Jamie Goode interviews the founder of New Zealand star winery Villa
50 years ago, Sir George Fistonich
founded what has since become one of New Zealand’s leading
wineries: Villa Maria (www.villamaria.co.nz).
Now just into his 70s, but looking younger, he’s unassuming,
friendly and softly spoken. I caught up with him in London, where
he’d just arrived to pick up the Lifetime Achievement award at the
International Wine Challenge awards dinner. Here’s our
Jamie Goode (JG): I’m very
interested because you started out in 1961: in terms of New Zealand,
that’s prehistory. What was the wine industry like then?
Sir George Fistonich (GF): We were very
much a beer drinking country. Rolling back to the turn of the 20th
century there were quite a few grape varieties grown, and then we
got phylloxera and they got pulled out. Then the First World War
started. You might say we went through an era of prohibition. In a
lot of ways wine drinking didn’t feature. When I started it was
very much about port and sherry.
For wine, a lot of Croatians had come
into the country, and they had wine with their meals. So they tried
to make wine in their back yards. A lot of them ended up in the wine
industry: the likes of the Babichs and Selaks.
I was brought up in this environment of
the Croatian community, with many of them making wine. My father
didn’t think that the wine industry had any future. I was the
second brother. They’d saved enough money to put my older brother
through University. Then I had to do a trade. I was told to do
carpentry and joinery. Those were the days when you did what your
parents told you to do—it wouldn’t happen now!
I did a trade but I wanted to get into
the wine industry, because I mixed with a lot of the Croatian
community. I finished my apprenticeship in record quick time and I
had six months off; I’d managed to squeeze a five year
apprenticeship into three years and 10 months. I started making wine
at home. I played around with dry red and dry white.
I was actually sitting round a coffee bar
with two mates when I chose Villa Maria as the name. Maria was quite
an international name, and was also a Croatian name. It sounded
quite romantic. Villa is a common expression for a house. Probably
today you would come up with a real Kiwi name. A lot of people
thought I was married to Maria or my mother was Maria, and all sorts
of rumours floated around.
In 1962 I entered two dry reds in the
Royal Easter Show and got second and third prize. This put me on the
map quite early on. This was all Henderson Valley (Auckland) fruit.
At that stage there were probably about 80 or 90 wineries all around
Henderson and Kumeu.
JG: So you were focused on local fruit
from Auckland. When did you move away from Auckland?
GF: In the late 1960s/early 1970s we
moved down to Gisborne, which was growing a lot of Muller Thurgau.
This is a cross of Riesling and Sylvaner. Overnight it became the
champion white wine of New Zealand, and became 50% of the market. It
converted the population to drinking table wines. There were names
like Bernkastel Riesling and Liebfraumilch – imitations of German
wines. Muller Thurgau made a nice medium dry white wine. It was a
great entry wine and helped convert a lot of people to table wines.
As fast as it grew, it suddenly crashed.
In 1975 I brought Vidal, a small winery
in Hawkes Bay. It had changed hands and gone from the Vidal family
to Seppelts (Australia), who ran it for a couple of years and
couldn’t cope with the New Zealand market, so they sold it to the
manager, and I bought it off him. I was buying grapes off him
initially, and in the end I bought the winery, which gave me 100
acres of grapes in Hawkes Bay. This was a good boost because I was a
bit behind the rest of the industry in terms of finance and the
ability to grow grapes.
So we suddenly went into Cabernet, Merlot
and Chardonnay: it was an explosion of new varieties. In the late
1970s/early 1980s we moved into Marlborough and started planting
Sauvignon Blanc. We planted 100 acres using a public company called
Seddon Vineyards in 1993. 100 acres was huge then. We formed the
first unlisted public company in New Zealand for this. It was quite
risky and it took us well over a year to raise $1.5 million. We
finally got $1.65 million which wasn’t enough to complete the
project, so we borrowed $350 000 privately by mortgaging everything.
But by today’s standards that is peanuts, and 100 acres is quite
In 1998 we formed another company called
Terra Vitae, which is actually 400 acres and was $9.5 million. We
ended up getting oversubscribed, with $13 million. This was really
big. But now, people plant 1000 acres with no market and no brand. A
lot of these companies have gone in and planted and then looked for
the market. We have established a market and then planted a vineyard
to supply this. We sell 95% of everything we produce under our own
The majority of our grapes are now from
Marlborough, but we are also strong in Hawkes Bay. We have 500 acres
in the Gimblett Gravels region, which is about a quarter of it.
Hawkes Bay is a great area. There are some fantastic Chardonnays
coming out of Hawkes Bay now. Syrah is also fantastic. Our Syrahs
are totally different to the Australian ones; they have this nice
peppery, spicy character. You don’t get that in Australia.
JG: What are your plans for Villa
Maria? Are you going to do more of the same or do you have some new
projects in the pipeline?
GF: The industry is changing rapidly at
the moment. It is becoming dominated by supermarket chains. When I
started there were around 1400 small wine shops, and restaurants.
Now there are really just two supermarket chains. There are many
similarities between the UK and New Zealand, and Australia is
heading in that direction. It is quite a complicated market now
because it is all about promotion and pricing; the big get bigger.
We are in a funny situation: we are about number 6 in New Zealand,
but are perceived to be bigger. We are competing with the big
multinationals. There are products like Monkey Bay at a low price
(under $10) when the normal price should be $14–15.
