Wine in­dus­try icon re­mem­bered as ‘al­ways sharp’

Hu­bert Opici, who died at 102, was the ge­nial pa­tri­arch of the com­pa­nies that bear his fam­ily name.

Palm Beach Daily News - - BUSINESS - By LIZ BALMASEDA

He was the wine in­dus­try icon with a per­son­al­ity as easy­go­ing as the wines that carry his fam­ily’s name. Hu­bert Opici knew cus­tomers by name and back story. He greeted em­ploy­ees as fam­ily. To­day, they mourn him as they re­mem­ber his zest for life and how he em­bod­ied the Amer­i­can dream.

The ge­nial pa­tri­arch of the wine com­pa­nies bear­ing the Opici name lived six months be­yond his 102nd birth­day. Mr. Opici, a res­i­dent of the French­man’s Creek de­vel­op­ment in Palm Beach Gar­dens, died of nat­u­ral causes Tues­day, Sept. 11, 2018, at Jupiter Med­i­cal Cen­ter.

“I don’t think there’s any bet­ter role model that we could have had,” his grand­daugh­ter, Dina Opici, said Tues­day. “He put fam­ily first. He thought of ev­ery­one he worked with as fam­ily, as well. That is some­thing that will con­tinue to be im­por­tant to us as we honor his legacy.”

Un­til re­cently, Mr. Opici re­mained in­flu­en­tial in the com­pa­nies now run by his grand­chil­dren. As re­cently as Au­gust, he at­tended a sales meet­ing at the Opici Fam­ily Dis­tribut­ing of­fices in Lake Park, ac­cord­ing to the com­pany’s vice pres­i­dent of Florida sales, Bill Out­wa­ter.

“He was al­ways, al­ways in­volved,” said Out­wa­ter, re­call­ing Mr. Opici’s fre­quent ap­pear­ances at the plant through the years. “He would come in all the time and say things like, ‘Did you open that ac­count down the street?’ He was al­ways amaz­ing and al­ways sharp.”

The founder of the Opici Wine Group, who was hon­ored by Wine Enthusiast with a pres­ti­gious “Amer­i­can Wine Leg­end” Wine Star award in 2012, was af­fec­tion­ately known as “Mr. O” by the com­pa­nies’ 800 em­ploy­ees. Cus­tomers and em­ploy­ees knew him in the present tense, not as a re­tired fig­ure from long ago. In the past 38 years, many of those cus­tomers were based in Florida, where Mr. Opici opened the Lake Park dis­tri­bu­tion cen­ter in 1980, fol­lowed by a sec­ond plant in Ocala.

“I al­ways joked that he came down to Florida 20 years ago to re­tire — for about an hour,” says Out­wa­ter, an Opici em­ployee for 22 years.

In his Florida years, Mr. Opici nur­tured fam­ily friend­ships as the busi­ness grew and di­ver­si­fied. One such friend was West Palm Beach chef and restaurateur Mar­cello Fiorentino, who re­called him fondly Tues­day.

Fiorentino hosted sev­eral wine din­ners in Mr. Opici’s honor at his La Sirena restau­rant on South Dixie High­way in West Palm Beach. The din­ners were al­ways quick to sell out.

Mr. Opici, who was a friend of Fiorentino’s late fa­ther, loved “real food,” the chef said. “When he came to the din­ners, he ate ev­ery course and drank ev­ery wine pair­ing.”

In April, Fiorentino hosted a spe­cial lun­cheon for the cen­te­nar­ian. It was a rare event for a fine-din­ing restau­rant that’s open only for din­ner. Mr. Opici not only at­tended, says Fiorentino, he made his way to ev­ery ta­ble to chat with the guests.

“He was su­per kind and gen­er­ous,” Fiorentino said.

With strong roots in New Jersey, the Opici wine brand grew out of a whole­sale busi­ness founded by the fam­ily in the early 1900s. Hu­bert Opici’s im­mi­grant par­ents, Joseph and Es­ther, built the foun­da­tion for what is to­day’s Opici com­pa­nies. Hu­bert joined the busi­ness in 1934, af­ter high school grad­u­a­tion.

In a trib­ute video shown at the Wine Enthusiast award cer­e­mony, Mr. Opici of­fered a glimpse of the busi­ness’ mod­est restart af­ter the re­peal of Pro­hi­bi­tion: “My fa­ther was a sales­man, I was a de­liv­ery boy and my mother was in the of­fice. The wine, it all came from Italy in bar­rels, and I bot­tled it

... We used to start out at 9 in the morn­ing and get home at 2 in the morn­ing.”

To help re­build the busi­ness in 1934, the Opici fam­ily opened a New Jersey-based wine dis­tri­bu­tion com­pany. Hu­bert left the fam­ily busi­ness tem­po­rar­ily to join the armed forces dur­ing World War II.

His work years af­ter the war es­tab­lished a legacy of du­ti­ful ser­vice, says Out­wa­ter.

“Hu­bert be­lieved in part­ner­ship. He be­lieved that we are part­ners with our cus­tomers,” Out­wa­ter said.

On the night he ac­cepted his “Amer­i­can Wine Leg­end” award, a 97-year-old Mr. Opici spoke about the most im­por­tant peo­ple in his life.

“I would like to talk about my fam­ily,” said Mr. Opici, who was joined on stage by his daugh­ter and grand­chil­dren. “This is the fu­ture of the com­pany. They’re go­ing to be the fourth gen­er­a­tion of the busi­ness and they’re do­ing very well.”

Mr. Opici is sur­vived by his daugh­ter Linda, who is CEO of the Opici Group, his grand­daugh­ter Dina, pres­i­dent of Opici Fam­ily Dis­tribut­ing, grand­son Don, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Opici Wines, and four great-grand­chil­dren, Ju­lia, James, Luca and Lo­gan. He was pre­de­ceased by his wife of 65 years, Rose Marie, in 2010.

A wake was held Thurs­day night in Jupiter. The fam­ily has planned a pri­vate fu­neral.

Mr. Opici

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