Fifty years on from inception, Villa Maria is a pillar of the New Zealand wine industry and the winemaker at the heart of this story is Sir George Fistonich.
The Villa Maria brand can be traced back to humble beginnings, formed in one immigrant family’s backyard in Mangere. Along with many other Croatian families, including the Delegats, Selaks and Babiches, the Fistoniches can be credited with introducing our palates to wine and opening up a world beyond beer, port and sherry.
As well as a side lesson in the history of a fairly young industry, Tyack traces the ups and down of Villa Maria, one of the most recognisable names in New Zealand wine. Privately-owned and entirely Kiwi, it’s achieved impressive export success and won more awards than any other label. It was instrumental in leading the charge in switching from corks to screw caps (a move maligned by many consumers, some of whose reactions make for amusing reading) and when hit hard by dwindling profits in the 1980s, broke ground by placing a Herald ad announcing its imminent receivership and hitting out at the “erosion of competition” brought on by corporate wine monopolies. The ‘Save Villa Maria’ campaign in turn prompted further ads taken out by Villa grape growers and staff in a show of support.
Remarkably, Villa Maria clawed its way out of receivership within a year (Fistonich sold his family house in order to raise cash). Since then, it’s gone from strength to strength. Staff speak of the family atmosphere and Fistonich’s compassionate, genuine approach to business. His eventual successor – Fistonich is now in his 70s – will have a formidable legacy to uphold.
Long-time food and wine writer Tyack was a logical choice to tell the Villa story. It’s a straightforward retelling, lacking wild anecdotes or particularly outrageous quotes – a bit of a pity, as The Winemaker would probably have benefited from a few.