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One Star Makes Four Stars

Vic Williams talks to actor, Sam Neill, about his first vintage.

Sam Neill with 1997 Neill Pinot Noir
Photo: Becky Nunes

Sam Neill can't remember a time when wine wasn't part of his life. The Otago-raised actor's father launched Neill & Co, later to become Wilson Neill, after retiring from an army career. Wine, mostly from Bordeaux or Burgundy, was on the table most evenings.

Sam admits he left Central Otago as soon as he was able to, but nowadays he spends as much time there as his busy schedule allows.

He first began to think about producing wine around a decade ago. Buying property and building a house in the area gave him the opportunity to share many local bottles with good friends Rolfe and Lois Mills, from Rippon Estate. He watched with interest as Alan Brady's Gibbston Valley Winery and Rob and Greg Hay's Chard Farm began to establish nationwide reputations.

It was the Hays with whom he eventually formed a partnership, but he pulled out when it was decided to concentrate on sparkling wine. It's not a style he particularly enjoys, and he couldn't see the point in producing something he didn't drink.

The first grapes were planted on his present Gibbston Valley property a littler over five years ago. They are all Pinot Noir, but from several different clones. In Burgundy, it is believed this ensures complexity in the finished product. Sam loves what he calls the elusiveness of Pinot. "You never get two the same," he says, with obvious respect. "Even two bottles from the same producer can be subtly different. To me, that's part of the magic."

Production of Neill Two Paddocks Pinot Noir is tiny. The two-hectare property produced only 300 cases from the 1997 vintage, and 650 this year. The company has a new larger vineyard near the town of Alexandra, but the grapes won't come on stream for at least four years.

Sam, however, doesn't want the company to get too big. He became involved in the wine industry because it looked like fun, and if the passion and enjoyment were ever to disappear, he would get out.

That nearly happened last year when the company's first winemaker, Mike Wolter, died in an industrial accident at the winery. The two had become good friends, and Sam was shattered by the news.

"My first inclination was to flag it, and get right away from the industry," he says. "Mike was such a good friend, and we'd encouraged each other since the project's beginnings.
I still haven't got over it."

Sam's affection is shown by the dedication on the back label of the first Two Paddocks release. It reads simply 'This one is for you, Mike.' There is still a family involvement: Mike's widow, Bridget, and a family friend, Neil Gaudin, are partners in Sam's second company, the Central Otago Wine Company.

The 1997 Two Paddocks Pinot Noir was finished by itinerant Central Otago winemaker, Rudi Bauer, who is also contracted to produce the 1998 version. The company is currently seeking a new permanent winemaker.

Sam is excited about Central Otago's future as a wine-producing region, but he worries that some of the tiny new companies might overextend themselves.

"People who talk about sinking their life savings into a vineyard as a retirement interest really concern me," he says. "It's an industry that requires a lot of very hard work, and producing good wine often involves making costly decisions." He points to the crop thinning undertaken on his own vineyard as an example. Pulling bunches off the vines to concentrate flavour on those that remain instantly increases costs, but it is necessary to achieve top quality.

Marketing, too, is a costly exercise, but it shouldn't be a problem for Two Paddocks. After Sam's appearance on local television, interest was so high that people phoned to wine industry's administrative body, The Wine Institute of New Zealand, desperate to buy a bottle.

Sam is fully aware that his name will help sell the product, but he quietly points out that continued sales will depend on its quality.

Even with tiny production, plans for Neill Two Paddocks Pinot Noir include sending a few cases overseas. Sam is rapt that Sydney restaurateur, Tony Pappas, has listed it at his famous Bayswater Brassier.

It's one of my favourite restaurants," he says. "The food's great, and it's not at all formal."

Which is the recipe for Sam Neill style. He dislikes formality and is more likely to found in a casual café than a 'temple to gastronomy.'

In Los Angeles, he frequents Matsuhisa, where chef/owner Nobu-San uses French techniques on Japanese ingredients, with sideways glances to California and North America.

At the Neill home, Two Paddocks Pinot is likely to be enjoyed with Japanese food. It's a favourite of Sam's, and his wife, Noriko is from that part of the world.

Neill Two Paddocks Pinot Noir is distributed by Eurowine, and is available at a handful of restaurants around the country.

© Copyright 2000, Cuisine. Posted with the permission of the publisher.

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