Jun 042012
 

As most guys will tell you (or at least those less well endowed), bigger isn’t always better. This is true. Take, for example, Danish potatoes. These pint-sized spuds are much more flavorful than their super-sized Idaho cousins. But, the converse shouldn’t be that big is necessarily evil. In coordinating wine selections for a New Zealand-themed event, my client wanted to shy away from the Villa Maria option I proposed feeling that it, “…seems like a large operation that gets grapes from wherever available.” I quickly assured him that, while yes, Villa Maria is a large company; it is at the forefront of pushing sustainable viticulture in the region.

In fact, having spent more than three hours with their head viticulturist driving from vineyard to vineyard to vineyard, many of which they do own, but also many they don’t, the message was loud and clear. They are getting the growers with whom they contract to implement better, more sustainable, practices in the vineyard.  And, closer to home, they are implementing organic practices in nearly a third of their owned sites.

Even before this visit, I have always liked Villa Maria. I’m not sure what first drew me to the brand, but (aside from the obvious observation that I liked the wines), they won my heart with their reliability, providing wines that are consistently good value and both varietally and regionally correct. If you’re looking for a Sancerre look-alike you’re out of luck, but if you want a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc – they deliver. This latter point is especially important to a wine educator often sourcing class wines sight unseen (or rather, more worrisome, untasted). Consequently, I often feature the aforementioned wine in my Savvy about Sauvignon Blanc class.

With this favorable brand experience, I was thrilled to be introduced to Villa Maria’s owner, George Fistonich, at a trade tasting in September 2010. Meeting Sir George (he was knighted in 2009) for the first time, he was full of grace and warmth. Not only did he seem equally pleased to meet me, but, upon learning that we would be visiting his home country a few months later, invited us to come stay at his place (admittedly he knew that I was a wine educator and not just a general wine consumer, but still, I was both touched and impressed).

In this circumstance, his “place” was the company’s Marlborough-based winery, which includes a lovely guest apartment located atop the tasting room, complete with a combination washer-dryer (which we somehow managed to overflow our first night) and a cook’s kitchen outfitted with nearly everything we might want. Arriving on a Sunday night as the only guests in the multi-roomed unit, we chose the largest room for ourselves and enjoyed having space in which to spread out. (Sometimes, bigger actually can be better.)

I haven’t asked George Fistonich his opinion on whether size matters, but I can tell you that he probably never expected his venture to grow to such proportions when he first leased two hectares back in 1961. Now, with vineyards located throughout New Zealand’s numerous regions and three wineries (the two others are in Auckland and Hawkes Bay) one might say he is at the head of a full-fledged empire.

Although George was not present at his Marlborough estate during our sojourn, our paths crossed again the following year. This time I had the pleasure of sitting next to him during a lunch held in celebration of his 50th vintage. We talked about a lot of things, including wine, of course, but, he was not as one-dimensional as that. And, we obviously discussed my trip to New Zealand and my impressions of his country.

About half-way through lunch, George made a few remarks. Among other statements, George was keen to announce to all assembled that the flight to New Zealand was quite easy – suggesting that one board a plane on the west coast, have dinner, and then go to sleep, awakening in time for breakfast and an early arrival in the capital city of Auckland. [I think he may have also suggested the use of sleeping pills, but having just had an extremely negative experience in that regard —inclusive of fainting onto a fellow passenger while attempting to access the loo— I’ll suggest that you simply rely on a glass of New Zealand wine (presuming you’re flying Air New Zealand) and a pair of eyeshades.]

Returning to my side, George resumed our conversation, which now turned to travel. Adding to his aerial advice, George admitted that flying first class was relatively new to him and that he had previously helped to ease the discomfort of sitting in coach by using the meditative techniques he had studied years ago. Of course, he didn’t seem to have any complaints about the much roomier seats he now enjoys, proving once again that bigger may not always be better, but it certainly isn’t bad.

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