Sir George Fistonich – trust, quality and gold medals

The main purpose of the evening was to try some Villa Maria wines from Sir George’s (pictured) cellar. (Photo: Supplied)

It’s hardly a surprise when Villa Maria earns yet another award. It’s more of a surprise when they don’t come first. I’m sure you could completely paper a reasonably large house with their “Winemaker of the Year” certificates.

“To make great wine you need the right people and the right vineyards. We’ve now got both.” – Sir George Fistonich

But when a press release arrived in my inbox announcing that Villa Maria has been named New Zealand’s most trusted wine brand for the second time in three years by Reader’s Digest shortly after being recognised as the world’s most admired New Zealand wine brand by Drinks International, I started to wonder how they had managed it.

Villa Maria is a safe house for wine buyers, but it also manages to make many truly exciting and award-winning wines. If you bundle up Villa Maria with its associate companies Vidal, Esk Valley, etcetera and count the combined gold medals earned over the past decade they must be miles ahead of whoever is in second place.

Some of their competitors accuse them of “pot-hunting” but do they really make wines to earn medals? I recall asking founder, Sir George Fistonich, a few years ago if they deliberately chased medals. He replied,

“We work very hard at trying to make good wines and I think we are fairly successful. Good wines just happen to earn medals.”

Fair enough. It’s time to talk to Sir George once again to find out how he has built his company into becoming New Zealand’s most trusted and most admired wine brand.

Sir George and Lady Gail Fistonich live in a well-appointed but not ostentatious home in Parnell with views across Orakei Basin. I’ve known and respected Sir George for a long time. I worked for Villa Maria for a short period in the seventies before being lured away by the offer of an overseas posting that was too attractive to turn down.

Does Villa Maria have a clear vision of how it would like to be perceived and, if so, how did it go about pursuing that goal? I asked.

Sir George explained that he started to make wine because he wanted to be part of the winemaking community and he found the process extremely interesting. His passion for wine received a big boost when wines from his first vintage won second and third prizes at a wine competition.

“In those days I didn’t have the resources of other wine producers. I started by buying surplus grapes but the desire to make quality wine was strong right from the beginning. In 1979 I hired marketing consultant, Steve Bridges. With his help, we established two written goals. Villa Maria would always remain a private company and we would make the best quality wine.”

“Ideas have no value unless you put it into practice. We needed a top winemaker. I went to Australia where I interviewed 60 people for the position of chief winemaker. Most applicants lacked the passion I was looking for. I returned to New Zealand and three days later received a letter from Kym Milne. I flew him over to New Zealand. It cost $800.”

Kym worked for Villa Maria from 1985 to 1992. He made many changes and, in my view, made a profound contribution to Villa Maria’s quality aspirations. Future winemakers continued to elevate quality. Current chief winemaker, Nick Picone, is both an outstanding craftsman as well as being an inspiring leader.

“To make great wine you need the right people and the right vineyards. We’ve now got both. For example, Villa Maria owns one-third of the Gimblett Gravels. We allow our winemakers to experiment with new varieties and styles. Being a privately-owned family company lets us give winemakers more rope. If you have good people in the vineyard, winery and bottling hall and if everyone is heading in the right direction, you’ll make good wine.”

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