Sir George Fistonich makes a speech during Villa Maria's
50th anniversary celebrations at the company's winery in
Mangere, South Auckland, recently. Photos supplied.
When the young George Fistonich first made port, sherry
and hock from 0.4ha of grapes in Mangere, South Auckland, in
1962, few would have foreseen that 50 years later he would have
built his business into one of the country's largest wine
companies - and managed to keep it in the family when many
other successful wine producers have been taken over by
The remarkable story is told in Kerry Tyack's book The
Winemaker: George Fistonich and the Villa Maria
story (Random House), with details from young George's
upbringing in a Croatian family, through the growth struggles
to his present achievement at the head of one of the largest,
and the most awarded, of New Zealand wine producers.
The company's darkest days were in 1986 when, as a result of
a surplus of grapes and a price war driven by large corporate
wine companies, Villa Maria went into receivership.
However, it bounced back a year later and has gone on to
acquire other brands - Vidal, Esk Valley, Thornbury and Te
Villa Maria's growth mirrors that of the New Zealand wine
industry, from a few winemakers in the Auckland area
producing fortified wines for sale and dry wines for
themselves, then expanding into Gisborne, Hawkes Bay and
further south through Martinborough, Marlborough, Waipara and
Central Otago with classic grape varieties.
Sir George was one of the early producers to educate his
customers about wine in the 1960s and '70s, and to encourage
grape growers to plant European varieties and pay them for
quality rather than quantity. He was also the first major wine
company to banish corks in favour of screw caps for all levels
One of Sir George's skills is his ability to select capable
staff, and Tyack interviews many current and former
colleagues and employees.
Some have been remarkably long-serving and many others, such
as Kate Radburnd, Michelle Richardson, Elise Montgomerie and
Steve Smith, have gone on to achieve high profiles elsewhere
in the industry.
Tyack paints a portrait of a man of vision, determination and
hard work, obsessed with excellence and innovation, but also
with a streak of stubbornness that has stood him in good
stead through the ups and downs of half a century in the wine
As part of the company's 50th anniversary celebrations, Sir
George and Gail Lady Fistonich were joined by more than 500
guests recently for lunch at the Villa Maria Winery in
Guests had travelled from 12 of the countries to which the
firm exports, including Canada, the United States, United
Kingdom, Ireland, Japan, Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti, Tonga and the
Sir George had recently returned from visiting many of the
company's export markets as part of the celebrations. Even at
73 he keeps up a punishing schedule, and is not about to step
back too far, although his daughter Karen and nephew Fabian
Yukich now have major roles in the company.