Full Circle with Villa Maria Wine Estates

At lunch on Monday, I witnessed the fusion of an array of icons. First, there was Sir George Fistonich with Villa Maria Wine Estates. Then, there was Todd English with The Plaza Hotel Food Hall. All meshed together in a celebratory luncheon of the 50th anniversary of the first bottling of Villa Maria wines.

What an inspiring lunch! To meet Sir George was a great honor. This Kiwi legend comes across as a genuinely inquisitive, down-to-earth gentleman. Sir George’s venture into wine began more as a hobby than a career. He started in 1961 by leasing an acre of land from his father. Begun as a family venture, it remains so – in spite of the fact that Villa Maria is one of New Zealand’s three largest wineries and exports to over fifty countries!

Naturally, George walked us through some milestones of these fifty years, chuckling while recalling that, in the early years, the grapes were almost entirely hybrids and announcing proudly that Villa Maria was at the forefront of the screwcap revolution when it went cork-free in 2001. Whatever Sir George did, he did it to make better wine. This is surely why Villa Maria can proudly bill itself as New Zealand’s “most awarded winery”. (I didn’t ask how these awards are tallied, but their wines areremarkably fine.) It was, as it often is, slightly overwhelming to see in such a retrospective just how much one can accomplish.

Internally, I remarked how interesting it was to see a winery connection come full circle. When I applied to the Institute of Masters of Wine, I chose a Villa Maria Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc to write up as a “mock tasting note”. (Mary Ewing-Mulligan MW, the first American MW, cleverly suggested this might be a nice idea since Villa Maria is a supporter of the Institute.) A year later, I began consulting in a public relations capacity to New Zealand Winegrowers for a year. Spending a year surrounded by Kiwi wines, this is when I became acquainted with Villa Maria’s Single Vineyard and Reserve wines. Then, when I became a Master of Wine, Villa Maria reappeared: I received the Villa Maria Award for Best Viticulture Paper. Interestingly, this honor was also bestowed upon Alastair Maling MW, Villa Maria’s current bigwig of viticulture and winemaking, who invited me to this celebratory luncheon. (And, no, Alastair wasn’t working for Villa Maria when he received the award!) Yes, full circle, indeed.

Reflecting on this exciting occasion, I again raise a glass to Sir George and his vision. And, I know George is raising a glass somewhere tonight. As he told us at lunch, “There have been only three days in the last fifty years that I’ve not drunk wine. It’s my passion. It’s my life.” Hear, hear!