The Kiwi actor and Two Paddocks winemaker discusses the magic of Otago Pinot, eccentric vineyard shenanigans and his chicken-whisperer sheepdog.
What’s more difficult—growing Pinot Noir or outrunning a Tyrannosaurus Rex? The man who would know is Sam Neill, the star of films such as The Dish, The Horse Whisperer, and two of the dinosaurically diverse Jurassic Park thrillers. The actor is also a pioneer in New Zealand’s Pinot paradise—Central Otago in the country’s South Island, the southernmost wine-growing region in the world. In 1993 Neill planted five acres of vines at his original property near Gibbston. Today his Two Paddocks produces 5,000 cases of wine annually, including two premium single-vineyard Pinot Noirs (The Last Chance and First Paddock) plus the lower-priced Picnic brand. Wine Enthusiast caught up with Neill between blue-ribbon judging at the WINPAC wine festival in Hong Kong and red-carpet-treading at the Berlin Film Festival for his latest release, Angel, directed by François Ozon.
Sam Neill: First of all I very much approve of your magazine’s name. Enthusiasm is the first thing that comes to mind when I talk about wine.
Wine Enthusiast: I understand that wine was “bred into you” from your father, a wine importer.
SN: It’s not only my father’s influence—I come from generation after generation that has been hopelessly enthralled by wine. Neill & Company, which was founded 1859 by my great-great grandfather, imported wines from Bordeaux. It’s amazing how many Irish families are in the wine business when you can’t grow wine grapes in Ireland—Lynch-Bages, Hennessy… all these Irish names.
WE: You grew up in Dunedin on the coast of New Zealand’s South Island. Describe your early visits to Central Otago.
SN: My family went to Central whenever we could—in the winter to ski, in the summer to camp. In those days, the trip took six to seven hours down dusty roads. Central always has been and remains my ideal, the place where I feel most at home. I get giddy with exhilaration at the power and beauty of its landscapes. The fact that it’s also an extraordinary place to grow wine is a happy coincidence.
WE: On the Two Paddocks Web site, you refer to yourself as “The Proprietor.” How involved do you get in the vineyard and the winemaking?
SN: I’m active in every part of the process. Dean Shaw [winemaker] and Richard Flatman [vineyard manager] pretend to defer to me. I have my own John Deere tractor I ride on. I put on earmuffs, sing to myself, and fortunately the tractor drowns out the noise of my singing—I’m not a very good singer. I also insist that every part of the winemaking has to be enjoyable. If it weren’t fun, it wouldn’t be worth the effort—the same as my acting career.
WE: What makes the Pinot Noirs from Central Otago unique?
SN: What’s distinctive about Central is the vivid, bright fruit. There’s something about the clarity of air here—you can see 100 miles with that blue air sweeping right down to your feet. That’s what Central Otago Pinot Noir is to me. The wines offer a new and equally valid expression of Pinot Noir—similar to how Marlborough changed the perception of Sauvignon Blanc. It’s immediately apparent that a good Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough is a departure from Sancerre or Pouilly Fumé. It’s true for the Pinots from Central Otago too. We’ve been growing Pinot here for only 20 years—a drop in the bucket so to speak. We’re still learning more about ourselves, our wines, our terroir.
WE: You have quite a menagerie at the Two Paddocks estate. Who are some of the resident animals?
SN: We have a goat—his job is to keep the water races free of weeds—and potbellied pigs. I also have Suffolk sheep, the ones with black faces—they’re rather graceful lawn adornments. Every time I come home, there are more rare chickens—we’re up to about 10 different breeds. I also have a sheepdog that’s completely baffled by sheep, but she has one chicken that’s her friend. She’s more of a chicken whisperer than a sheepdog. Finally there’s the company dog, Fire, who recently ate my Mini Cooper S.
WE: Does The Proprietor have any closing thoughts?
SN: I regard my life with wine as an adventure—not just my growing of wine grapes, but my wine traveling as well.
For updates about Two Paddocks—including the latest on the dog-eats-car fracas—check out Sam Neill’s very entertaining blog at www.twopaddocks.com. The 2005 wines were released in the U.S. in June; for details visit www.totalbeveragesolution.com or call 843.801.0761.