At 73, Neil McCallum is into his third career. Karl du Fresne talks to a former Martinborough winemaker who has found a new passion in life.

His first was in organic chemistry. It took him to Oxford University, where he completed a PhD. He also discovered wine there, having the good fortune to join a college that employed its own first-class chef and kept a cellar stocked with the finest vintages from Bordeaux, Burgundy and Germany. 

That led to his second career. Back home in New Zealand, where he worked for the now-defunct Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, Neil and his wife Dawn bought a block of land at Martinborough and planted grapes. 

He was one of a handful of intrepid Martinborough wine pioneers who took a punt on the town’s viticultural potential. Others included fellow scientist and Martinborough Vineyard co-founder Derek Milne (now chair of the Wairarapa District Health Board), who had written a 1978 report identifying the Martinborough climate and soil as being ideal for wine grapes. 

The McCallums harvested their first grapes in 1983 and produced their first commercial vintage the following year. It was labelled Dry River – a name that was soon to command enormous respect from wine lovers.

With self-taught neil as winemaker, Dry River established an international reputation for wines of meticulous quality. Production was small and the wines were almost impossible to get. Dry River became one of the few New Zealand labels to acquire cult status.

Perhaps inevitably, the winery attracted the attention of some heavy hitters. In 2003, the McCallums sold for an undisclosed sum to wealthy American investors Julian Robertson and Reg Oliver, but retained Neil as chief winemaker. 

He finally walked away in 2011. It was time to embark on his third career – perhaps the most adventurous of them all. 

These days, Neil travels to exotic places looking for precious stones which he then brings home and fashions into valuable pieces for the jewellery trade. Asked to describe his occupation, he suggests gemmologist, gem trader and gem cutter.

It’s a pursuit that takes him to Myanmar (Burma), Tanzania and Sri Lanka.  There’s something almost Indiana Jones-ish about his description of travelling to remote Mogok, in Myanmar, where outsiders are viewed with suspicion and he must have a permit, a guide and a driver. Mogok, he explains, is the source of some of the world’s greatest sapphires and rubies.

Is travelling to out-of-the-way places part of the appeal? “Absolutely,” he says.

He doesn’t hunt for precious stones himself, but deals with local miners and gem fossickers. Mastering the necessary negotiating skills is a key part of the job, he says. “You have to learn each country’s style of negotiation and be able to negotiate well, or you get screwed.”

He recalls one visit to a trader in Yangon (Myanmar) when he returned repeatedly over four days before getting “a beautiful big pink spinel” (similar to a ruby) at the price he wanted.

Back at his home overlooking the Ruamahanga Valley, Neilcuts the gems into exquisite patterns. He gives the impression of taking the same uncompromising, single-minded approach as he did to winemaking. 

The finished pieces are usually sold to goldsmiths to be mounted in rings or other jewellery items, but he says he’s not in it for the money. “I don’t need to make a lot of money. Selling the vineyard sorted that out. I probably do a little bit better than break even.”

So what drives him? “I’m in it for the satisfaction – the joy of discovery and the pleasure of turning a stone into a thing of beauty.”