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Cult New Zealand Winery Sold to American Buyers

Dry River, which is sold almost exclusively via mailing list, could increase its sales to the United States.

Bob Campbell
Posted: February 27, 2003

Joining the ranks of Americans investing in New Zealand's wine industry, New York investment manager Julian Robertson and Napa Valley vineyard owner Reg Oliver have purchased a small winery with a very big reputation for making some of the country's most collectible wines. The sale could eventually mean that Dry River will increase its sales in the United States.

Dry River, sold for an undisclosed sum, produces just 2,000 to 3,000 cases a year from about 24 acres of prime vineyard land in New Zealand's Martinborough district. The winery's founder, Neil McCallum, began making wine in 1984. Before that, he was a government scientist who was once credited with being New Zealand's leading marijuana expert.

The new owners, Robertson and Oliver, also recently purchased Te Awa Farm, a 23,000-case winery in New Zealand's Hawke's Bay region that is best known for its Merlot and Chardonnay. "Reg and I are honored and excited to be investors in Dry River," said Robertson, enthusiastically. "As far as we are concerned, it will be business as usual."

Extremely low yields, nonirrigated vines, innovative vineyard techniques (such as the use of reflective foil to optimize the grapes' exposure to sunlight) and a desire to make long-lived wines have earned Dry River a reputation for being one of New Zealand's leading premium-wine producers.

Although Dry River wines are never entered into competitions, many local wine critics believe that the winery makes the consistently best Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and Syrah in New Zealand. It also makes top Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

Dry River wines are not normally available in wine stores or through tasting rooms. They are primarily sold within a few days of release through a tightly controlled mailing list. Only token amounts of its wines have been exported to the United States.

McCallum, 60, had decided that it was time to do more fishing and less work. He remains part of the company and said he will also remain "completely involved in winemaking for at least another five years or longer, if all parties are happy with the arrangement."

"I'm not a business person and get fed up with the day-to-day grind of running a business," explained McCallum. "Although I acknowledge that anyone could continue to make Dry River wines using our established techniques in the winery and vineyards, I plan to be around to preserve continuity and to have a part in the evolution of our wines' styles."

There are no immediate plans to expand production although McCallum expects to make a little more Syrah in the near future. However, he said increased sales to the United States now appear likely, as Oliver has distribution contacts in the country.

In the past seven years, American investors have bought more New Zealand vineyards than investors from any other country, according to the 2003 edition of The New Zealand Vineyard and Wine Industry Review. Between 1995 and 2002, U.S. interests purchased 39 vineyards in New Zealand. U.K. buyers were second with 27 purchases. Among the recent purchasers have been Napa vintners Gary Andrus, who founded Pine Ridge, and Lyndsey Harrison, who founded Harrison Vineyards.

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Check our recent ratings of Dry River and Te Awa Farm wines.

Read past news about Americans investing in New Zealand:

  • July 9, 2002
    Napa Vintner Gary Andrus Buys New Zealand Vineyard

  • June 26, 2002
    Napa Vintner to Establish New Zealand Winery
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