Sir George Fistonich, Owner and Managing Director of Villa Maria, New Zealand's most awarded winery, is currently 'on tour' to celebrate the winery's 50th Vintage with a roadshow of events in Villa Maria's international markets, including the UK. The celebrations will culminate in a big event at the Villa Maria Winery and Restaurant in Auckland at the end of October. So how did Sir George create one of the world's most admired wine brands and come to be known as a New Zealand Pioneer? It was not without taking a few risks along the way.
It is not easy to tell your Dad that you are quitting a career in carpentry to try your hand at making wine. But in 1961, at the age of 21, that's exactly what Sir George Fistonich did. He leased five acres of land from his father, planted one acre with grapes and started making wine under the name 'Villa Maria' which he chose because his friends thought it sounded European. Since those first cuttings took hold in the soil out in Mangere, near Auckland, Sir George has been determined to be at the cutting edge of quality winegrowing. It did not take long for him to see that different regions produced grapes of different quality and style, so he started paying contract growers based on quality rather than quantity. He also employed professional winemakers and viticulturists early on, knowing they would play a huge part in developing high quality fruit. This in turn led to Villa Maria becoming the first New Zealand wine company to structure their wines into a "tier" system of quality and price.
Consumers responded positively and fostered Sir George's determination to grow the absolute best fruit from the best sites around the country which were suited to certain varieties. His wines were then bottled as different ranges; Private Bin, Cellar Selection, Reserve and Single Vineyard.
However, over the coming years the high incidence of cork taint and oxidation kept blocking his plans. When the number of wines affected reached unsustainable levels, Sir George began experimenting with screwcaps. The results were so convincing, Fistonich decided to declare the entire company a "cork-free zone" in 2001.
At that time screwcaps were associated with cheap wines but Sir George challenged this perception and stood his ground. He refused to supply wines with cork and even turned down orders from export markets. Comprising on quality was never an option, especially when millions of dollars were invested in the nurturing of the vines and crafting of the wines for it all to be ruined by an unreliable closure.
Fistonich's determination paid off and over the following decade, thanks to on-going education in New Zealand and overseas, screwcaps not only became the norm for New Zealand producers, they have gained worldwide acceptance.
The same year George began experimenting with screwcaps, he also decided to create a state-of-the-art winery in Manukau, Auckland, encompassing a high-end restaurant, cellar door and events space - the first of its kind in Auckland.Arriving at the bank with a conceptual painting of what he wanted the complex to look like, Sir George leapt again into unknown territory. Would enough people travel here to have lunch and taste wines? Would they do it regularly enough to make the venture sustainable? The Villa Maria winery and restaurant opened its doors in 2005 and is now one of the most popular outdoor concert venues and one of the busiest cellar doors and restaurants in New Zealand.
At the end of October Sir George will host his 50th vintage celebrations event at this unique venue, looking back with great pride on 50 years of exceptional winemaking. The event also marks the end of his road show which started back in May with events in the United States, Canada and Asia. Sir George will host a celebration event in London on the 18th September.