Tuesday, 18 June 2024 13:25

The Profile: Sir George Fistonich

Written by  Emma Jenkins MW
Sir George Fistonich. Photo Credit: Joseph Michael Sir George Fistonich. Photo Credit: Joseph Michael

Capturing Sir George Fistonich in a few pages seems a fool’s errand.

Not only does he have 63 extraordinary years in New Zealand’s wine industry, including many profound contributions, but at age 84 he’s embarking on an ambitious series of projects with his company Fistonich Family Vineyards. “Retirement sounds really boring,” he laughs. “After a couple of years of being isolated and kicked out, which was boring and stressful, I decided, ‘bugger this.’ Never retire, keep working, take risks!”

These days Sir George estimates his time is split between the new brands Čuvar and Obliix, overseeing the vineyards and winery operations, and pursuing legal challenges relating to the receivership of the parent company of his original winery, Villa Maria. “Now I feel 100 years younger,” he says. “It gives me energy having something to do.”

Born into an immigrant Croatian family that settled in Mangere, Auckland, Sir George duly did as his father told him (“You didn’t argue back then”) by getting into a trade and compressing a five-year building apprenticeship into just under four years, all the while harbouring a desire to make wine. Wine was a constant presence at family meals and larger get-togethers in the tight-knit Croatian community. In the 1950s, commercial wine sales were predominantly port and sherry-styles, with dry reds and whites more typically made in backyard set-ups, including that of the Fistonich family, who by now had saved enough to buy five acres in Mangere and had an acre planted in Albany Surprise and Seibel, mainly overseen by George’s mother, Mandica. Family, loyalty, hard work, food and wine were the culture, and George quickly became friends with the sons of other Croatian families, many of whom were setting up their own wine companies. They are names recognisable to this day: Babich, Selak, Yukich, Corban, Nobilo, and Brajkovich, amongst others.

Joe Babich became a close friend; he and George would go to restaurants “chasing girls”, but as wine sales were not allowed, they would take their own, and became increasingly interested in trying different ones. Joined by the likes of Ross Spence, Nick Nobilo and Joe Corban, this morphed into the ‘Young Winemakers’ Wine Club’ and tastings of 12 wines with technical discussions. The club eventually grew to 40 to 50 people, and then into larger barbeques at Corban’s winery until it faded out again, although the core founding members continued to meet well into the 2000s. At one point the group even flew to Australia, hired a car, and spent six weeks looking around vineyards and wineries.

Between this and the generosity of a well off uncle, George got an early grounding in drinking good wine and recognising global benchmarks. When his father died from an asthma attack, George, then 22, and his wife Gail, who was weeks from having their first child, moved into the Mangere property, and his wine odyssey began in earnest. George’s first dry red wine was awarded a top prize at the Easter show, something he says was “very special”.

In 1961, aged 22, he started Villa Maria Wines with two hectares in Mangere, comprised of a small winery, garage and half a hectare of vineyard, and quickly expanded from there, purchasing Hawke’s Bay’s historic Vidal’s in 1976, where he opened the country’s first winery restaurant, before adding Esk Valley in 1986. Villa Maria was also busy planting Sauvignon Blanc in Marlborough, and was an early investor in Gimblett Gravels vineyards, planting Syrah as well as Bordeaux varieties.

Later acquisitions were Thornbury, Te Awa and Kidnapper Cliffs, as well as the establishment of the Left Field and Riverstone brands. This depth and breadth is one of the reasons there are so many Villa Maria alumni throughout New Zealand, something Sir George offers when asked what he is most proud of. “You can go to lots of regions and ask people where they started, and so often it is Villa Maria. You don’t own them and can’t get upset when they go to another job – they should have ambition.”

