The Hollywood star sticks to his New Zealand roots to make Central Otago Pinot Noir
Sam Neill, 58, is a serious actor and a serious enophile. But the last thing he wants is for people to take him or his wine too seriously. Growing up in a wine-loving family on New Zealand's South Island, he learned early on that wine is a healthy, fun part of life to be enjoyed with good company. Years later, after a string of box-office successes such as The Hunt For Red October, The Piano and Jurassic Park, Neill was afforded the opportunity to start his own winery, which produced its first vintage in 1997. By then, the Central Otago district had begun to build a reputation for producing distinctive Pinot Noirs. Neill's winery, Two Paddocks, is no exception. But with only tiny amounts of his wine trickling into the United States, Neill may be sharing too much of it with his friends.
Wine Spectator: When did you first get interested in wine?
Sam Neill: Probably at an unnaturally early age. It has to do with my father, who drank wine on a regular basis and lived well and happily as a result. My family imported wine for many years. Neill & Co. imported Bordeaux, principally, from some négociants. It was always around and part of our lives, which was kind of unusual for New Zealand in those days.
WS: Do you visit wineries when you're shooting in other parts of the world?
SN: I do. I've just been in South Africa, and while I'm not a great fan of South African wine, one of the best places I've ever been is Franschoek, behind Cape Town, with these beautiful valleys and stunningly lovely vineyards. To go and have lunch in those vineyards, it's just fantastic. I did a job in Melbourne, and the Yarra Valley is stunning--and makes some very good wines, actually.
WS: What was the reaction when you started Two Paddocks? Was it, "Oh no, not another Hollywood guy thinking he knows something about wine?"
SN: I don't think they think of me as a Hollywood guy down here. I'm just part of the furniture. I grow wine for my friends as much as I do for myself. Nothing gives me more pleasure than to sit around a table with old friends and tell lies and drink good wine.
WS: How involved are you with the growing or winemaking?
SN: I've had the last four or five weeks off, and I'm at the vineyards most days. I'm kind of wasting my manager's time by pretending I know more than I do. Occasionally they let me loose on the ride-on mower, which is my principal contribution to the hands-on business. There comes a time in every man's life when certain things become inevitable. There's the ride-on mower, the prostate problems and pajamas. I'm glad to say that the prostate isn't worrying me yet, but I have taken to pajamas with considerable enthusiasm in the past couple of years. Stripey ones.
WS: Do you think your wine stands up to those from other parts of the world?
SN: I don't want to sound like I’m blowing my own trumpet, but I kind of think it does. It's sort of been a revelation to us, really. There were people that have always had tremendous confidence in Central Otago, and always thought that we could be world-class. I've always said I would have been entirely content with making wine that my friends would be happy to get pissed on, but as it turned out, we've done considerably better than that. It's rather wasted on my friends, to be honest.
WS: If you could only do one or the other, filmmaking or winemaking, which would it be?
SN: I can't really separate the two because it's making movies that's made the other thing possible. But at the same time, it's been a splendid adventure making wine, and it continues to be so. Last night we had two degrees of frost. We're down to that nail-biting stuff again, which is kind of frightening and exhilarating, but an awful lot of fun.
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