Sir George Fistonich - Founder and Owner
Vision, Passion & Determination
Sir George Fistonich founded Villa Maria Estate in Auckland in 1961. With vision and determination he has steered the company to a position where it has become New Zealand’s leading wine award winner.
George’s interest in winemaking started when New Zealand’s wine industry was virtually non-existent. Passionate from a young age, wine was a central part of his upbringing.
“I grew up in an environment with wine and always enjoyed the taste of it. Being Croatian making wine was in my blood,” says George.
From an early age George had strong ambitions of becoming a winemaker but his father had other ideas. Fistonich’s parents immigrated to New Zealand in the late 1920s and following in the tradition of Croatian households, where the eldest son takes up a profession and the second a trade, he completed an apprenticeship in carpentry and joinery.
However, George knew he didn’t want to be a builder. In 1961, at just 21 years of age, he leased five acres of land from his father in Mangere, Auckland and with just an acre of vines; he started making wine under the name Villa Maria.
From early on, George focused on the importance of regional differences in relation to grape quality and wine styles. He pioneered the use of contract growers and led Villa Maria to become the first New Zealand wine company to initiate payment for grapes based on quality rather than a flat contract price. He was one of the first wine business owners in New Zealand to employ professional viticulturists, recognising the importance viticulture plays in the quality of the wine.
George does not believe in change for the sake of it, but he is recognised as one of the true innovators of the New Zealand wine industry. In 2001, Villa Maria was the first major wine company in New Zealand to declare that the winery would become a “cork-free zone”, sealing all wines from the 2002 vintage onwards with a screwcap. It was a bold move for the company who took the risk of losing overseas business by declining to fill orders from companies who requested wines sealed under cork. For George it came down to quality, something he has never been willing to compromise on.
A commitment to quality and innovation also extends to the staff George employs. He encourages employees to work to their individual strengths while at the same time emphasises the value of team work and cooperation.
George is also keen to nurture the talent of individuals and has instigated a winemaking and viticultural cadet scheme within Villa Maria Estate. His passion for excellence and ability to instil that passion in those associated with Villa Maria are major factors in the company’s continued success.
A selection of awards
In 2004, Sir George Fistonich was shortlisted as one of the 50 most prominent figures in the wine industry by UK Wine International Magazine and in 2005 he was named New Zealand’s Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year.
Sir George achieved his greatest honour to date in 2009, receiving a knighthood for his services to the New Zealand wine industry; and becoming the first Kiwi ever to be knighted for this, George confirmed his Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit by adopting the prestigious title of Sir – a reminder of his significant contribution to the industry and a history of international and national success.
In 2011 Sir George received a Kea World Class New Zealander Award in the Manufacturing, Design & Innovation category. He was also inducted to the New Zealand Wine Hall of Fame for services to the New Zealand wine industry and received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the International Wine Challenge Awards in London.
In the beginning of 2012 George was honoured with a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal at the 59th Royal Easter Show Wine Awards for his achievements in the New Zealand wine industry.
2012 also marked an exceptional milestone in George’s career: his 50th vintage, celebrating 50 years of exceptional winemaking.
In July 2013 George is to be inducted into the New Zealand Business Hall of Fame recognising his significant contribution to the economic and social development of New Zealand through enterprise.