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Out of Character

Enigmatic actor Sam Neill is a private person in a public world, but get him talking about wine and you can’t shut him up. 

Sam Neill threatens to bore to death anyone who will listen to him talk about wine and his winery. He heads home to Queenstown, New Zealand, whenever he can and mows the vineyards as his way of resting between movies.

The Proprietor (as he refers to himself) of Two Paddocks is hands-on at his Central Otago vineyard whenever possible. One of his roles is updating the winery’s entertaining website. A recent addition to the page on the www.twopaddocks.co.nz is entitled Proprietor Tales a Day Off. “Management let the Proprietor off his onerous duties in the relentless pursuit of wine excellence today. The Proprietor took off fly fishing, and met with some success. Landed 17 rainbow trout, all 2 ½ to 5 pounds, lost similar number. All released. Strangely, proprietor has already forgotten the name and whereabouts of the river.”

Last year the 57-year-old starred in three movies and directed one. There’s no slowing down planned for this passionate Kiwi. As well as his acting/directing commitments he and Kiwi comedian John Clarke – who Neill says is a the funniest person he as ever met – have set up Huntaway Films, a production company to develop and produce New Zealand and Australian film and television projects. And then there’s the winery and endless projects he and his Queenstown-based team are developing at Two Paddocks headquarters.

Sam’s acting career spans four decades. He calls these his “reasonably successful thespian itinerant years.” After a BA in English from Canterbury University and a spot of student acting, he scored a leading role in the acclaimed 1977 Kiwi classic Sleeping Dogs (directed by friend and neighbouring vineyard owner Roger Donaldson) and was noticed by casting agents in the United States.

He achieved international recognition when he starred as the romantic lead in the 1979 Australian movie My Brilliant Career. Since then he’s appeared in a string of movies that prove what a versatile and internationally respected star he has become – The Piano, Jurassic Park, The Dish, The Horse Whisperer, The Zookeeper, the television series Reilly: Ace of Spies – he’s even appeared as a guest on The Simpsons, which in some circles proves he’s really made it.

Sam’s Queenstown home was designed by his favourite architect, Wellington-based Ian Athfield. “Ath is an old friend and New Zealand’s greatest architect,” says Sam, who respected the man’s work so much that he made a documentary about him. Sam feels Athfield as been undervalued. “It is utterly amazing that his joint entry with Fran Gehry was turned down for Te Papa. What an icon we would have had – something perhaps on a par with the Sydney Opera House. “

The house is virtually an art gallery. Among his favourite painting are ones by Colin McCahon, Ralph Hotere and Rita Angus. But his home and his personal life are no-go zones; he’s fiercely private and security conscious and very rarely gives interviews. He won’t discuss his age, or his and wife Noriko Watanabe’s children.

They met on the set of the move Dead Calm, that chilling tale co-starring Nicole Kidman. The Two Paddocks website lists Noriko as: “Closely related to the proprietor. Top Hollywood makeup artist and Top Chef also. Good looking sort.” The couple also has another home in Sydney.

But switch back to wine and away Sam goes again.

His interest began early because his father was an enthusiast and the family firm Neill & Co. (which later became Wilson Neill) imported wine from France. Both parents were New Zealanders although Sam was born in Ireland and moved here as five-year-old, growing up in Dunedin and then attending Christ’s College in Christchurch.

It seams only natural that the man with a passion for wine and for Central Otago should buy a vineyard. The original Two Paddocks at Gibbston, bought in 1933, was so called because Roger Donaldson planted the land next door. Donaldson now has his own wine label but Sam retained the name. Two Paddocks now includes three different properties. Alex Paddocks was bought in 1998 at Earnscleugh in the Alexandra district and the latest addition is Redbank Paddocks, 24 hectares also in the Earnscleugh Valley.

From within its warm microclimate Sam and his team at Two Paddocks expect to produce world-class wines and high-quality niche crops.

“As a legacy from its days as a crop and food research farm, we still grow such things as saffron, lavender, wormwood, liquorice and so on,” says Sam. Lavender oil, sold under the Redbank label, and occasionally thyme are distilled on the property. “We’ve also got other oddities – mulberries, loquats and a pine nut tree, hazelnuts, pistachio nuts, chestnuts. We are also attempting truffles.

“It’s very time and labour consuming unfortunately but we may find a market for these things. We also have a large organic vegetable garden. How all these tie in with our viticulture, we will see.”

Organic certification is the next step for Two Paddocks. Sam reckons this is a fairly simple process although it does take a number of years. “Our grapes are already grown in an extremely sustainable way and our climate here means a minimum number of interventions.

“The way I see it, our wines will only get better as we understand our terroir more completely, as our smarter clones come on stream and as our vines get older. I know the Proprietor is improving with age and we expect the vines to do the same,” he says.

Dean Shaw makes the wine for Two Paddocks and the Central Otago Wine Company in Cromwell. Sam has invested in the small winemaking facility that was recently redesigned by Athfield Architects. Two Paddocks chardonnay grapes are sourced from Canterbury, sauvignon blanc from Marlborough and merlot from Hawke’s Bay. As for pinot noir grapes, they come only from Central Otago, of course. “It is not only my favourite corner of the world, we now know that it has the right climate and soils to produce world-class pinot noirs,” Says the enthusiastic vintner.

In 2002 Two Paddocks added a second label to its premium pinot noirs, The Last Chance and First Paddock. The first two vintages of the Two Paddocks Picnic were Picnic Pinot Noir and Picnic Riesling. This year Picnic Sauvignon Blanc, Picnic Socialist Chardonnay and Picnic The Sociable Red (a merlot blend) are being released.

Sam chose the name Socialist as a bit of a joke. “Having been called a “chardonnay socialist” for many years (in particular by Queenstown ex-mayor Warren Cooper), I thought it might be fun to stick it up ‘em with a bottle of what does you good.”

As for The Sociable Red, Sam says it means just what it says. Wine is not only what is in the glass (and it must be superb – life is too short for bad wine) it’s also about conviviality – friends, laughter, conversation.”

So Sam will keep flying back and forth across the Tasman to potter in the vineyards. “Holidays for me mean heading home,” he says. “I would fly in my own jet if I had one. Sadly, the impoverishing nature of private vineyard ownership guarantees I will never own one.”

Above left: Two Paddocks vineyard at Gibbston Valley, the ordinal of the the three properties owned by actor Sam Neill.

Above right: The private tasting room/lounge in the Earnscleugh Valley

Above left: Original plantings of pinot noir vines at Two Paddocks.
Above right: The company car, initially declared by the staff as the ugliest vehicle on the planet, has now won the affection of all. Seen here at the Redbank property.

Sam and his dog Fire

Lavender is just one of the crops grown on the Redbank property which was formerly a horticultural research farm. Lavender oil is sold on site under the Redbank label.


"The proprietor is improving with age and we expect the vines to do the same."

© Copyright 2005, New Zealand Life & Leisure. Posted with the permission of the publisher.

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