JG: Wasn’t there a tricky period for
Villa Maria in the mid-1980s?
GF: Yes, we got bulldozed out of business
and went into receivership. We got hit by Brierley. It is one of
these multinational finance companies that goes out and buys
companies, strips their assets and closes them down. They got into
the wine industry and decided there were too many wine companies. So
they sold wine at half price to try and restructure the industry,
and that put me out of business. Nobilo had to sell all their land,
and it destroyed their financial structure. Delegats followed a
month after me. Eventually they had to sell out. I was quite
fortunate: we went very public about the fact that we’d been
bulldozed out, and we ended up with a miraculous recovery. I ended
up losing half the company but I managed to buy it back. It had some
benefits. I lost two stone in weight, and then put it back on! It
ended up being quite a big story.
JG: So is the outlook good for New
Zealand wineries at the moment?
GF: The problem now is that the exchange
rate is horrendous. You used to get NZ$3 to the pound; now it is
about 1.9. With the supermarkets and their promotional costs, the
profit in the UK is virtually non-existent. I’d hate to have been
in this situation ten years ago. We have built up quite a lot of
equity in Villa Maria, and we have also built up a spread around the
world. We are in the USA, Canada and Asia. I have always looked
after New Zealand, too. So we can weather the storm, but it is hard
going. I think I have worked harder the last couple of years than
ever. We have been hit with the huge surplus at the same time as
fewer routes to market, as well as an unfavourable exchange rate.
JG: You were quite outspoken about
closures a few years ago? When did you become a screwcap only
GF: Mostly from 2000 onwards. At that
stage we couldn’t get enough caps and bottles. We did about 65% of
the 2000 vintage. In 2001 we started doing all our reds, and were
close to 100% screwcap. We weren’t the first. In Marlborough there
were about 15 or 20 of us. I had no doubt that we were losing 8% of
our wines as a minimum to bad corks. We got bales of 10 000 corks
and we’d put some in neutral white wine or water and see how good
the bales were. We found we were rejecting 3–5 out of 10 bales,
and I don’t think these went back to Portugal. Our whole objective
was to make quality wine, so when we had a decision to make it took
about half an hour. We made this decision to go 100% screwcap.
I was in the UK and Matthew Clark were
having a sales conference with about 400 people. I got a 20 minute
slot to speak to them. I asked them how many believed in screwcap,
and it was something like 35% believed in screwcaps, with the
majority against them. The day before, at about 4 pm in the
afternoon, Hugh Johnson’s pocket book was launched, and right on
page 5 there was a small paragraph about screwcaps, saying if our
ancestors 100 years ago had the ability to close wine with screwcaps,
imagine all the fantastic wines we would now have sealed properly.
About 7 pm that night we managed to track this book down, and it was
the perfect thing to read out to this audience. We had a video,
about 8 minutes long, on the screen, because we knew it would be
hard to influence this many reps. But we managed to convert
The American market was hardest to
convert. We got a listing at a chain of about 30 seafood
restaurants, but as soon as we moved to screwcaps they delisted us.
So we have had a few dramas. But we got relisted about a year later.
When we started using screwcaps we
started to get lots of letters, very much from the USA, saying
I’ve lived in America for 10 years, and I have been proud of the
New Zealand wine industry, but I am ashamed about Villa Maria trying
to destroy the great reputation of New Zealand wine. So we did a
one-page 10-point explanation of why we were using screwcaps. We
also had a 20 page detailed scientific sort of document. We designed
a letter, starting off thanking people for their concern, then
explaining why we were changing. Then we invited them to send their
postal address or email address so we could give them a detailed
scientific explanation. We had some dramas over two or three years,
and sommeliers didn’t like it, but overall it was an exciting
I got one letter saying, ‘I’ve been
drinking your wine for the last 20 years. My wife and I sit down
every night with a meal and have a nice glass of wine.
Unfortunately, because you have gone to screwcaps I’ll never be
able to drink your wine again. Thank you for the great time I have
had with your wine over the last 20 years. I used to be able to get
home, get the corkscrew out and open the bottle, sit down and pour
myself a glass of wine. Now I get home and my wife has worked out
how to take the screwtop off and she has already finished the
bottle, and is incapable of cooking my meal. So I’ve had to ban
I have about 3000 bottles in my cellar. I
have still got quite a lot of cork-sealed bottles. I have a lot of
old Australian reds. I toss out almost 2 out of three bottles that
are 10–15 years old. Oxidisation is a problem as much as cork
taint. And I have a proper climate-controlled cellar.
JG: I always like to meet winemakers
or winery owners who actually like wine. It is reassuring. So you
are quite keen on wine then?
GF: Yes. I drink every day.
JG: What do you like to drink?
GF: I am quite seasonal in my drinking. I
drink a lot of Sauvignon Blanc on the beach in January if the
weather is hot. I really enjoy good Chardonnay. With reds, I drink
more Pinot Noir in the summer and more Bordeaux red blends in the
winter. I drink Riesling, Gewürztraminer
and Pinot Gris, too. I like Italian reds, and I love good Bordeaux.
We are getting so many good New Zealand reds these days. We are part
of the Family of Twelve, and we swap wines among ourselves.
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