The Villa Maria story is one of absolute passion. 100 percent New Zealand and family owned, Villa Maria Estate was founded in 1961 by George Fistonich who, through his dedication to quality, has led Villa Maria Estate to claim the title New Zealand’s Most Awarded Wines for more than 30 years.
George’s interest in winemaking started when New Zealand’s wine industry was virtually nonexistent. Passionate from a young age, wine was a central part of his upbringing. “Growing up, wine was always a part of my life. Being Croatian it is part of your blood,” says George.
He could not have imagined how far the New Zealand wine industry would progress in the years to come. Throughout the 1960s Villa Maria was a one-man band, with George’s wife, Gail, supporting him in his venture. He made dry red and white wines, sourcing grapes from the greater Auckland area. In the early 1970s he started to employ staff and the company began to expand rapidly. Today, Villa Maria employs close to 250 staff and export wine to more than 50 countries worldwide with our main export markets to date being the UK, Australia and the US, but increasingly Asia will be a major beneficiary of our wines in the years to come.
George’s award-winning success started with his very first vintage. He favourably recalls entering his first wines in the 1962 Royal Easter Show (New Zealand’s oldest and most established wine competition), where he received the second and third prize. This was in the days before gold, silver and bronze medals, when the competition only awarded the top three wines of the show.
Since the early 1980s Villa Maria has been New Zealand’s most award-winning winery, consistently winning prizes from both national and international competitions. George attributes the company’s success to his team’s absolute commitment and unrelenting passion to create the best wines possible. “Great wine starts with exceptional vineyards and exceptional people. If you have these foundations, you have the best chance of making the best wines.”
In the last 20 years, five of Villa Maria’s senior winemakers including George himself, have received a Winemaker of the Year award. Some, like current Group Winemaker, Alastair Maling MW, have received it more than once. In fact, Maling took top honours at the 2007 International Wine Challenge in London, beating tough international competition to be named White Winemaker of the Year.
George is adamant that the company’s total commitment to quality has attracted the best people to work for Villa Maria throughout the years: “Being a family owned business, we are a very tight-knit team. Our winemakers have the opportunity to express their own flair here. We are not restrained by any limitations, unlike a lot of larger wineries around the world.”
The company’s focus, still driven by George, is to find the best vineyard sites and manage them expertly. Villa Maria was the first company in New Zealand to employ professional viticulturists, recognising the part viticulture plays in the quality of the wine. Villa Maria sources grapes from company owned vineyards and contract growers in some of the best sites in leading grape growing regions; Marlborough and Waipara in the South Island, and Hawkes Bay, Gisborne and Auckland in the North Island.
George does not believe in change for the sake of it but is recognised as one of the true innovators of the New Zealand wine industry. When Villa Maria started producing wine with screwcaps from the 2000 vintage, the wines’ superiority was quickly noted. Villa Maria was the first wine company in New Zealand to declare the winery a “cork-free zone”, sealing all wines from the 2002 vintage onwards with a screw cap. It was a bold move for George who took the risk of losing overseas business by declining to fill orders from companies who requested wines sealed under cork. For George it came down to quality, something he has never been willing to compromise on.
George’s passion to create wines of exceptional quality has driven Villa Maria Estate to gain a strong reputation around the world. In 2004 he was named New Zealander of the year by the prestigious National Business Review. In 2005 he received the DCNZM (equivalent to a knighthood under the previous Queen’s honours system) and in 2009 he received his knighthood for his outstanding service to the New Zealand wine industry. He was named the 2005 New Zealand Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year, and was short listed as one of 50 most prominent figures in the wine industry by the United Kingdom’s Wine International Magazine.
George urges that while the awards and recognition are nice, this has never been his focus: “These successes come from making quality the focus. If you are determined from the onset that you will not compromise on this, then you will never lose sight of what your purpose is about.”
Keep following this blog for more on Villa Maria’s people, wines and journey into Asia.