Posted on | March 21, 2016
Written by | Kristen Wolfe Bieler
Hubert Opici Celebrates his 100th Birthday
Hubert Opici’s entry into the wine industry was not out of the ordinary. In 1934 his parents re-started their import/distribution business after a forced hiatus due to Prohibition and the Depression, and Hubert—age 16—joined the family business as the delivery boy. “It was a true family business like many in those days,” he recalls. “Everyone worked: My mother ran the office, my father sold the wine and I drove the truck.”
Yet what is extraordinary is the company that the Opici family—ultimately led by Hubert—went on to create. And the fact that it remains a family-owned business in its fourth generation of leadership, a feat that less than 4% achieve. As the Opici patriarch celebrates his centennial in March, his family and the wine industry are celebrating him.
Hardship & Opportunity
Hubert was not the first Opici fine wine trailblazer. His father, Joseph—the son of Italian immigrants who moved to New Jersey at the turn of the century—and his wife, Esther, created a business importing the Italian wines of their friends, and sold them throughout New Jersey. They had two successful decades before Prohibition shut down the operation.
When the family started up again after Repeal, they took a less traditional route, by promoting California wine. With a $1,500 investment and one railroad car full of wine sent to their warehouse in New Jersey, the American Beverage Distribution Company was born. Where some might have seen a lackluster market—California wine was a novelty on the East Coast at the time—Joseph saw opportunity. To further commit, he moved to California to establish the Opici winery in Cucamonga in 1939.
Then the war intervened. Hubert volunteered and served “three years and 10 months” in the Army “When the other soldiers learned I was Italian, they assumed I knew how to cook, so I did a lot of that,” he shares of his military service. After the war, he dusted off the trucks, rusted and flat from lack of use, and hit the streets selling Italian and California wine in New Jersey. In 1944 Rose Deregibus became his wife and business partner and the two worked steadily to grow the Opici empire.
The Making of a Wine Culture
“In those days, most people in the business only knew whisky, whisky, whisky,” Hubert recalls. It was a mentality leftover from the bootlegging tradition during Prohibition, he believes, and yet it benefited his business: “No one was interested in representing the California wineries, so we formed all the early relationships.” Thanks to their west coast presence with their own California winery, the Opici family grew close with major players like Mondavi and Beringer. “We built our business through relationships,” Hubert attests.
Selling wine was far from straightforward in the 1940s, yet the Opici’s found their niche. “We had success with the Italian, Spanish, German and Swiss clubs in New Jersey—they were the only people drinking wine at that time,” says Hubert.
Americans were slowly on their way to becoming wine drinkers, and Hubert was well-positioned to supply the budding demand. While he credits timing with much of his success, it was Hubert’s shrewd eye for opportunity that explains the company’s steady growth and expansion. He led Opici into new markets, initially with the purchase of Cazanove Wine Company in New York in the late ’40s. By the 1970s, the Opici’s had a national sales organization with broad reach and rich portfolio of imported and domestic brands.
With his northeast business humming along in the 1990s, which now included a new wholesale business in Connecticut, Hubert saw potential in the Florida market, and wanted to build it hands-on. He and Rose moved there and purchased a wholesale business. “Those were great years developing our Florida operation,” Hubert recalls. “My wife could sell anything, and we were all over South Florida building relationships. Rose and I would lock up the warehouse and go out to dinner every night. Today we have a nice little business down here.”
Working in the market has always been—and remains—his favorite aspect of the wine business. “I created this business by being in the market with my customers all the time, this is how we know what is happening. For example, this is how we knew to get into the craft distiller movement before the boom,” he says.
With over 80 years in the wine business, Hubert has tremendous perspective, and many stories. Though Hubert will reflect on his journey, he much prefers to discuss where the company is today and the direction his grandchildren, Don and Dina, are steering it. “The marketplace has changed, and while we still spend a lot of time with our restaurant buyers, we have found new opportunities with large chain accounts, which is very exciting for us.”
A regular at the gym these days, Hubert also gets a fair amount of exercise walking the company’s warehouse—one of his most cherished pastimes. And being with family and longtime friends, such as Italy’s Carpineto wine family, who visit him frequently at his Palm Beach Gardens home. “I’m very fortunate,” he reflects. “It is hard enough to stay a strong business—and sometimes being a family business makes it even harder. But it’s been worth all the effort, and I’m so proud of what this family has built together.”