Actor Sam Neill seems more nervous about the prospect of his wine being slated than he is of seeing his latest film get a critical drubbing. RICHARD NEILL
Despite a flurry of e-mails to the winery manager at the Central Otago Wine Company, where Sam Neill’s Two Paddocks Pinot Noir is made, my request to taste a barrel sample of the 2000 vintage is politely but firmly turned down.
‘I learned the hard way,’ says the star of Jurassic Park, when we eventually meet up for lunch in the small mining town of Clyde. ‘On one of the first occasions I showed my wine to the New Zealand press I was completely appalled by its quality. There’s something about Two Paddocks – it goes into a terrible sulk after bottling and it doesn’t like to be seen,’ explains the Kiwi actor.
‘It’s like showing a rough cut of a movie. It doesn’t matter if you show it to other directors or critics that have been around for 30 years, you are still looking at a rough cut and it’s not the same as the film you’ll see in the cinema. I’ve vowed never to show my wines too early again.’ Neill, without doubt New Zealand’s most successful actor, grew up in a household where wine was a regular topic of conversation. The Dunedin-based family company Neill & Co was one of the biggest importers of wine and spirits and for many years sold the biggest-selling brandy in the country – a brand called Beehive. ‘My father said the reason it sold so well was because people could pronounce the name,’ laughs Neill.
Neill and wine
But it was his friendship with Rippon Estate’s Rolfe Mills, who sadly died last year, that led Neill to set up his own vineyards. ‘Rolfe was an inspiration – it was those early Pinots of his that made me think of starting something,’ says Neill, who eventually bought a plot of vines in the Gibbston Valley in 1993. ‘It has become more ambitious than it started off being. At first I was just thinking about producing something that my wife and I would drink, and no one was more surprised than I was when we opened up that first bottle.’
The name of his wine – Two Paddocks – was the result of a planned partnership with film director friend Roger Donaldson. ‘We both had a paddock of vines close to each other and ‘Two Paddocks’ seemed like a logical name. But Roger then discovered they’d planted Chardonnay for him instead of Pinot Noir and by the time he got around to replanting he was two years behind me.’
Pinot Noir is Neill’s passion. ‘It’s so elusive. I love the way it expresses itself, not just from vineyard to vineyard and region to region but from bottle to bottle. It’s always just beyond your grasp and when you do manage to hang on to it, it’s only for a fleeting moment.’ So is burgundy the benchmark he aspires to? ‘I’ve drunk so many great bottles of burgundy but so many ordinary bottles, too. To be honest I don’t think you get much bang for your buck anymore – if you want to drink a really good bottle it’s got to be so expensive you start to feel a bit guilty.’
On the prospects for Central Otago Pinot Noir he is optimistic but understands it is still early days for this region. ‘I don’t have the wine vocabulary to delineate what is happening here but there is definitely a Central Otago style emerging. The thing about this region is that we’re not just isolated from the rest of the country, we’re isolated from each other, and I think that has brought us together more than other regions.’As well as his Gibbston Valley vineyard, Neill has bought two new properties in the Alexandra Basin. The first, called Redbank, is an ex-Government research station that Neill believes could be the next Felton Road. ‘What you really need in this part of the world is heat and we know from the Met records that this is the hottest place in Central Otago.’ The second new property is a very beautiful north-facing vineyard, surrounded by dramatic wind-eroded stone bluffs, called Alex Paddocks. ‘There is a famous saying about there being many places in the world that will appeal to you, but only one landscape that you will fall in love with, and that is where you belong,’ reflects Neill. ‘That’s how I feel about Central Otago.’
Written by RICHARD NEIL