30 Aug 2023

Villa Maria: The dismantling of a legacy

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 30 August 2023

Tracing the rise, fall and resurrection of Villa Maria wines – a vintner's legacy that's ended up in the hands of accountants. 

A vineyard in Marlborough, near Blenheim.

Sir George Fistonich helped build New Zealand's reputation as a winemaking country on the world stage. Photo: 123rf

After losing the wine label that brought him fame and fortune, the godfather of New Zealand wine Sir George Fistonich is back in business with a new brand. 

Sir George's company Fistonich Family Wines is producing wine from two vineyards in Hawkes Bay and Marlborough, working with some of his former winemakers and viticulturalists.

"Everyone's been focusing on the terribly sad story of the loss of the business and the receivership," says NZ Herald property editor Anne Gibson. "But he says, 'no, it doesn't suit me to be retired.'"

But the sad story of Villa Maria Estate, which Sir George started more than 60 years ago, is not over yet.

Knighted for his services to the industry and awarded many times for his successes, Sir George is still fighting a legal battle over the way the sale of the wine business and the land at Māngere was handled, including their value.

It is taking place as the South Auckland headquarters, down the road from where he first started growing grapes in 1961, is being dismantled.

The winery was a popular venue for concerts with its natural amphitheatre surrounded by vineyards.

But while the Villa Maria brand lives on under the New Zealand-owned Indevin, the land near Auckland Airport, now owned by Goodman Property, is being turned into a business park, Gibson says.

And in a major shift, Indevin plans to ship half the wine Villa Maria produces in bulk to the UK for bottling, bringing the operation closer to the source of its major market. Around 14 jobs will go with the closure of the Māngere operation.

"Indevin are running a very different business model," she says. "They no longer need to be producing grapes from that land. The vines have been all taken out now, the big irrigation systems removed and a big logistics centre will be built there, so it will be a very different looking site in the end from what it had been."

Things started to go sour for Sir George around 2019, says Gibson.

"Sir George Fistonich had done a major upgrade of the Hawkes Bay vineyard and it was a seismic job, about $30 million," she tells The Detail

Court records show that ANZ and Rabobank had extended large loans to Villa Maria and were the joint security holders over the assets including vineyards in Marlborough, Hawkes Bay and Māngere. With a debt owing of $210 million, the two banks sought for Villa Maria to be restructured and a new entity, Fistonich Family Wines Ltd, established as the holding company.

Gibson describes it as a clash between Sir George and the two lenders over the future of the company.

"Obviously it was about someone who is now in their 80s. The banks would be thinking, what's the long term plan here," she says.

Gibson explains that in 2020 Sir George refused to accept an initial deal to sell the assets of Villa Maria to Scales Corp for $172 million and land at Māngere for $75 million to Goodman Property, which triggered a default under the banks' loan agreement.

The following year, the two lending banks called in receivers at Calibre Partners, who sold the vineyard land and business assets, now under FFWL, for $260 million. That enabled the banks to recover their $211m, the receivers to keep $5.1m, and Sir George to be paid around $40m.

Under that deal, Indevin, New Zealand's largest wine business, bought Villa Maria for $190m and Goodman bought the land for $75m.

It is that sales process, handled by the receivers and the banks, that Sir George is disputing in court, says Newsroom business reporter Andrew Bevin.

"George feels like that isn't the true value of the assets, of the brand, of the land," he says.

"I don't think it is genuinely about the money and I think if you ask Sir George himself it's more about legacy and having 60 years of work taken from you on terms that you're not happy with." 

Find out more by listening to the full episode.

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