The journeyman: Sir George Fistonich

16:00, Dec 09 2012
george fistonich
LIFELONG PASSION: "To me what I wanted to do was grow grapes and make wine," George Fistonich says.

The staff lunchroom might not seem an obvious stop on a tour of a picturesque winery. But Villa Maria’s is immaculate — largely due to the writing on its wall.

One side of the lunchroom at the company’s winery in Mangere, Auckland, is dominated by information about its lean manufacturing programme, Achieving Continuous Excellence (ACE), running in the company for the past two years.

It’s brought efficiencies to the business, but benefits in the physical environment are also obvious. Nothing — not even in the caf — is out of place.

It’s a point of pride for founder Sir George Fistonich, but also gives an insight into how the company, which celebrates its 50th vintage this year, has continued to grow in a tough industry.

“You can’t stop. You’ve always got to keep some innovation and excitement going,” says Fistonich. “One year it’s screwcaps, at one stage it was new buildings, at the moment it’s continuous improvement — ACE lean manufacturing and efficiencies. It’s a continual process.”

Fistonich started the company as a 21-year-old, growing grapes on two hectares of land leased from his father just down the road from the company’s Auckland winery.


Fistonich recalls there were a handful of large New Zealand wine companies in private ownership at the time.

Today, he says, Villa Maria is the only privately owned New Zealand wine company that’s a significant global brand. “To stay as a New Zealand owned company and stay at the top echelon, that’s been the biggest growth challenge. We’re not out to grow in quantity but you’ ve got to grow big enough to be significant and create stimulation for your staff,” he says.

“To keep it in New Zealand private family ownership also gives you a lot more scope to promote all the [wine varieties] New Zealand is good at ... you can take a more long term view.”

Wine was part of the fabric of life for Fistonich growing up in a Croatian family, but his father didn’t see a future for his son in the industry, which at the time was dominated by breweries. The young Fistonich did a carpentry and joinery apprenticeship, but it didn’t last.

“To me what I wanted to do was grow grapes and make wine,” he says. “I didn’t know it at the time, but I’m relatively impulsive and impatient ... the thing with wine is it gives you a hell of a lot of variety. You can be walking through paddocks looking at soil types and growing conditions and climate. Then winemaking is half art, half science. You have to develop a palate. Then you have to sell it and talk about it. To me it was something that was a complete lifestyle.”

Fistonich won two out of the three prizes on offer at the 1963 Royal Easter Show with his first vintage, giving the fledgling company a stamp of approval.

He describes the company’s first 20 years as “very much seat of the pants” stuff, but in 1979 it decided to focus on quality, with emphasis on bringing in high calibre people. “We started to get into professional marketing, professional viticulture and high quality winemaking and from then on we’ve pretty much dominated every wine show in New Zealand by quite a large ratio.”

Wine advisor Raymond Chan, of Raymond Chan Wine Reviews, has been in the industry for 30 years and uses many Villa Maria wines as benchmarks.

Fistonich, he says, is driven to produce wine at the highest level. “Villa Maria has changed a lot. It’s grown with the times and has become more of a businesss, but at the heart of it is good wine. It’s what they’re making at the end of the day that stands tall.”

About 70% of Villa Maria’s business now comes from export to more than 50 countries. Export started in 1988 with a focus on the UK and Europe and later the US, where the company joined with other Kiwi wineries to break into new markets.

Richard Riddiford is managing director of Palliser Estate Wines, which alongside Villa Maria is part of the Family of Twelve wine cooperative.

Riddiford says Fistonich is generous with his time, helping others in the industry. He says Fistonich’s vision is a driver of the company’s growth. “He’s got an unusual thought process in that he’s not particularly concerned with today, but he is concerned with five years out.”

Fistonich agrees looking forward is a strength and a necessity in a tough business. He says his involvement with the business has gone full circle, from being into everything to being more of a ‘brand ambassador’. Just don’t expect retirement any time soon.

“I’m always looking at tomorrow. I don’t tend to look backwards at all. Wine generally is a highly competitive industry; a lot of people want to get into it so you’ve always got to be looking at improvement ... I don’t think you ever get to the end. There’s no destination, there’s just a journey.”

George Fistonich talks about some of Villa Maria’s milestones: 1961: “I got married in the same year [I started the company]. I grew the grapes, made the wine and travelled to sell the wine ... on my honeymoon. I actually stopped to deliver some wine at the Tokoroa wine shop.” 1963: Villa Maria wine wins its first prizes. “It put me on the map as a boutique winery. It gave you a mark of quality that helped.”

1976: The purchase of Vidals gives the company a base in Hawke’s Bay.

1985: As the result of a price war, the company goes into voluntary receivership. “Once we made a decision it was a voluntary receivership because we were running out of money, then it became a war zone. I became determined I was going to dig myself out of it.” The company was back in business by April 1986.

1988: Export begins. “We knocked on the doors and got the usual rejection, but eventually we got accepted ... It was quite demoralising in the early days. It was, ‘do you guys in New Zealand really know how to make wine?’”

2001: Cork is out and screwcaps are in. “We read our mission statement that said our total focus is on quality, so in terms of living our mission statement we could not put corks in and know we were lowering the quality of 8% of our wines almost instantly through cork taint.”

2005: Villa Maria opens a new 40-hectare Auckland winery just down the road from where the company began.

2012: The company celebrates its 50th vintage. “We’re very ambitious about passionately staying a New Zealand owned family company and maintaining and finetuning our quality all the time.”