Name: Sam Neill Occupation: Actor, winery owner
Most memorable wine experience: "During the Rugby World Cup in 2007, I went to France and with a great friend, George Gregan, the captain of the Australian rugby team, trolled around Burgundy. The best night was in Champagne, when Moët Chandon put us up for the night in their chateau putting on a fantastic dinner with their own Michelin star chefs. We drank Champagne with every course. A very vivid night. The subsequent two weeks in Burgundy, having fantastic food and too much of it and going to these wonderful vineyards I’d only read about and standing on the very soil…it was great."
During an acting career spanning nearly four decades and many countries, New Zealander Sam Neill has proved to be as reliable as a great vintage. Among his many credits are My Brilliant Career (1979), Dead Calm (1989), The Hunt for Red October (1990) and Jurassic Park (1993). Today, Sam splits his time between acting jobs and Two Paddocks, his New Zealand winery (www.twopaddocks.com). Here he shares some of his wine journey.
Uncorked: New Zealand had some tough laws restricting alcohol consumption in the late ’60s, correct?
Sam: Yes. We had prohibition. When I was first drinking, the pubs closed at 6:00 p.m. People got off work at 5:00 p.m. and started drinking as much as they could for an hour. The windows of pubs were not see-through, the idea being maybe if women walked past and saw men drinking they might faint. Wine shops wrapped your wine in a brown paper bag, as the sight of a bottle of wine might startle the horses.
Uncorked: Was wine a part of your family life growing up?
Sam: Father was a third generation New Zealander educated in England, a cultured man who brought his affection for wine back to New Zealand with him. It was a beer culture, but wine was a staple at dinner. The odd sip here and there was encouraged in the French manner, but no altered consciousness involved.
Uncorked: When did you start paying attention to it? How did your preference for Pinot Noir develop?
Sam: In the early ’70s, New Zealand wine started to develop. My own palate started to develop at the same time. By end of ’70s, we started to see the beginning of extraordinary NZ Sauvignon Blanc. I then worked in England and got curious about good wines, because I could afford them. You could still buy a Grand Cru for 25 quid. That is when I got into Burgundies.
Uncorked: You’re an international film star, but your acting career began in a van rumbling around NZ, yes?
Sam: In 1971, four of us spent a year in a van traveling the length and breadth of NZ to high schools and so on in the vain quest to bring culture to children. We were performing Shakespeare to thankless and hostile groups.
Uncorked: Why did you begin your Two Paddocks Winery?
Sam: I think it was a rush of blood to the head. But I’d probably do it all over again. A friend wrote to me and said, I want to buy a vineyard. Advise me. I said, take a cold shower and leave it for a year. You never take into account the fickle nature of dear Mother Nature. Last year, we lost 100% of our Pinot crop. It’s just as well that I still keep a day job.
Uncorked: Have your wines been featured in any movies so far?
Sam: I am pretty shameless but not that shameless.
Quote: “Wine for me is inextricably linked to living life to the full. A bottle of wine is associated with all the best stories I’ve told, joyfully raucous dinner parties, some of which are extremely memorable and some of which I can’t remember at all. The end of a wonderful day, breaking of bread with the people you love is unthinkable without wine.”
Film star Sam Neill has been acting on the big screen for nearly four decades. Among his credits are My Brilliant Career, Dead Calm and Jurassic Park. Sam, a New Zealander, owns Two Paddocks Winery in the New Zealand’s Central Otago appellation and below shares more of his wine journey with CWC.
Uncorked: In the LA Times, you were quoted as saying that the clarity of expression in the Pinot Noir you produce “is connected to the utter clarity of the light in Central Otago.” What do you mean by “clarity of the light?”
Sam: That does interest me because of my connection to film. Painting and film and winemaking are all connected. It’s no accident that Impressionism started soon after the Industrial Revolution because the latter caused tremendous air pollution in Europe and North America so everything looked hazy and fuzzy. Painters responded to that with those beautiful, fuzzy, bleary paintings. Filmmaking followed in the same way. If you look at those great Swedish and French films of the ’60s and ’70s, they have that Impressionist look. When we started making films in NZ, we had terrible trouble to make what we thought were real films, because they had this fantastic clarity due to no air pollution. If you look at the hills behind my vineyard, they don’t gorgeously fade to blue and to grey.
I’ve often thought that this light must have some bearing on our grapes and explains in part the difference between NZ Sauvignon Blanc and Sancerre. Sancerre doesn’t have that kind of startling purity of expression that NZ Sauvignon Blanc has. I think the same is true of NZ Pinot Noir. It also has a vividness that is very like the light, given that grapes grow in light. It’s all about sunlight.
Uncorked: What is your favorite food with your favorite Pinot Noir?
Sam: I am happy to drink it with chicken or fish or anything but dessert. If you press me on that, maybe nice medium rare lamb cutlets.
Uncorked: But not pot-bellied pig. We hear you have a couple.
Sam: Did, but they now live with a neighbor who has no vineyard where they can do no harm. They’d become the size of a small Chevrolet car. We still have goats and sheep, but one goat can now go under or over any fencing. A South African goat, no respect for authority at all.
Uncorked: Is there any similarity between winemaking and acting? Winemaking and directing?
Sam: The other night I went to see U2 play here in Toronto at their 38th show on their 360 Tour. Talking to Bono later on, they thought it was the best night they’d had so far. Bono said that for a night like that, their drug of choice is magic. To get a night like that or make a film like that or make exceptional wine, I think this is absolutely true. You can train as much as you like as a winemaker, actor or director, and work as hard as you can, but there will be those moments that are transcendent that make for an exceptional vintage, or performance, or film that somehow goes beyond the parameters of what you expect.
Uncorked: Do any of your acting roles stand out as favorites?
Sam: I usually say whatever is current, in part because it is true. Last weekend we had the first screening at the Toronto Film Festival of Daybreak, a vampire film. I play a kind of vampire blood mogul; it’s a vampire world in which humans are the outsiders and the dispossessed. There’s a kind of nod to the wine world from there because in one of the last scenes, I’m swirling in a Riedel glass a particularly beautiful blood – I’m a connoisseur of blood – and I have a great line: My favorite flavor is fear.
Uncorked: If you weren’t making wine or acting…what would you be doing?
Sam: I used to be a documentary filmmaker and would like to think that is what I’d be doing. If I had a choice, I’d like to be an architect. If you give me another choice and god had hit me with a talent stick, jazz pianist.
Uncorked: New Zealand offered you a knighthood, but you turned it down?
Sam: I thought that Sir Sam is a little much. I’m very happy with what little respect is accorded me now. I don’t think I could handle deference!
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