A legend who lives by the law of common sense

By Peter Bills

Peter Bills has travelled the country, interviewing a diverse range of New Zealanders. The interviews will appear over the next four weeks.

Sir George Fistonich in Villa Maria Wines' new vineyard in Oruarangi Rd, Mangere. Photo / APN
Sir George Fistonich in Villa Maria Wines' new vineyard in Oruarangi Rd, Mangere. Photo / APN

Something, somewhere does not add up in this story. "Un grand mystere", as the French like to say ...

Sir George Fistonich, owner and managing director of Villa Maria Estate, one of this country's top wineries, is a winemaker known throughout the world.

Turn off the road near Auckland International Airport, drive through a formulaic, modern industrial estate and suddenly a green swathe greets you. Down neatly arranged lines of vines grow some of the grapes that make Villa Maria a household name, not just in New Zealand, nor indeed the Southern Hemisphere, but all over the world.

From California to Chile, from the supermarkets of London to Dublin and beyond, Villa Maria wines are renowned for their quality.

It is exactly 50 years since George Fistonich founded the Villa Maria winery in Auckland. It has been 50 years of growing success, of enormous commercial success and a business that is one of the best anywhere in New Zealand.

And yet, I am mystified. Men of the standing of Sir George around the world have their foibles, their little luxuries or playthings, if you like. Sometimes, it is a pretty little 20-something adornment by their side, the diamond ring and Chanel outfit de rigueur for these young ladies.

If not women, there is usually a Ferrari or an Aston Martin. And if they are not amused by motors, such men tend to search for their own favoured type of "trophy" in the great art sale rooms of the world. Perhaps a Monet, a Renoir, or a Whistler might adorn the lounge of their mansion.

By the time I get through this long list of attractions in conversation with George Fistonich and draw a blank with everyone, I am baffled. No indulgences?

This man, it turns out, has always lived his life by a simple creed: "Throughout my life I have had a philosophy of the law of common sense. Too many people bow to the law of stupidity.

"I live a fairly humble life. I like quality. I eat well, drink well. And I have a holiday home by one of the beaches north of Auckland, and in Fiji. That is my indulgence. But I am not one for fast cars although I like quality cars. I used to have an old secondhand V8 Mercedes. I rarely buy new cars."

Oh dear, oh dear. Poor Sir George - he has just demolished our image of the multi-millionaire businessman who spends it like the Chinese are off North Shore and the euro finally died a long-expected death last week.

So a boring guy with no real views or opinions to prosecute? Think again.

Sir George is simply a man who loves his job, loves New Zealand with a passion, and is delightfully happy and content indulging in both. A hanging offence? I think not.

"I think this is quite unique in this country. I enjoy the fellowship I find in our wine industry, and we have a lot of fun together. We work hard to promote our tourism for it is not only the wine industry we are trying to promote but the whole country. It is a collective effort.

"Personally speaking, I get great satisfaction out of the totality of the whole industry."

Villa Maria is New Zealand's leading wine award winner, both locally and overseas. A tour of the operation out near Auckland airport reveals part of the reason why. This is a neat, clean, slick, professionally run operation. The plant exudes investment with its state-of-the-art facilities and yet, somehow, for all its modernity, it is a down-to-earth, calmly run business.

Undoubtedly, that philosophy emanates from the man at the top. An attractive young waitress arrives at our table in the winery's restaurant to offer tea or coffee. "Now what would you like George," she says, all matter-of-fact in tone to the guy who sits at the head of the company. I can think of many men in such positions who would take great umbrage at being addressed in such a matey manner. But to Sir George Fistonich, it seems perfectly natural. Perhaps that is the secret of his success, for creating an environment in which others want to work for you is surely a triumph of business practice.

His family is steeped in the world of oenology. They are from Croatia and his father came to New Zealand in the 1930s, when he was 30 years of age. But he says that, unusually for Croatian society, it was his mother who encouraged him most in his young days.

Sir George professes himself "a total optimist", and he needed to be when he planted his first vines on New Zealand soil in 1961. "There were no table wines in those days and it was a very unsophisticated market. There was the 6pm closing bar culture and beer was the main drink.

"In 1961, the first 10 restaurant licences were granted and then in the following years the number of licences went from one to 10 in every city. Today, there are probably 15,000 or 20,000. So the industry took off.

"I also looked closely at the link between wine and restaurants and battled to get Vidal's, our sister wine company, the first vineyard bar licence to become New Zealand's first winery restaurant. Now, there are over 100 winery restaurants. In those days of unlicensed restaurants, some restaurant owners used to put wine in the teapot and serve it from cups so police would not know. It was almost like prohibition in those days."

Two factors worked in his favour. The first was that he was in at the beginning of an industry about to take off. The second was that he possessed the vision as to how to develop such a business to ensure exponential growth.

Some might suggest that growing and selling wine in any country during the last 30 years has been as easy as shelling peas. A fool could have done it, say some. Sir George begs to disagree, especially in the current climate.

For wine making has become a tough business.

He does not beat about the bush in assessing the health of the New Zealand wine industry.

"It is in a tough spot now. We are okay because we have established a brand that is known worldwide. Most of our sales are overseas, with the UK our biggest market.

"When we first went there in the 1980s to sell our wines we almost had to explain where New Zealand was on a map. They thought we were part of Australia.

"But if you haven't got a strong brand now you can't even give the wine away. It just won't move off the shelf. If this had happened 10 or 15 years earlier even we would have really struggled to survive."

Today, there are quite well-established brands selling at under $10 and that is not profitable. Around 90 per cent of the wine sold in New Zealand supermarkets is on special so people tend to wait until it is on promotion and then quite often buy case lots.

"There is no such thing as retail pricing these days because so many retailers or wine outlets are working on different margins."

But isn't wine overpriced anyway in this country, especially the locally produced stuff? "In a cool-climate country the grapes take a long time to ripen and the flavours are very slow developing. We cannot over-crop the vines so therefore to get the grapes ripe we have to fruit thin which increases the cost of production.

"But by the same token you are also increasing the quality of the wine."

The wine and food business remains a huge part of George Fistonich's life. He says he always had a burning desire to make wine, a wish enhanced in his early days by the builder's apprenticeship he did. After five years of working with concrete and timber, the soft, supple feel of a grape seemed like a sort of Valhalla for him.

He has achieved not just his life's ambition but has done so to such an extent that he was knighted in 2009 for services to the wine industry, the first such recipient.

And yet, I sense that it is his strong family background, the values inculcated within him from his earliest days plus his sheer passion for winemaking that are the real driving forces of his life.

He has travelled the world promoting New Zealand wine, food, and tourism, stayed in many fine hotels and consumed great food and wines. But ask him where he is happiest and he does not hesitate.

"Here, you are getting rewarded for something you like doing with good talented people around you. I like motivating and working with staff. You just get on with it, take it all in your stride. I am happy and content with my life and I still love my job."

Not bad at 72.

- NZ Herald

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