How Entrepreneur Sir George Fistonich Grew Villa Maria

Sir George Fistonich

When he set up Villa Maria Sir George Fistonich had little more in mind than a desire to make good wine.

Who would have thought that this young man’s simple idea for his venture would one day become New Zealand’s third biggest wine company?

And that it would go on to win more medals, trophies and awards than any other New Zealand wine company in history.

And that the company would become a thriving export business as well – today Villa Maria exports about half of its wines to around 40 countries all over the world.

Passion and Determination the Keys to Sir George’s Success

Interestingly, Sir George’s vision remains the same to this day and has driven the company’s success. His passion as well as his dogged determination have helped him overcome some major obstacles along the way.

Where did his grand passion for wine come from? Young George grew up with wine in an immigrant household that continued the Croatian tradition of making wine at home as a hobby to share with family and friends. “Making wine was in my blood,” Sir George says. “I’ve drunk wine all my life since I was nine or ten, a glass or two with my wife Gail over dinner or with friends and colleagues on social occasions.”

So back in 1961, at the tender age of 21 and with no business experience let alone a business plan, Sir George decided to do the one thing that really inspired him and set up his own winery. He leased a five-acre plot near his family home in Mangere, Auckland, from his father, grew vines on an acre of the site, took over his Dad’s cellar and began making wine.

To raise the money to buy such necessities as wine-making equipment, the 21-year-old Fistonich got an overdraft from the bank, sold his car and borrowed some money from family members.

Single-handedly Building a Market

Back then there was no market for wine and the few people who drank it preferred imported European varieties. Realising this, Fistonich got together with a group of friends at a café and they came up with the Villa Maria name because “it had an international ring”.

Selling the wine was another matter and proved to be Sir George’s first major challenge. Port and sherry reigned back then, accounting for the majority of wine sales and breweries, more interested in promoting beer, dominated the retail and wholesale trade. “They were only selling imported wines and wines in which they had a shareholding,” he says. “There were no supermarkets selling wine and hardly any wine shops.”

Fistonich initially sold directly to Auckland University, where his brother Ivan – who was studying law – would bring out students to the small winery for tastings. He also sold to a few independent wine shops.

‘One-Man Sales and Marketing Force’

To combat this seemingly insurmountable obstacle to getting his wine distributed more widely, Fistonich came up with an innovative solution. He decided to become ‘a one-man sales and marketing force’ and travelled all over New Zealand, selling wine and at the same time organising promotions such as wine and cheese evenings to educate people.

Eventually after raising the profile of the Villa Maria brand and building up demand from both retailers and customers through his presentations around the country, wholesalers caved in and began stocking Villa Maria wines. In 1963 Villa Maria also began winning awards at wine shows and from the late 1960s to early 1970s the company grew rapidly as New Zealanders’ taste for wine evolved.

Ensuring “everyone can afford the wine”

Today, like for most wine companies, supermarkets are Villa Maria’s biggest domestic sales outlets. From selling ‘special occasion’ dry white and dry reds at the same price in the 1960s Villa Maria now sells a range of varietals and top end reserves, from ‘affordable everyday wines’ selling at $9.99 to $100 a bottle luxury treats.

“We have ensured that everyone can afford the wine,” Sir George says. “We’ve been told our private bins and cellar selections are very high quality and affordable at the same time.”

Key Lessons

• Passion and determination are keys to entrepreneurial success.

• These qualities will keep you focused on finding solutions to the many challenges that come your way as you build your business. They will also help you look outside the square and be innovative in your thinking.

• Sir George was dealt a hurdle that would have most people backing off and giving up. There was no viable market for his wine initially so he realized that he had to build a customer base and distribution channels himself! He solved this problem by coming up with the promotional idea to raise awareness about the joys of drinking quality wine and educate consumers and retailers to recognize that New Zealand-made wine could be as good as imported European varieties. A daunting task in itself.

What made the challenge even more difficult was that back then Villa Maria was in start-up mode with no PR or marketing resources to help him spread the word. So Sir George had to do-it-himself. And in the end it was his passion and determination that gave him the energy, impetus and innovative edge to take on the job and follow it through till he achieved his goal of creating a market for his wines and getting wholesalers on board to supply it to liquor retailers.