By Jamie Drummond

Just last week I had the honour of sitting down with Sir George Fistonich, Founder, Owner, and CEO of Villa Maria, the most-awarded winery in New Zealand. Sir George was passing through Toronto on a whirlwind world tour to celebrate the family-owned-and-run winery’s 50th vintage.

In 1961, at the tender age of 21, Sir George leased five acres of land from his father in the burgeoning fortified wine region of Mangere, Auckland. Starting with only one acre of vines, he founded Villa Maria and produced the winery’s first vintage in 1962.

Much has happened in the past 50 years as both Villa Maria and New Zealand’s wine industry as a whole have evolved, matured, and grown exponentially.

Despite Villa Maria’s relative size, I feel that they produce an amazingly consistent wine at all quality levels, with even their entry level Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc ($15.99 – $18.99) and Pinot Noir ($19.99 – $24.99) exhibiting a regional definition that is simply not found in bottlings from any other widely distributed label at that particular price point

Despite my thoughts on the aforementioned wines, I do feel that the best values lie with their Cellar Selection range, in particular the 2009 Cellar Selection Pinot Noir, a release showing like a wine that should be priced a great deal higher.

I count myself very fortunate to have been able to spend quite some time with Sir George, listen to him describe much of what he has witnessed over the past five decades, and how he sees the development of the New Zealand wine industry in the coming years.

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Villa Maria Estate’s Milestones:

1962: Villa Maria’s first vintage

Late 60’s: Villa Maria’s Wine Club was established to educate consumers in wine & food matching

1969: First New Zealand winery to employ a female Winery Representative

Early 70’s: Villa Maria employed first staff

1979: First New Zealand Winery to offer Reserve Wines

1979: First New Zealand Winery to open a vineyard bar and restaurant at the Vidal winery in Hastings

Early 80’s: Villa Maria instigated the first grape grower bonus system where grapes were paid for based on quality and not on quantity

1984: Amongst the first New Zealand wineries to employ an qualified Viticulturalist to improve grape quality

1988: Export commenced

1995: Villa Maria became an accredited member of Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand (SWNZ)

2000: Marlborough winery opened

2001: Villa Maria decided to become a cork-free zone and to move to 100% screwcaps

2005: Opening of Auckland winery and vineyard park

2005: Sir George was named New Zealand’s Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst and Young

2009: George Fistonich received the country’s first knighthood for his services to the New Zealand Wine Industry

2011: Sir George was inducted to the New Zealand Wine Hall of Fame for his services to the New Zealand Wine Industry

2012: Villa Maria Estate celebrates 50 vintages of exceptional winemaking

Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge, and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution… and he did enjoy his time with Sir George.