This book was released just in time to celebrate 50 years of winemaking in 2012 by the subject, Sir George Fistonich. Subtitled “George Fistonich and the Villa Maria Story” it tells the history of one of this country’s most influential winemakers and wine businesses.
I declare my stance straight away. Villa Maria and George Fistonich have figured highly in my wine interests and have been a major part in my progress in my wine career. I’ve enjoyed the Villa Maria wines from the mid-1970s, and always considered them among the leaders in quality from this country’s industry. They’ve been innovative wines in many ways besides just quality and style. And the people from Villa Maria, who I’ve interacted with, whether as an enthusiastic amateur or in my professional life, have always been interesting and generally carried themselves with real integrity. There’s been more than one occasion in a group, where everyone introduces themselves, reeling off their previous life working for George Fistonich and Villa Maria – except me. My introduction is then: “I’m Raymond, and I wished I worked for Villa Maria!” Yes, Villa Maria has been the training ground for many of the key wine industry figures today.
Villa Maria’s beginnings date back to the arrival of George’s father Andrija Fistonich who arrived in Auckland in 1926 from Croatia. As many of his countrymen, he established a vineyard, making wine as ‘Mountain Vineyards’, but in in Mangere, rather than West Auckland. It was in those years that George obtained his passion and drive, learnt resilience, hard work and practicality, and developed the vision that would lead him to start his own business.
The book charts the slow, but unerring progress that George Fistonich made to develop the Villa Maria wine making business and the brand that is now that of New Zealand’s largest family and domestically owned. With a span of half a century, the journey is an incredibly fascinating one as it encompasses the earliest days of wine becoming an accepted part of normal life as it is today. The growth of Villa Maria also mirrors how the New Zealand wine industry has grown in its focus on varietal expression and quality, as well as its presence on the world stage, and now to the recognition of regions and terroir as factors of great importance.
Not all has been rosy in the dream and journey, and George Fistonich recounts the painful time when discounting and a price war instigated by McWilliams, Corbans and Cooks brought Villa Maria to its knees, receivership and close to bankruptcy. George Fistonich’s personal connection with the New Zealand wine consumer, the quality of the wines and strength of will, combined with some excellent financial wizardry carried Villa Maria through the crisis and set the foundations for a much stronger operation, which continues today.
The George Fistonich and Villa Maria story is a very human one. It’s a family business, and much of the book recounts George’s own thoughts, feelings and actions, in the context of his family life, and especially considering the support of his wife Gail. There are tales of key personnel and staff from the beginning with cameo interviews from a number of the long-serving employees. And the important role of daughter Karen is discussed, as the subject of succession is tabled. Author Kerry Tyack has written the book in a very personal and accessible style which highlights the human side of the story. Some may see it as a less-than-serious work which misses the mark on literary or academic criteria, but that would be unkind. The book is a read for everyman, and no specialised interest in wine is needed to enjoy the story and admire the man and what he has done.