493: Neil Empson Shifted Gears Into Wine
Play • 1 hr 40 min

Neil Empson is the founder of Empson & Co., an exporter of wines from Italy and other countries.

Neil, who was born in New Zealand in 1939, recounts his youthful days driving fast, reselling Ferraris, and meeting with intelligence officers. He talks about meeting his wife Maria, who convinced him to move to Italy and take up the wine business there, founding a company for wine export. And he recalls his first sale of wine to the United States, a Chianti that was sold to Trader Joe's. At that time, back in the early 1970s, Neil recognized the potential for Italian wine sales in the United States. He both exported the first Italian wine labelled Chardonnay to the United States, and coined the term "Super Tuscan".

Neil discusses the changes in the market for Italian wine in the United States in the intervening decades since the 1970s. He also talks about his relationships with key Italian wine producers, such as Angelo Gaja (Gaja), Beppe Colla (Prunotto), Elvio Cogno (Marcarini), Sergio Manetti (Montevertine), Emilio Costanti (Conti Costanti), Alberico Boncompagni Ludovisi (Fiorano), Silvio Jermann (Jermann), and Ampelio Bucci (Bucci). He touches on the rise of varietal wines made with Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon in Italy. He addresses the changes in cooperage that happened in Tuscany around the same time. Neil also discusses his relationships selling Sassicaia, discovering Poderi Luigi Einaudi, bringing Cantina Santadi Shardana to market, and his memories of oenologists like Giorgio Grai, Giacomo Tachis, and Vittorio Fiore. He also touches on Luigi Veronelli and what Neil learned from Veronelli's writing.

As the interview wraps up, Neil talks about some of the difficult moments in his career selling Italian wines for export, opening up about his feelings around producers that have left his portfolio as well as the difficulty of collecting payments.

This episode features commentary from:

Angelo Gaja, Gaja

Ampelio Bucci, Bucci

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