Wine industry icon Hubert Opici remembered as ‘generous’ and ‘always sharp’

OBITUARY


He was the wine industry icon with a personality as easy-going as the wines that carry his family’s name. Hubert Opici knew customers by name and backstory. 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. Opici, a resident of the Frenchman’s Creek development in Palm Beach Gardens, died of natural causes Tuesday morning 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, 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 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 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 over 30 years ago to retire – for about an hour,” says Outwater, an Opici employee for 22 years. 

In his Florida years, 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 Opici’s honor at his La Sirena restaurant on South Dixie Highway. The dinners were always quick to sell out. 

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. 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 says. 

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, 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.” 

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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. 

In the tribute video an interviewer asks the patriarch how he would best describe himself. Opici smiles at the question. 

“A poor boy who made good,” he said. 

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

“I would like to talk about my family,” said 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.” 

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 will be held from 4 to 7 p.m. Thursday at Taylor & Modeen Funeral Home in Jupiter. The family has planned a private funeral.


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