How many Ferraris and Maseratis does it take to start a wine importing business? Twenty-seven, if you ask Neil and Maria Empson. The couple with a love affair for all things Italian spent the early days of their relationship bargain hunting and restoring high-end racers. They owned a Ferrari GTO among various Berlinettas and Scagliettis from the 1960s and 1970s. “Those cars were a passion for me and I loved each one,” says Neil Empson. “But I put them up for sale to start in the wine business.”
If there is one thing the Empsons appreciate more than Italy’s automotive aptitude, it is its potential for making world-class wine. The dynamic husband-and-wife team has been the guardian of fine Italian wine since founding Neil Empson Selections in Milan in 1970, around the same time that the very notion of quality Italian wines was born. They always believed Italian wines would become major U.S. imports, and their instinct proved to be very true. In the 35 years since then, the Empsons’ company and Italian wine have flourished in tandem. Empson’s subsidiary in the United States, Empson USA, was born in 1989, and Empson Canada followed in 2001. Today, all the divisions fall under the umbrella of Empson & Company, Wine Enthusiast’s Importer of the Year for 2005.
The Empsons were the first to bring Italian Chardonnay to the U.S. and among the first to recognize the potential of Pinot Grigio. Neil Empson even coined the term “super Tuscan,” used widely in the industry today to describe modern Sangiovese-based wines blended with international grape varieties such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. “The word just slipped out,” explains the tall, lanky New Zealander. “I was trying to describe this rich and flavorful wine and thought, ‘This is super… super… super Tuscan!”
Many years ago, Neil Empson was driving in Los Angeles when he passed a roadside junkyard. With no more than a second glance, he recognized a wreck in grey primer paint as a Maserati 150S—an extremely rare automobile with a genuine racing pedigree. “I bought it then and there for $1,500 and sold it two days later for $6,500.”
Quality People, Quality Wine
That knack for spotting a diamond in the rough is a major element of the Empsons’ success. As residents of Italy, Neil and Maria are always on the lookout for new products to add to their portfolio. Their travels have brought them to far corners of the peninsula, to hidden restaurants and undiscovered wineries. One evening they might dine at a Roman trattoria and enjoy a local Syrah, and the next day they might pay a visit to the producer to meet the faces behind the bottle. “The most important thing for us is developing personal relationships with our producers,” says Maria Empson, a Rhode Island native with Italian roots. “We love that side of the business.” Her husband chimes in, “We look for the quality of the people, not just the quality of the wine.”
Still based in Milan, with its U.S. headquarters in metropolitan Washington, D.C., Empson’s current portfolio boasts some 60 producers from 12 prominent winemaking regions, including Piedmont, the Veneto, Tuscany, Sardinia and Sicily. Among the gems they have delivered to American consumers are Franciacorta Bellavista Gran Cuvée Brut, a wine that affirms Italy’s potential for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay-based méthode champenoise sparkling wine, and Pieropan, the Veneto producer who rewrote the rules for Soave and turned its image around. They also represent Amarone producer Speri and Friuli’s Jermann, who helped put structured whites from the Italy’s northeast on the enological map. “Neil is a true gentleman of wine,” says Silvio Jermann. “We started working together in the early 1980s and we both helped develop each other’s growth.”
Tuscany is a significant component of the Empson portfolio and includes one of Neil and Maria’s own brands. Cignale is a Tuscan Cabernet made near Greve and named after the wild boars that destroyed the first vintage. Maria, an accomplished artist, etched the image of the boar that appears on the label today. The couple is also responsible for a Carignan-Syrah blend from Sardinia called Shardana.
These days, the Empsons have their eyes on Italy’s southernmost regions and already have long-standing relationships with two of the hottest producers in the area. Surrounded by 1,000 acres of vines, Sicily’s Abbazia di Santa Anastasia (also a luxury hotel) traces its winemaking tradition back to the first millennium. It produces a popular Nero d’Avola, among others.
Another important producer in Empson’s book who has enjoyed outstanding success in the United States is Puglia’s A-Mano. Run by Californian winemaker Mark Shannon, this winery is largely responsible for putting grapes like Primitivo on American dinner tables. “Neil Empson is the godfather of our business and represents the very best of Italian wine,” says Shannon. “He has such a disarming quality and is a magnet for people with a real passion for wine. To have growth and respect in this business you need to be introduced in the right way. Being in the Empson portfolio gives you every chance to succeed.”
In the future, the couple wants to focus on developing their portfolio and polishing their brand offerings. Although the majority of wines they import are from Italy, Neil Empson Selections is also responsible for a handful of brands from Australia and New Zealand. “I am very optimistic and believe we are experiencing a wonderful moment in the industry and in quality distribution,” says Neil Empson.
And those Ferraris that the couple restored and sold to finance their first steps in the wine business? Recently, the GTO—the most notable of the lot—was resold for $10 million at an auction in Monte Carlo.
But Neil Empson is not a man for regrets: “If I hadn’t sold the car, I wouldn’t have the wine business.”
See the other Wine Enthusiast Wine Star Award Winners.