Vines flourish for a determined winemaker

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.
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 corporates.

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 Awa.

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 of wine.

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 industry.

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 Mangere.

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 Cook Islands.

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.