Winery celebrates 50 years

20:22, May 15 2012
Inside knowledge: Villa Maria Estate owner and managing director Sir George Fistonich says New Zealand-owned wine companies know the best way to market their brand overseas.

As New Zealand's most awarded winery bottles its 50th harvest wine, owner and founder Sir George Fistonich knows the value of a good vintage.

Villa Maria cemented its status as New Zealand's leading wine brand after it was recently named among the world's 50 great wine producers in American magazine 'Wine Spectator'.

The company has won the New Zealand Wine Company of the Year at Australia's Winestate Wine Awards ten out of eleven years and in 2009, Fistonich received the country's first knighthood for services to the New Zealand wine industry.

It all began in 1961 when 21-year-old Fistonich turned his hobby into a business by leasing five acres of land from his father in Mangere, Auckland.

A year later he had bottled his first wine.

Throughout the 60s he grew his estate with the help of his wife, Gail, and employed his first staff in the early 1970's.

Today, Villa Maria has vineyards and wineries in four regions around New Zealand and exports wine to more than 50 countries worldwide.

Villa Maria has kept it all in the family - it's New Zealand's largest family-owned winery. Fistonich's daughter, Karen, has been the chairperson of the Villa Maria Estate Board for nearly twenty years.
"I grew up surrounded by grape vines and playing in the winery until I was eight years old. I think you absorb it by osmosis. Being around the winery at vintage time was an exciting time of the year."

However, the younger Fistonich wanted to avoid "being the boss's daughter" and worked in international banking at ANZ before she was brought into the family business.

"In retrospect I wish I had got involved sooner. It's a different style of business as you're in it for the long term so there's a different commitment there.

"My father can be very open with me when he's discussing the future plans for the business - what we want to achieve long term - which is great."

While the awards are certainly a lengthy list, the company's road to success hasn't always been smooth.

At the height of the 1980's wine glut - an overproduction of low quality wines which created a surplus and price war and lead to many winemaking businesses collapsing or being snapped up by New Zealand or foreign buyers - the company was almost broke.

However, Villa Maria's receivership only last four months before it was in good enough shape to buy its second Hawke's Bay winery, Esk Valley Estate.

Bumper harvests in 2008 and 2009 yielded worries for the New Zealand wine industry as foreign buyers snapped up cheap bulk wine and opportunistic brands emerged at lower price points.

"It was a couple of rocky years from 2008 but I think the strength of our brand meant we were able weather that storm quite well. There was surplus but we didn't lose sight of what we wanted to achieve, which was quality wines."

Fistonich credits her father's innovation with the brand's longevity.

"In 2001 we were the first commercial-sized winery in New Zealand to move to 100 percent screw caps. It was a huge risk at that time, because there was a devotion to cork in some overseas markets, who needed to be persuaded."

The risk paid off. The screw cap is now regarded as the best seal for wines as well as eliminating the "corked" problem.

New Zealand Winegrowers' export statistics recently showed a 53 per cent growth in exports to mainland China over the past year and a 16 per cent growth in exports to Hong Kong over the same period. While many wineries have only begun to look to China, Villa Maria has been exporting to China since 2000. They've stepped up their resources there in the last 18 months and Villa Maria is one of a dozens of wineries heading to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong this month as part of the New Zealand Winegrowers' road show.

"We've got a long standing distributor relationship, so it's a matter of spreading the story and my father is going there to do that.

"For the wine industry it's seen as the new frontier. It's very exciting because there is so much opportunity there."

Fistonich has married into another wine business. Her husband Milan Brajkovich is the vineyard director at Kumeu River Wines. They live on the Kumeu River Vineyard with their two children.

"In the long term we hope it'll remain in the family."


Fairfax Media