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Love in the Paddocks

Actor/oenophile Sam Neill gives celebrity-owned vineyards a good name.

THERE are those who make a name making good wine. And then there is a romantic bunch of famous folk - or celebrities - who share a common affinity with owning a vineyard.

David Beckham apparently bought one for Victoria. And singer-songwriter Sting owns one, which is where he produces his "rock music wine".

Thankfully, there are the celebrated few who might know a little more about what they're doing. Celebrities like Sam Neill - actor, self-confessed lover of red, red wine (and we don't mean the UB40 song) and proprietor of cult winery Two Paddocks in Central Otago, New Zealand.

Indeed, the 63-year-old Kiwi is more famously hailed as a nomadic thespian who has made a name for himself taking on diverse movie roles such as the Antichrist in Omen III: The Final Conflict (1981) and a palaeontologist-slash-accidental-hero in Jurassic Park (1993).

Yet, despite an impressive list of films and blockbusters that top a string of hit television mini-series such as Merlin and The Tudors, Neill, who is one of New Zealand's most credited actors, told Today that he doesn't actually see himself as a "celebrity".

"I don't count myself in that pack," he clarified. "Well, you don't see me in the social pages. And I've never partied with Charlie Sheen."

He continued: "I'm a reasonably successful actor but I'm not one of those celebrity actors."

Regarding fellow actor Gerard Depardieu's foray into the world of wine-making, Neill agreed that the man is after all French. "He has a well-developed nose for wine. A spectacular nose," he quipped.

Neill did proceed to deduce that he didn't know many actors who make wine, noting in the discussion that Francis Ford Coppola is a director and Cliff Richard only had one movie.

Seizing the opportunity to further indulge his natural wit, he added: "I mean I know lots of actors who drink, and drink very successfully. And some of them shouldn't drink at all."

Close to home

"I read somewhere that pinot noir is a wine for the intelligent wine drinker, and I felt a lot better about myself," Neill shared. Jokes aside, the self-made oenophile is seriously in love with wine - the Central Otago pinot noir, in particular.

The region in which this temperamental varietal is grown is now home to the actor and his family after he moved back to New Zealand in 1987, from England where he had been living for seven years. And that was before he knew of the land's intrinsic worth.

As fate would have it, the area is one of the very few pockets in the world that the pinot noir (the red burgundy clone) is grown successfully.

He explained: "When that became apparent, I thought, I'm going to buy 10 acres and I'm going to plant some vines and see what happens."

Neill did just that in 1993 and was surprised with the success of the winery's first vintage, the 1997.

"Initially, I thought, I just want to have something on the table for my family and my friends," Neill said. "But then I got more ambitious when I realised we could grow something really special."

The winery is still called Two Paddocks, after its initial two plots, although the business has grown to encompass three vineyards. These are harvested to produce a clever variety, essentially its top of the range Two Paddocks Pinot Noir, the more seriously affordable Picnic Pinot Noir by Two Paddocks, the occasional single vineyard vintages from its Gibbston and Last Chance vineyards when appropriate, as well as some Riesling and sauvignon blanc.

That said, Neill's passion for wine is driven by something greater that the opportunity to maximise profits; something closer to the heart.

Wine, he believes, is something we discover as we make our way through life. "You discover yourself. You discover art. And you discover wine. It's one of those great journeys you go on in life.

"It doesn't dominate my life ... It's about friendship and conversation, and living a complete life. That's what wine is for me."

Wine-making, on the other hand, is a slightly more complicated relationship to nurture. But Two Paddocks does seem to be blessed with incredible talent, not least its lead wine-maker Dean Shaw.

Making wine is like making a film, Neill conceived. "You've got a much better chance of making great film if you work with great people."

Neill has also grown significantly since his first taste of a burgundy. "I had dinner with James Mason and he ordered a bottle of something which I thought was quite extraordinary ... And I said, 'What is this? I've never had anything like this. This is fantastic.' I was young then (about 28 years old). And I mostly drank stuff out of cardboard boxes prior to that.

"He said, 'Well, this is red burgundy, try and remember that,'" Neill recalled. "And I took that advice to heart."

Do you see this as something you will be doing long past your acting career?

Sam Neill: Of course ... Well, two things about that. One is that I've no intention of retiring, thank you very much. The second thing is that I believe Two Paddocks has its own momentum and is independent of me. I mean, I could get flattened by a Singapore bus today and Two Paddocks will (still) be going in 100 years.

How did you end up in love with wine?

It has always been in the family. There was always wine on the table. And we grew up with wine. And my father was a great wine enthusiast ... I'm sort of fourth- or fifth-generation in the wine business, loosely speaking. (His family had a business importing wine and spirits from France.) Not growing wine ... I'm the first one to actually plant anything and produce it.

Do you appreciate wine-making as much as you do playing great characters in movies?

I see these things as being sort of complementary. There is always downtime in between films ... One of the things that actors dread is the waiting around. On any given day of filming, you probably actually work a total of 10 minutes. And the rest of the time, you're waiting around for the camera to be set up, the lights to change. So I might as well be on the computer, on Skype, dealing with the vineyard. And I write my blog ... which has this weird fanatical following around the world. It's much more than a hobby - it's a commitment and I'm dedicated to it. And it has been a very rewarding process. It's been very gratifying that Two Paddocks has become a kind of a cult in itself and it has its own following.

How involved are you in the wine-making processes?

Reasonably. The style of the wines is very much under my guidance. But my wine-maker knows a great deal more about wine than I ever will. I mean he should - that's his job. And the same goes for my viticulturist.

How would you describe the Two Paddocks pinot noir?

Well, I have lots of words for it, but I think it's … deceptively unassuming. Very seductive and multi-dimensional. And very rewarding with age.

How would you describe your wines in terms of summer blockbusters and Oscar-winning vintages?

Some years are outstanding and some years are more challenging. One of our vineyards is about the most southerly vineyard in the world ... more than Chile or Tasmania. And for that reason, some years can be difficult. We can get frost at either end of the season. We've lost huge parts of our crops from time to time.

Do you think more New Zealand actors will see the wine business as a good investment?

I would advise them not to. Here's the thing, there's a lot of wine in the world, but there's never enough great wine. There's always a shortage of great wines. But there are no guarantees that you are going to make great wine.

So you think that there are enough connoisseurs in the world to appreciate that fact?

I think more and more people are getting interested in wine. I know the recession has hit some vineyards quite hard ... but as people are more interested in drinking good wine, I think there's a bright future for wine. And in Asia, people have stopped putting Coca-Cola into their Chateau Lafite - that's very encouraging. I see more interest in this part of the world. Two Paddocks has been in Hong Kong for five or six years now. We've got a very loyal and keen following there.

No cravings for a big Margaux, then?

I don't want to offend anyone but I'm just not interested in Bordeaux - it's not for me. I just don't get it. I've kinda leap-frogged over bordeaux and I went straight to burgundy and pinot, and that's where my heart lies.

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Alexandra 9340
Central Otago
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