An Interview with Neil Empson for Empson’s 50th Anniversary
“Maria and I dreamed of moving to Italy after spending our honeymoon in Portofino, in 1969, where I fell in love with everything Italian.”
When Neil Empson first professed his undying love for the country known for its art, history, food and wine, he set the wheels in motion, effectively building what today is a wine export empire and pillar in the business, which has not only endured but truly thrived over the past half-century. Today, the company enjoys a portfolio of over fifty growers, whose wines see the shores of over 35 countries, with offices in the US, Italy, Canada and Japan. And just last month, Empson was named one of Wine & Spirits’ Importers of the Year 2022.
Below Neil reflects on what this anniversary means to him.
How does it feel to have started with selling cars and today own a global wine export company present in over 35 countries?
Well, let’s talk first about the cars. They were always part of me. It was a hobby that turned into a lucrative business. But I had to choose and I chose wine. And I was only able to make that choice because of the money I made from the cars. That’s how I got my start. But sometimes I grieve over the Ferraris that are selling for over 70-80 million that I sold for 14K back in the 70s!
That said, I am very happy to be where I am. I have my beautiful daughter Tara who has been phenomenal in helping me sort out the company’s needs, and adding new wines from the rest of the world, which was something I always wanted to do. And Tara picked up right where I left off.
What do you remember most about your first year in business?
It was difficult. We still had the Lira, and I had a vision of achieving one billion Lira! It seemed to take forever. But as soon as we got the ball rolling, there was no stopping us. My beautiful wife of 54 years and I had a very good eye for selecting people in the business, partnering with longstanding distributors and vintners. We started with French professionals because they were at the forefront of fine wine at the time. But I have always had a good grasp of what’s going on in the world of wine and also fully recognize the amazing effort of people who believed in us over the years.
Today, I am even more fortunate, because Tara doesn’t just think like me, she thinks beyond me. She doesn’t ask for help anymore because her instincts are right on. We are very lucky.
What were your core values?
Empson is all about relationships. It is and was about making sure we have the right partners as an importer in terms of producers. And honestly, nothing has changed, I still believe that. It’s not an easy business. The wine industry is still quality driven and if you have quality wine and quality people, that is the key and fortunately, we have both. And the quality of Italian wine far exceeds the quality 40 years ago. We are also very loyal. We have always been loyal and show great dedication. We dedicate our reputation, our salesforce, and experience to our wineries. And our people are super passionate and hard to beat. That’s what we want.
Have these values changed today?
I think they’ve been proven! Especially since over time, we gained a better understanding of people.
What has been the most rewarding?
That we are still in business after 50 years, with the same enthusiasm and love for what we do. We’ve also grown up in the business. We‘ve seen where it’s gone and where it’s going, with all its ups and downs.
How has your team contributed to the success of the company?
Like with any company, the people are extremely important to the longevity of the company. If you have a team like we have, you’re very fortunate. Those are things that help you grow. There is still so much more we want to achieve, and our goals don’t have an expiration date (lots of things in the works) but we have launched some of the greatest wines in Italy over the years, and they are icons now and we will continue to do that. And we have a lot of great tasters. We have our finger on the pulse of the market. And you know, we thrive on enthusiasm and our love for what we do. The team is part of our success. If you have people who are committed and can effectively champion the wineries, you have everything.
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