It’s an impressive roll call of names, with Grant Edmonds, Kym Milne MW, Kate Radburnd, Michelle Richardson, Gordon Russell, Hugh Crichton, Richard Painter, Helen Morrison, and Alastair Maling MW among those holding winemaking positions, as well as viticulturists Steve Smith MW (“I talked him out of going to Cloudy Bay”), Stu Dudley, Ollie Powrie and Emma Taylor, to name but a few. Several, including Michelle, Emma and Odette Preston have now returned for his new projects. “Wine is art, passion and a lifestyle… many people stayed 10, 20, 30 years, or in Gordon’s case, nearly 40 years. As long as they behaved and kept inspired, I was happy to give them a lot of leeway,” Sir George says. He’s reluctant to blow his own trumpet but enthusiastically sings the praises of those who have worked for him, including many amusing (and largely unprintable) anecdotes.

There’s much reciprocal admiration. Kym Milne MW, now a global winemaking consultant, says George was his boss while at Villa Maria but also a great mentor. “He is a very interesting character – a real people person.” One of Sir George’s legacies has been providing a training ground for winemakers and viticulturists. “The number of these currently in the New Zealand wine industry that have spent some time at Villa is quite amazing, and a reflection of the passion for making quality wine that I believe stems from George’s approach to owning a wine company,” Kym says. He adds that the wine company was never about the amount of profit he could make. “His focus was always on making the best wine in New Zealand, and the people in his company. He very much liked to know what ‘made people tick’ for every person in his employ… It was always a risky thing to walk past George’s office door at the end of the day, as you’d get called in for a glass of wine, (which usually became a bottle or two) so he could pick your brains about the general gossip within the company.”

Winemaker Gordon Russell echoes these sentiments, saying Sir George took a punt on him. “I had big boots to fill, especially as Sir George valued his winemakers highly and gave us opportunities way beyond a winemaker’s role in most other companies.” This included being entrusted as brand ambassadors as well as winemakers, involving themselves in all aspects of the brands. A hallmark of his leadership was his ability to foster a culture of team building, mentoring and training, without the management tiers that “beset” many businesses today. “Sir George’s leadership was unique and a remarkable sub-plot in the story of New Zealand wine, and I was lucky enough to be a part of it. We were always a company built on the quality of the wines we made, the vision of Sir George, and shared goals.”

Sir George’s vision has been profound. Much of what he spearheaded during the past six decades is now taken for granted in the industry: consumer wine tastings, screwcaps, company (rather than distributor) sales teams, and winery restaurants. He has also been committed to sustainability and organics, and championing new varieties. Winemaker Jules Taylor says the industry has benefited from the enormous efforts he put into flying the New Zealand wine flag in overseas markets. “Sir George is a deep thinker, meticulous planner, and very driven man who has, especially in his later years, always taken the time to talk with me, share his opinions, and offer guidance to us ‘younger’ generation of winegrowers.”

This innate drive, born of his upbringing and temperament, continues apace. George’s new flagship brand, Čuvar, means ‘guardian’ in Croatian and embodies the concept of guardianship of land and vineyards, something Sir George holds dear. He’s also on a mission to encourage New Zealanders to improve their drinking culture, to champion drinking local wines and to experiment more widely, rather than just drinking more of the same wine; to this end his new ranges are being bottled in 375ml formats as well as the traditional 750ml.

I ask him how he views the industry changes he’s seen. “The early years were a different dynamic from now. There was huge energy and passion, and we were all bloody good friends. Now it is all about money, and Sauvignon Blanc increasingly going as bulk wine overseas, which is arguably about the least sustainable thing there is in terms of vineyards or wine quality. Things were freer to come up with an idea, to take a risk. If I thought something was good idea, I just did it and never worried about criticism.” In this regard, Sir George is as full steam ahead as ever.

Desert Island Wishlist

Wine: Čuvar Guardian Pinot Noir (from the famous Ballochdale vineyard)

Meal: Rib Eye Steak (medium to rare)

Album: Sol3 Mio Coming Home album

Magazine: The Listener (unbiased weekly magazine covering up-to-date current stories)

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