he says “dooawg” and “tooawk” for “dog” and “talk”). When he was 21, his father died and he dropped out of Brooklyn Law School to help his mother. “There was no money,” he recalls. He found he had a knack as a trader, but after stints at several Wall Street firms he tried law school again, graduating with such low grades he had a tough time finding a job. So he went back to trading, this time bonds, for himself, very successfully.
In the late 1970s, enjoying his wealth, he began to quaff, not really knowing what he was drinking. “I used to go out to dinner a lot, and Montrachet was the most ?expensive wine on the list, so I ordered it,” he says. “It was only $100.” Then he started reading wine critic Robert Parker and later newsletter writer Stephen Tanzer and the Burgundy-centric website Burghound.com. Wine buying became “an addiction” for Alexander, who believes you get better value if you buy young vintages in good years, store them well and let them age. He says he’s trying to stop at 6,000 bottles, worth $2 million.
At age 50 he had more than enough money to retire. Instead he bought the Rockets for $85 million in 1993 and has had a successful run as an owner, attracting players like Charles Barkley, Chinese sensation Yao Ming and, most recently, former Los Angeles Laker Dwight Howard, who signed a four-year, $88 million contract this off-season. “It’s like the greatest entertainment in the world, and you’ve created it,” he says.
By 2006 Alexander was a member of The Forbes 400, with an estimated net worth of $1.2 billion. He fell off the following year when his 20% investment in for-profit student lender First Marblehead tanked, but he’s not headed to the poorhouse any time soon. The value of the Rockets, according to FORBES estimates, is now $568 million. In August Alexander bought a Manhattan penthouse for $42 million, his fifth home among other real estate investments.
Buying and renovating a $5.5 million potato barn was no problem.
Alexander says he’s not trying to profit from Société du Vin but hopes to break even. Out of the gate, that seems optimistic. The club officially opened on Memorial Day–its Restaino-designed invitations were made by hand–and ominously, on an overcast afternoon in early August, there are no patrons in sight (Alexander won’t say how many have joined). The vast 55-degree cellar looks empty save for a half-dozen or so cardboard boxes, as do most of the nine private cellar rooms with their polished-wood shelves and chandeliers.
What if Alexander can’t find enough people to join? “If that happens, we’ll get to it at that point,” he shrugs. In the meantime he’s begun to move in some of his collection, assuring that, at the very least, he has created his own ultimate wine cave.
| by Forbes