Auckland’s Villa Maria began as one man’s dream in 1961 and now employs 250 staff and exports to over 50 countries.
Villa Maria has been rated the world’s fourth most respected wine brand. Five New Zealand brands made it into the top 50 of the Drinks International annual listing, with Felton Road entering at number 13, Cloudy Bay 24, Brancott Estate 42 and Oyster Bay 46.
At just 21, George Fistonich (now Sir George pictured above) leased 2ha of land from his dad in Mangere and planted 1ha in grapes. In 1662, he harvested his first grapes and made his first wine under the name, Villa Maria. During the ’60s, Villa Maria was a one-man band, with George’s wife Gail supporting him. In the early ’70s, he started to employ staff and the company began to expand rapidly.
Sir George says the listing was a recognition for the local wine industry. The judging panel of 200 was the cream of the wine critic world. Villa Maria joined the list in 2015 when it soared to fourth again this year. “Villa Maria remains New Zealand’s most respected wine producer,” says Drinks International editor Christian Davis. “It is up there with the best of them. I have never had a bottle of Villa Maria that has disappointed. I know what I am getting when I buy a bottle of Villa Maria – and that is the essence of good branding – consistency and quality, at the appropriate price”.
“George Fistonich is not only a fine winemaker but he’s a talent spotter. He has nurtured some of New Zealand’s top winemakers. I reckon there are producers in other countries that would grub up their vines to be in the position that New Zealand and Villa Maria are in the global wine world.”
Nigel Greening, owner of Central Otago winery Felton Road, described the listing as a great honour. He believed the niche winery was the smallest in the list.
He did not enter competitions because winemaking was “not a competitive spot”, but Felton Road was well known internationally. Wine Spectator recently awarded its 2015 pinot noir 96 points, the highest ever given for a New Zealand pinot noir by the magazine.