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Profile: Abe Salt
Published:  15 November, 2018

Abe Salt is the new CEO of New Zealand’s ‘most admired wine brand’, Villa Maria, following in the considerable footsteps of founder Sir George Fistonich. Christian Davis sizes him up

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ABE SALT TAKES A size 44 shoe (10, in old money). Why do I need to know that? You may well ask. Well, simply because this 39-year-old is stepping into the very large shoes of Villa Maria’s founder, Sir George Fistonich. He’s the new chief executive.

Further to that, he’s not even a Kiwi. Salt’s from Australia – Geelong in fact, south west of Melbourne and just over the Port Philip Bay from Australia’s major Pinot Noir producing region, Mornington Peninsula. His saving grace is that, in his CV, he is described as “an avid wine enthusiast and is passionate about the wine industry”. He needs to be. Those shoes are made for walking.

Villa Maria is no poison chalice. It is always in the top 10 in Drinks International’s The World’s Most Admired Wine Brands survey.

Both the commercial and ‘intellectual’ sides of the survey’s participants appreciate that Villa Maria makes good-quality wines at almost every price point.

Still privately owned, Villa Maria boasts 2m cases annually. It calls itself the largest producer of high-end wine (NZ$15-plus) in New Zealand. It grows 28 grape varieties and exports to more than 60 markets.

So how did the step-change occur? “I had started my own consultancy business then got tapped on the shoulder by a recruitment executive. I wasn’t interested but when he told me it was Villa Maria, I said I was interested. I had not met George but I had read his autobiography.”

The father of two has done Wine & Spirits Education Trust and University of Adelaide wine courses and has ‘participated’ in a range of social wine education programmes’ masterclasses.

As the resumé resumes, he joins Villa Maria with 15 years’ experience across the wine industry, investment banking and strategic advisory. As principal at Iron Gate Consulting, Salt focused on giving strategic advice to the wine industry.

Prior to forming Iron Gate, Salt spent more than five years at Treasury Wine Estates, where he was global head of strategy. During his time at TWE, he said he led important transactions and implemented strategic changes for the business. He served on the steering committee for TWE’s global supply chain optimisation programme. Salt was also responsible for delivering TWE’s annual five-year plan, including sales and marketing plans by brand and region. In New Zealand, Salt led TWE’s acquisition of its Matua Marlborough winery.

He says: “I love that the industry is constantly changing. It’s an intellectual challenge and incredibly enjoyable to learn about. I also love spending time outside, particularly in the vineyards when the fruit is hanging on the vines. I find the short-term decision-making of many industry participants to be frustrating. The wine industry is a long-term game and requires patience to make great wines and build great brands.”

So what is his message to people in the industry? “I’m still learning about the industry so don’t wish to lecture others, but I would like buyers and consumers to continue to try new wines from all over New Zealand – particularly Hawkes Bay reds.”