New Zealand wine industry luminary Sir George Fistonich has been named the recipient of the 2013 Rabobank Leadership Award for his outstanding contribution to agribusiness.
A pioneer of modern-day winemaking in New Zealand, Sir George, the founder and owner of Villa Maria Estate, was presented with the prestigious trans-Tasman honour at the annual Rabobank Leadership Award Dinner in Melbourne last night.
Australian grains industry advocate Georgie Aley was named Rabobank Emerging Leader, a new award category recognising up-and-coming young leaders in New Zealand and Australia's food, beverage and agribusiness industries.
Announcing the award winners, Rabobank Australia & New Zealand Group managing director Thos Gieskes said Sir George Fistonich had spent five decades at the forefront of New Zealand's wine industry and had been an instrumental figure in the rise of New Zealand wines on the world stage.
"In a career spanning 50 years, George Fistonich has exemplified true leadership along with an extraordinary passion for the New Zealand wine industry - successfully leading not just his own business, but helping to pioneer and drive an entire industry and inspire and mentor those around him," Mr Gieskes said.
"He has taken Villa Maria Estate from a 'one-man band' to its position today as a successful global brand, sold in more than 60 countries around the world.
"Along the way, he has been a leader and pioneer at the forefront of New Zealand's wine industry, helping to drive and develop not only New Zealanders' taste and appreciation for wine, but also the standing and reputation of New Zealand wine in the global market."
Mr Gieskes said Sir George, the son of Croatian migrants, had founded Villa Maria at just 21 years of age, in 1961, when New Zealand's wine industry was in its infancy, leasing five acres of land from his father in Mangere, Auckland and beginning with just one acre of vines.
"With the support of his wife Gail in his venture, George harvested his first grapes in 1962 and began making dry red and wine wines, sourcing additional grapes from the greater Auckland region," Mr Gieskes said.
"George's passion for winemaking and commitment to quality saw Villa Maria expand rapidly from the early 1970s to its position today where it employs more than 250 permanent staff, is a significant global exporter and has held the title of New Zealand's most awarded winery for more than 33 years."
Mr Gieskes said Sir George was a major innovator in the New Zealand wine industry.
"From early on, George focused on the importance of regional differences in relation to grape quality and wine styles. He pioneered the use of contract growers and led Villa Maria to become one of the first New Zealand wine companies to initiate payment for grapes based on quality, rather than a flat contract price," he said. "George was also one of the first wine business owners in the country to employ professional viticulturists recognising the importance viticulture plays in the quality of the wine."
Mr Gieskes said Villa Maria, under Sir George's leadership, had driven change in consumer tastes and appreciation for wine, launching programs to educate New Zealanders on wine. In 1971 this was enhanced when he opened New Zealand's first winery restaurant - Vidal's - a key milestone in the hospitality industry and the start of what is now a key part of New Zealand's food and wine tourism offering.
The company had also embraced sustainable production. Villa Maria was a founding member of Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand (SWNZ), from 1995, and was the first major New Zealand winery to achieve BioGro organic certification for its bottling facilities in Auckland and is able to trace organic certification for its organic wines from grape to bottle. In 2012 Villa Maria was awarded the Supreme Green Ribbon Award from New Zealand Parliament recognising the company's on-going commitment to environmental best practices.
Villa Maria was also the first major New Zealand wine company to move to away from cork seals, selling all wines from its 2002 vintage onward with a screw cap, avoiding the impact of corkage on wine quality.
"This was a very bold move at the time as the company took a risk on losing overseas business by declining to fill orders from customers who insisted on cork seals, but for George it came down to not compromising on quality and screw cap seals meant better quality wine," Mr Gieskes said. "Today, some 95 per cent of New Zealand bottled wine is sold with screw caps."
Over the years, Sir George has received numerous honours for his contribution to the wine industry and wider business, including being named New Zealand Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year and receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award at the International Wine Challenge Awards. In 2009, he became the first New Zealander to receive a knighthood for services to the wine industry and last year he was awarded a Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medal.
But it is in the area of people mentoring that Sir George has showed some of his greatest leadership attributes, Mr Gieskes said.
"Over many decades, George has been - and continues to be - an exceptional mentor of those who have been fortunate enough to work with him. He has instilled his passion for winemaking in so many others in the wine industry nurturing the talents of individuals, including through the winemaking and viticulture cadet scheme that he instigated within Villa Maria Estate"
Today - now with another winery and vineyards in Marlborough, as well vineyards in Gisborne and Hawkes Bay - Villa Maria Estate remains a family company, chaired by Sir George's daughter Karen Fistonich and employing a team of New Zealand's leading winemakers and viticulturalists.
The Rabobank Leadership Award is a key recognition of achievement in, and contribution to, New Zealand and Australia's food, beverage and agribusiness industries.
A peer-judged award, previous recipients include food and agri corporate heads John Watson, Max Ould, Nick Burton Taylor, Robert Hill Smith and Barry Irvin as well as leading food scientists Dr Bruce Lee and, last year's winner, Dr Jim Peacock. The Rabobank Leadership Dinner was held in the members' dining room of the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Keynote speaker was managing director of Australian Supermarkets & Petrol for Woolworths, Tjeerd Jegen.