It so happened that Villa Maria’s distributor here, Barry & Fitzwilliam, was itself celebrating something 20 years younger, its own 30th Anniversary, so it seemed like only common sense that the two should team up for a tasting lunch, a genial affair during which Michael Barry wondered aloud whether rugby was the common link between Ireland and New Zealand while Sir George suggested that it was more likely to be the fact that everyone in New Zealand is currently watching ‘Mrs Brown’!
It was all such a long way from when a 21 year-old George leased out two hectares from his Croatian-born father to grow grapes in Marlborough back in 1961. His first wine was bottled in ’62 and he won his first wine award a year later at the Easter Show.
Since then Villa Maria has operated to a simple philosophy of award-winning quality.
Today, Villa Maria can be bought at four different levels: Private Bin, Cellar Selection, Reserve and Single Vineyard.
“In a bad year we’d simply not produce any Reserve, making all the vintage commercial quality,” George quipped, “In a good year, we’d make twice as much Reserve!”.
That original vineyard has now turned into vineyards plural and wineries in four regions around New Zealand with Villa Maria wines from a dozen grape varieties exported to more than 50 countries.
As Villa Maria progressed, George remembers that the 70s were all about growing varietals while the 80s saw the introduction of stainless steel vats.
The 80s were also time of rapid expansion but he kept up quality to the point where Villa Maria won a trophy for every single varietal it had grown. Villa Maria also instigated the first ‘grape-grower bonus’ system where grapes were paid for based on quality, not quantity.
“Today, we’ve two-and-a-half times the trophy count of any other New Zealand winery,” Sir George told us.
The company first began exporting in 1988.
Despite the very real threat of receivership in the 80s the winery flourished to become one of the first to introduce screwcap closures in preference to cork, becoming a ‘cork-free’ zone in the process. Sir George took such a firm stance on this that he was prepared to lose business to the US initially by refusing to back down on the issue.
He was to be proved right. When he first introduced them at Villa Maria, some five per cent of the NZ market had taken the Stelvin route. Today that figure is 95 per cent.
The Dublin and Cork stopovers formed part of his world tour to help celebrate 50 years of outstanding wines.