The year was 1971, early January; Louise (my wife at the time) and I decided to travel to San Francisco to help my sister Terry (Teresa) celebrate her 21st birthday. So we loaded up my Ford van, and headed South from Eugene, Oregon. The approximately 500 miles distance meant we should probably stop for the night somewhere before we reached San Francisco, so we started researching stopping places.
We quickly decided that sleepy Napa Valley would make an interesting stop-over; we knew nothing about wines, but figured we could learn. In fact, at that time, my idea of a good wine was Annie Green Springs Apple Wine, or for special occasions, Mateus.
On our arrival in Napa Valley, we found a place for the night, had a nice meal, and planned our next day. That next day, we had an entire day to tour Napa, and then Sonoma Valley, before meeting my sister and her husband in San Francisco. So we decided on the following:
Louis Martini and Robert Mondavi wineries, in Napa Valley;
Sebastiani, in Sonoma Valley; plus others, if there was time.
In 1991, we were visiting New Zealand, enroute to our second visit to Australia–on a wine-exploration mission. As we normally do in a new city (for us), we shopped at several local wine stores, selecting the most-interesting wines (including Sauvignon Blancs–SB, and Pinot Noirs), to sample and enjoy, back at our bed and breakfast lodging on the North Island, in the city of Auckland.
We sampled several well-known wines, including one of our favorites, Kim Crawford. And we discovered a ‘less-known’ wine, a Sauvignon Blanc from Villa Maria. It was great, with significantly different nuances of flavor, than our favorites.
Over the ensuing year, we communicated (via fax, in 1991) with the winery, connecting with the marketing manager. We suggested that Villa Maria should bring their wonderful SB to the USA; at least to Texas and Colorado–key influence spots for the most-interesting wines. The skillful Marketing Manager deferred, saying that their strategy was first, to serve their Asia-Pacific market, which they had carefully been building for several years.
But we persisted, pointing out that visibility in the USA, and our powerful wine media, would help boost their case in their other carefully-selected markets.
In 1992, we returned to New Zealand, and scheduled an appointment to visit with Villa Maria winery, to the West of Auckland. To do so, we gave up a visit to the great wineries in Hawke’s Bay, on the Eastern side of the North Island–together with that wonderful Art Deco city, Napier, to its South.
We pressed our case, partly out of selfish reasons, because their SB was an excellent value, and the flavor very unique, compared to French, US, and other nations’ renditions. The greatest difference: tropical fruit influence, as opposed to that typical SB grassy taste. We supplied the names of the best importers, state importers, where needed, as in Colorado, and the leading distributors.
Six months later, the Wine Spectator magazine posted their review of the then-current Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc 1991 vintage. They scored it at 91 points, at a price of $8.99 (US) price. In our statistical analysis, that is a Great Value.
There were several significant outcomes from this adventure:
Villa Maria sold out their available wines in the US (the Marketing Manager was correct!);
Many other NZ wineries changed their flavor profile to compete better with Villa Maria’s offering;
Wine makers from France, the USA, and South Africa, travelled to NZ to taste the Villa Maria wines, and to consider adapting to their style. The greatest change was to move away from the grassy SBs, to the tropical fruit–yet still dry–taste.
This sequence of events transformed the global Sauvignon Blanc flavors for half its producers, over the next 4-5 years–while the rest continued with their preferred taste profiles.
UPDATE, 10 YEARS LATER
While still tracking the success of Villa Maria, in the early 2000s, we observed a surge of interest in a few Western Australia wineries that offered Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon blends. Depending on the majority proportion, these were named either SBS or SSB. They were delicious–and only available from a few wineries in Western Australia. We visited all of them, and had some that were fantastic!
We expected this blend would be another major innovation, like Villa Maria; but these wines never gained popularity, in part, perhaps because of a lack of availability, and inconsistent flavors from several different years. Too bad, the wines were delicious, when you could find the right blend.
UPDATE, 30 YEARS LATER
Today, as of September 2021, Villa Maria is a globally-recognized and popular winery, with vineyards in several of the best wine-producing parts of New Zealand, including Hawkes’s Bay, and the Marlborough region of the South Island.
And recently, in August 2021, New Zealand’s largest winegrower/producer Indevin announced it was buying Villa Maria and its associated brands.
Still today, we occasionally enjoy a bottle of OUR Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc!