Nikola Nobilo, founder of Nobilo Wine Group, now the second-largest wine company in New Zealand, died Wednesday in Auckland. He was 94.
Nobilo immigrated to New Zealand in 1937 from Croatia, where he'd worked as a stonemason. His family had made wine for 300 years, and in 1943 Nobilo settled in Auckland and planted vines. At that time, there was little demand—domestically or abroad—for New Zealand wine, and fortified wines comprised nearly all of the market.
"He was one of the fathers of the modern industry," said Philip Gregan, CEO of New Zealand Winegrowers, the country's leading wine trade organization. "The company he founded with his three sons, Nick Jr., Mark and Steve, was at the forefront of the changeover from fortified wines to varietal wines."
That shift to varietal wines started in the mid-'60s, then gained steam in the '70s. Nobilo Vintners was one of the first New Zealand wineries to make a varietal Pinot Noir, with vines planted in Auckland. Nobilo was also one of the first Kiwi estates to make Chardonnay, from vineyards in the region of Gisborne, on the east coast of the North Island. Today, Nobilo's son Nick still works in Gisborne at his Gerwürztraminer-only winery called Vinoptima.
Nikola officially retired from day-to-day winery operations in the early 1980s. In 1998, Nobilo purchased Selaks, another New Zealand winery started by Croatian immigrants, but were themselves acquired in 2000 by Australian beverage giant BRL Hardy. Today, Nobilo is owned by Constellation Brands, based in Canandaigua, N.Y. That acquisition, part of a $1.4 billion deal in 2003, made Constellation the world's largest wine company.
Nobilo is survived by his wife, Zuva, and his three sons.
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