Actor Sam Neill is no ordinary celebrity vintner. He tells Susan Jung how his nose for Burgundy led to organic pinot noir and the happiest pot-bellied pigs in Otago.
THERE ARE PROBABLY three things you didn't know about the actor Sam Neill. The first is that he plays the ukulele. Yes, the man who acted as the evil Damien (in Omen III - the Final Conflict); the super secret agent (in Reilly, Ace of Spies) and paleontologist Alan Grant in the three Jurassic Park movies, plays the totally uncool, tiny wisp of a guitar that was popularised by entertainers such as Don Ho and Tiny Tim. 'I can't sing the falsetto [on Tiptoe Through the Tulips] but I can play the chords,' says Neill.
Second, he also has a refreshingly down-to-earth website. If you log on to www.samneill.com, you won't find the expected filmography, photos of Neill in his many roles, or an unofficial online fanzine. The site, strangely enough, has nothing about Neill - the actor, but instead is identical to www.twopaddocks.com, the website devoted to news about Neill's Two Paddocks winery in Central Otago, New Zealand. (The site's 'TP blog' is written by Neill in the third person [he refers to himself as the Proprietor] and is laugh-out-loud funny.)
And finally, Neill is in Hong Kong now, judging at his first wine show, WinPac (Wines of the Pacific Rim), where he's joining the likes of John Avery, MW (Master of Wine); Australian winemaker Peter Lehmann and Hong Kong judges Simon Tam and Debra Meiburg.
No one would argue that Neill is better known for his acting than his pinot noirs. But wine-making is an expensive habit, and he wouldn't have Two Paddocks without the income generated by acting. 'Hopefully, the wine will start paying me back, but it doesn't seem to want to at this point,' Neill says in an interview that takes place just an hour after he flew into Hong Kong from Sydney. 'We're covering ourselves, which is quite all right; I'm happy about that. But the investment - if I put it on the Shanghai Stock Exchange I'd be a lot better off. But then I wouldn't have any wines on the shelves.'
Born in Northern Ireland, but raised from a young age in New Zealand, Neill had the wine-drinking 'seed' planted by his father, who was a wine and spirits importer. But it wasn't until he was living in London in the 1980s that he started to appreciate the drink.
'I suddenly discovered I could afford to buy good wine,' he says. 'I was in movies and no longer impoverished. The first thing I did was to start buying good wine. I rapidly realised my favourite wine was pinot noir, specifically from Burgundy. They were reasonably affordable then. Cut to 10 years later and I bought some land in Central Otago. I realised not only was this the place I wanted to live, but it was also a place where it was possible to grow outstanding pinot noirs, which is kind of a double happy coincidence.
'Central Otago is a kind of unnaturally beautiful part of the world. There were a couple of pioneers who started to grow pinot noirs there, and it was very interesting. I thought if they could do it, why couldn't I. So, I bought some more land and planted my first grapes in 1993. We're now in our 10th vintage. It's called Two Paddocks because my friend [film director] Roger Donaldson had a paddock next to me and we thought we'd have a little company together. But his grapes didn't grow for a few years - he had a lot of bad luck.
'Now he's gone separately, he has a place called Sleeping Dogs, and I've got three paddocks, effectively, because I bought two other properties.'
By all reports, including Neill's, Two Paddocks is bucolic.
'We not only grow grapes, we also grow saffron and lavender. We've infected some oak trees with truffle spores and hope they grow. We have pigs and sheep and chickens.
Without being too po-faced about it, we are interested in organics and sustainable farming. We are producing our pinot along the sort of lines they were using in Burgundy, I imagine, 200 years ago. We don't use pesticides and herbicides and I think we'll be certifiably organic this year.'
The animals, though, aren't eaten, although it isn't Neill's choice. 'I thought we were growing them for our own consumption, but my wife [makeup artist Noriko Watanabe] won't have anything killed. So, they just wander around looking decorative. The pigs are getting awfully big - they're pot-bellied pigs. They were cute and now they're just enormous. Pot-bellied pigs are no good for eating after about six months, apparently, so they're well past their due date. They just eat more and more, and get bigger and bigger. But they're extremely happy about it.'
Over the three plots of land, only 12 hectares are planted with grape vines, producing just over 2,000 cases through Neill's team that also includes a viticulturist and winemaker. 'We're very small, but that's kind of why I've always rather liked Burgundy as opposed to Bordeaux,' says the 59-year-old. 'Bordeaux has grapes grown by extremely wealthy people with vast estates and chateaux. Burgundy is grown by peasants like me, with little plots and charming pigs.'
Although Two Paddocks is known primarily for its pinot noir, Neill grows a small amount of riesling, and he also makes chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and merlot from grapes purchased from other growers (the wines are sold in Hong Kong at ThreeSixty in the Landmark, Central).
'I planted riesling to please my wife, because after we started with the pinot, she came to the conclusion she no longer liked red wine. But after the riesling was planted, she decided she doesn't like wine at all. She only drinks beer now. I can't afford a brewery,' he laughs.
Central Otago is the world's southernmost wine-making region. Neill calls it a 'very marginal area. It's only just warm enough. That's the secret to a good pinot noir, you have to let the grapes hang on the vine until the last possible moment to get the greatest complexity of flavours. Some years will be disastrous, others will be absolutely extraordinary, that's just the luck of the draw. Frost is our greatest enemy.'
Neill starts to practise for the WinPac wine judging by attempting to describe his own wines. 'This is the sort of thing a wine judge should be able to do with great aplomb,' he says. 'I think what characterises them is very vivid fruit, a sort of exuberance, with balance, refinement and long finish. I think vibrant would be the best word - they sing, they're alive.'
Neill has an Order of the British Empire and the Distinguished Companion to the New Zealand Order of Merit, but he gets a gleam in his eye when he's asked if he wants to add the Master of Wine initials behind his name.
'It's quite difficult to be an MW, isn't it?' he says. 'I'm terribly lazy, it sounds like an awful lot of work. I would like to learn about wines formally, though, there are vast areas that I'm woefully amateur. That's the good thing about being the boss.'
However, Neill eschews the 'celebrity winemaker' label. 'I don't really think of myself as famous. I'm happy to be lumped in with Francis Ford Coppola and Gerard Depardieu because they're film guys and serious about their wines. But then people start to write about celebrity vineyards and you start getting into Greg Norman and Cliff Richard and so on. I'm sure they're perfectly nice people, but I don't think we have anything in common. They don't make films and they're famous; they're celebrities and I'm not. I'm an actor who also makes wines.'
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