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Wish Upon a Star

I remember my cynical reaction a couple of years back when it was announced that New Zealand's only journeyman movie star Sam Neill had produced pinot noir.

Rather than fanfare, a yawn-filled "so-what" seemed more in order over the release of 500 cases of Two Paddocks 1998. However in no time at all, the TV crowd from Auckland were drooling their way through interviews. Even Ozzyland's Channel 9 hopped a camera crew over for the unveiling. None of this seemed to have anything to do with the wine's quality, nor the seriousness of Neill's commitment to pinot noir.

Happily sitting on the sidelines throughout this kerfuffle, I was soon roped in as well. I was writing for the Global Encyclopedia of Wine at the time and my editor phoned from Perth and asked the big one, "was it any good?" A tricky question because lots of relatively anonymous Kiwis had slogged for decades establishing pinot in an industry that thought them either irrelevant, misguided or downright crazy. What's more, I knew at least half a dozen other "new" Central Otago pinots of similar style and quality that deserved as much attention.

Two Paddocks 1998 seemed a pretty blend of cranberry, pork crackling and burned toast aromas, with pure but simple tart cranberry/raspberry flavours. It was honest, "very young vine" pinot noir, well made and nicely balanced but nothing more. Vinified by Rudi Bauer, was it better than Felton Road, Chard Farm, Rippon, Gibbston Valley or Bauer's own Quartz Reef? Of course not. Would it sell out before any of the others? Absolutely.

To his credit, Neill showed great respect for both the variety and his fellow producers, pricing the 1998 at about $30. Though this is the upper end of it's value in New Zealand, he could easily have sold the lot at more than $60 dollars a bottle to star struck buyers. No doubt more, if autographed. By the time Two Paddocks 1999 rolled out, volumes were up to 1000 cases and the wine was more interesting for its mix of compost-tinged aromatics, tartish juicy, red fruit flavours and complex mushroom undercurrent. Priced between $35-$40, it was fairer value at world prices.

Two Paddocks seem to be hitting its stride in 2000. Deeply perfumed and smartly constructed, wine maker Dean Shaw has made this one too easy to lose oneself within. Between the aromatic melange of dried tarragon, silage, fresh straw, spicy black cherries, beetroots and mocha, ultra plush textures and juicy finish, this is velvet quicksand that sings like a siren. The trouble is the weather only delivered 140 cases that year so you have to visit that winery to get your bottle. Given that it costs a small fortune to set up a winery, Neill reckons he's subsidising the $40 bottle price by about $200 which sounds about right by my calculations.

Neill deserves high praise despite all of this. He's done well in managing all the fuss made over his wine, enduring the misplaced assumptions of stardom that blow expectations about wine quality beyond rationality, while also holding down fair pricing in the face of extreme market pressure. But he's positively used to the double edge of fame to promote the cause of New Zealand pinot far and wide, too. For all that, we owe this old dirt farmer some peace and quiet to get on with making his wine.

© Copyright, The Dominion, Wellington. Posted with the permission of the publisher.

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