George Fistonich pioneered the vineyard restaurant.
Winery restaurants are now almost as much part of the landscape of our wine regions as the wineries themselves, offering visitors the opportunity to savour local wines in an optimal setting: in situ and with food. Go back just over 30 years, when Vidal won its battle to start the country's first licensed winery restaurant and the panorama was quite different.
It followed a time when very few restaurants in general were allowed to sell alcohol, with tales aplenty of people smuggling in wine, which was drunk in disguise out of teacups. "It was a revolution in trying to break through the old view in the country about licensing," says Villa Maria's Sir George Fistonich, whose idea it was to establish the restaurant at his Vidal winery in Hastings.
Initially the concept was not well received with the licensing authorities, local council or surrounding neighbours. "It took two years and lots of money" before his plans became reality, recalls Fistonich. "We had quite a few battles," he remembers with a smile, including demands that the historic winery and one-time stable's characterful beams be covered up in the name of hygiene - thankfully Fistonich persuaded the authorities to relent onm that - and getting the neighbours onside by inviting them over to explain the concept and allay their fears... over food and wine of course!
After starting out with platters, the restaurant swiftly moved on to offering a full menu - sometimes sating the appetites of up to 1300 diners a week - then had a stint as a hugely popular wine bar serving snacks, before becoming the fine dining restaurant it is today.
Long gone is the once-winning formula of its initial heyday of steak, fresh veg and a baked potato washed down with a drop of Vidalsteiner. Under the guidance of 2008 New Zealand Chef of the Year, Ken O'Connell, you're more likely to find Wagyu beef with wasabi yoghurt matched with one of Vidal's award wining syrahs.
Things were a little easier when Hunters opened the country's second winery restaurant in Marlborough in 1984. Initially established to encourage people to come out to visit the winery at a time when there were still very few in the region, it started off by offering diners a chance to cook their own meat at a big barbecue in the grounds of the estate.
Like Vidal's restaurant, it's morphed into something quite different. "Back 20 years ago, dining in a vineyard was a completely new experience and many came because we had a big garden," says Jane Hunter. "However, today people are looking for something more sophisticated, so there's more an emphasis on matching the wines to local produce."
"I am very proud to see how wineries around the country followed our lead," concludes Fistonich. "Today there are more than 80 winery restaurants in New Zealand from the Far North to Central Otago and the many wine regions in between, all of which play a significant role in providing a quality food and wine experience for domestic and international tourists."
Vidal's winery is not the only part of the establishment that's changed over the years. Established by the Spaniard, Anthony Joseph Vidal, its vineyards were some of the earliest planted in the region. After being passed down to his three sons it was bought by Villa Maria founder, Sir George Fistonich in 1976. It's scaled new heights under his guidance and through the talents of its illustrious winemakers, including Kate Radburnd and Rod MacDonald, and current winemaker Hugh Crichton.
Vidal Reserve Hawkes Bay Chardonnay 2007 $35
Vidal is holding back some of its top wines for later release, such as this powerful, elegant chardonnay that counterpoises butterscotch, hazelnut and hints of smoke with citrus and flint. (From Vidal Cellar Shop and at vidal.co.nz)
Vidal East Coast Viognier 2009 $20.49
One of the most consistently impressive and best value viogniers being made in the country, Vidal's rich and fleshy but citrussy example unfurls to reveal perfumed layers of apricot kernel, honeysuckle and exotic spice.
Vidal Reserve Hawkes Bay Syrah 2006 $54.99
A contemporary classic, this silky syrah is redolent of sweet spice, black pepper and anise with a concentrated palate of black cherries dipped in dark chocolate.
Vidal syrah and viognier are available from La Barrique, Family Barrow, Fine Wine Delivery Company, Te Aroha Wines, Victoria Park, Tauranga, Rotorua and Gate Pa New Worlds.