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.
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.
George knew he didn’t want to be a builder, however, and in 1961, at just 21 years of age, he leased five acres of land from his father in Mangere, Auckland. With just an acre of vines, George started making wine under the name Villa Maria a year later.
Early on George was 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. George was also 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, however, he is recognised as one of the true innovators of New Zealand’s 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. This 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 focusing on the value of teamwork and cooperation.
George is 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 instill that passion in those associated with Villa Maria are major factors in the company’s continued success.