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NZ wine pioneer celebrates 50 years of winemaking

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

You don’t become New Zealand’s most awarded winery and create one of the world’s most admired wine brands without taking a few risks along the way. As Villa Maria celebrates its 50th vintage, let’s look at why Sir George Fistonich is known as a New Zealand wine pioneer.

For a start, it is not easy to tell your dad that you are quitting a career in carpentry to try your hand at making wine. But in 1961 at the tender age of 21 that’s exactly what Sir George Fistonich did when he leased five acres of land from his dad, planted one acre with grapes and started making wine under the name Villa Maria. He chose the name because his friends thought it sounded European but ever since those first cuttings took hold in the soil out in Mangere, Sir George has been determined to be at the cutting edge of quality winegrowing.

It did not take long for him to see that different regions produced grapes of different quality and style, so he started paying contract growers based on quality rather than quantity. He also employed professional winemakers and viticulturists early on, knowing they would play a huge part in developing high quality fruit. This in turn led to Villa Maria becoming the first New Zealand wine company to structure their wines into a "tier" system of quality and price.

Consumers responded positively and fostered Sir George’s determination to grow the absolute best fruit from the best sites around the country which were suited to certain varieties. His wines were then bottled as different ranges; Private Bin, Cellar Selection, Reserve and Single Vineyard.

However, over the coming years the high incidence of cork taint and oxidation kept blocking his path. When the number of wines affected reached unsustainable levels, Sir George began experimenting with screwcaps. The results were so convincing, Fistonich decided to declare the entire company a "cork-free zone" in 2001.

At that time screwcaps were associated with cheap wines but Sir George challenged this perception and stood his ground. He refused to supply wines with cork and even turned down orders from export markets. But compromising on quality was never an option, especially when millions of dollars were invested in the nurturing of the vines and crafting of the wines for it all to be ruined by an unreliable closure.

Fistonich’s determination paid off and over the following decade thanks to on-going education in New Zealand and overseas, screwcaps not only became the norm for New Zealand producers, they have gained worldwide acceptance.

If this move had backfired, Fistonich would have been in trouble because the same year he began experimenting with screwcaps he also decided to create a state-of-the-art winery in Manukau encompassing a high-end restaurant, cellar door and events space - the first of its type in Auckland.

Arriving at the bank with a conceptual painting by Cynthia Taylor of what he wanted the complex to look like, Sir George leapt again into unknown territory. Would enough people travel out here to have lunch and taste wines? Would they do it regularly enough to make the venture sustainable? The Villa Maria winery and restaurant opened its doors in 2005 and is now one of the most popular outdoor concert venues and one of the busiest cellar doors and restaurants in New Zealand.

At the end of October Sir George will host his 50th vintage celebrations event at this unique venue, looking back with great pride on 50 years of exceptional winemaking. The event also marks the end of his road show which started back in May with events in the United States, Canada and Asia. Sir George continues this road show this week, hosting celebration events in Australia, the UK and Europe before returning to New Zealand in October.

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