Photo credit: Paul Empson

We recently had the privilege to interview Tara Empson, the tenacious, young CEO of Empson & Co. Her portfolio is nearly 50 years old and was built with passion and intention by her parents, Neil and Maria Empson. 

When did Empson & Co. begin and how many wineries does it currently represent?

Empson & Co. was founded in 1972. Prior to that, my parents worked out of a small reception room in their apartment building as agents until they had enough money to establish the company. My mother always told me about how they made sacrifices to start achieving their dreams. She spoke about how she would go to the supermarket with the little money she had and how many times she had to count coins to afford to buy that night’s dinner. Thanks to their dreams and sacrifices, today we export to 32 countries worldwide and represent 52 wineries and 5 craft spirits.   

How are the wineries within your portfolio selected?

My father always told me to choose based on two vital points: the quality of the product and most importantly the quality of the person behind the product. 

If you truly believe in what you have, then the relationship will last. There are bound to be times when you are more successful and times when you are less successful but if you don't have a strong and trustworthy relationship with the producer, then the odds of overcoming hard times will be low and the partnership will suffer. Very wise words in my opinion, as today we have wineries in our portfolio that we have represented for over 40 years and one that has been with us for 48 years. Not a bad track record! 

What did you do prior to joining the family business in 2006?

I grew up following my parents around the world. I came to Italy when I was 4 years old and was immediately introduced to the wonderful people that still surround me today. Over time, my concept of family became about the relationships that I had with our office staff and our producers. My parents did not believe in babysitters and I would attend business dinners and fall asleep on my mother's lap many nights. As a consequence, my strongest desire is to be with the people I love and to try my best to make them happy as they always did for me.

What has been the greatest challenge and/or most rewarding part of succeeding your father as CEO?

This is certainly not an easy moment for us considering our portfolio is 97% Italian. This said, I am not scared of a challenge and the upside is that it forces you to work together, find alternative solutions and forge ahead.

The most rewarding part was taking the reins and feeling that I was supported and accepted. I say this because being an heir to your parents’ company is not always easy. The assumption is that the road has been paved for you, but the reality is that if you don't earn the trust and respect that you need, the road ahead is going to be filled with rather large potholes with no one to help you fix them.   

What do you think is the most common misconception about Italian wines?

That just because marketing has taught us that Italian wine is the symbol of vacation and a casual lifestyle, it is often not true. There are a lot of big names out there that are oriented towards “easy” drinking “aperitivo” style wines but the truth in my opinion, is that producers are more and more oriented towards finding excellence in quality and authenticity. 

If you could only choose three wines from your portfolio to drink for the rest of your life, what would they be and why?

This is a very hard question. I am often asked which is my favorite and it always throws me for a loop. The reason being is that I believe wine and the experience you have is tied to circumstances. For example, there are times you will be at a dinner and someone will open up an amazing wine but for some reason, even if you are enjoying it, it doesn’t touch your soul, and there are other times, perhaps after a hard day at work where you come home, pour yourself a glass, and feel like you are somehow complete. That being said, I am a big fan of island varietals and volcanic soils. 

How are the new potential U.S. tariffs on wine affecting your business and the livelihoods of the families you represent?

With such great vintages out there, and the exceptional releases of the latest Barolo and Brunellos, it hasn’t been ideal for us, for sure. That said, I believe you can develop an action plan if you know what you are facing and in my opinion, what has really hurt the most, up to now, has been the uncertainty, fear and silence that has taken over the market. This sense of irresolution and uncertainty has caused more damage than the final decision itself. We are a financially stable company, thanks to my parents’ wise choices and sacrifices, so we are prepared as best as we can be to weather the storm and support our families.

What is your greatest piece of advice for young women in the wine business? 

Don't overwhelm yourself and remember to be proud of who you are. I was recently asked this question and my answer was that as women, we try to take on the world and although our multitasking is very admirable, we forget to be kind and forgiving to ourselves. We are often driven by success but forget how vital our own mental and physical health is as one can’t thrive without the other.

What do you imagine you would be doing if you weren’t CEO of Empson & Co.?

Proclaim myself  the ruler of a small Caribbean island and if that fails, as I don't think the odds would be in my favor, then I would work with animals. 

If you had to choose one varietal that best represents you and your personality, what would it be and why?

Maybe Carignano. It is very resilient and has survived Phylloxera in some areas. It thrives in the Mediterranean and loves the sun and sand. It has a strong backbone, but is soft on the palate.

I would consider myself a fighter and although it’s not a preference, when I am subjected to hard times, I subconsciously thrive as one is forced to learn and adapt. I can be quite intense at times but at the end of the day, nothing makes me happier than kicking back and spending quality time.