A shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
The chat was very different from the usual encounter with a vintner when I dined recently with actor Sam Neill at The Clove Club in London. There was nary a mention of pHs and clones, but there was a certain theme.
One of the more memorable stories involved a topless Julie Andrews in a clinch with a bottomless Liam Neeson (Neill is currently filming an action movie with Neeson improbably called The Commuter). There was the name Neill has already dreamt up for the natural wine he intends to release, however unenthusiastic his winemaker may be about these minimally made wines: Undressed.
As well as a strange tale of touring Nicaragua in search of Contras with Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame, there was a particularly winning account of the mating habits of his two sorts of pig. Such is the porcine sex drive, the genes of the hairy, gingery Polynesian pot-belly one (who loves him so much he approaches him at a run) have unintentionally been conjoined with those of his purer breed.
To judge from his tweets and chronicles on the website of his Central Otago winery Two Paddocks, Neill should really have been a comic writer*. His older brother (‘fiercely intelligent’) is the Shakespearean scholar Michael Neill. He also acts occasionally, but it is Sam (christened Nigel) who has been solidly employed as an actor since 1975 and has seamlessly made the transition from heartthrob (Reilly, Ace of Spies) to grumpy, but still easy on the eye, old man (the current release, Hunt for the Wilderpeople).
Their father was rather horrified by what became of his sons, apparently. He was a soldier, a major in the Irish Guards who was posted in Northern Ireland when the boys were born and returned to his native New Zealand only in the early 1950s. Sam Neill daily blesses his father’s Harrow housemaster who took his mother aside and urged her, ‘Do not on any account allow Dermot to send the boys to Harrow’. Christ’s College in Christchurch was so very much more familiar, and much nearer their Dunedin home.
Dermot Neill may have had a dim view of both academia and acting as professions but he was apparently assuaged by his younger son’s 1991 OBE.
It is hardly surprising that Neill decided to invest in drink the money he has made in his admirably steady stream of roles. After the army, and a flirtation with farming, his father took over the family liquor business Neill’s, kept afloat by Beehive brandy imported from France. Sam’s great great great grandfather’s brother Benjamin Ingham was a Marsala magnate with a contract to supply the British navy with this once-popular Sicilian wine and accumulated a serious New York property portfolio.
‘Dad always wondered why there weren’t vineyards in Central Otago', according to Sam, whose first foray into viticulture was planting five acres of Pinot Noir in Gibbston, one of the earliest subregions of ‘Central’ to be colonised by the vine. This is known as The First Paddock and was bought in 1993 when Neill starred in both Jurassic Park and The Piano. He claims it is the southernmost vineyard in the world (‘we GPS’d it’).
Six years later he bought another seven-acre plot that supplies the Proprietor’s Reserve bottling called The Last Chance, named after the Alexandra subregion’s gold-mining past. Neill is immensely proud of the fact that the spicy single-vineyard Last Chance 2012 won a trophy in the International Wine Challenge.
In 2000 (Jurassic Park III and The Dish) came serious investment, in the rather beautiful 130-acre Red Bank farm, also in Alexandra, that was once a government research station. It is now the headquarters of Two Paddocks, and Neill’s comfortable rural home where he enjoys playing the squire tolerated by his loyal team. Most years he manages to make a short film shot on or around the farm, preferably involving the quad bike, for twopaddocks.com rather than for a Hollywood studio. He bristled when I asked how he could be closely involved with the farm while making all these films. ‘There’s always Skype if there is any decision to be made', he assured me.
In what Neill swears is the final acquisition, he now has a foot in Bannockburn, the subregion where, according to him, ‘they think they’re better than the rest of us but they’re not’. The Pinot Noir from this vineyard (pictured below) is destined for his third Proprietor’s Reserve bottling, one named after his father, The Fusilier. The very polished 2014 is the first vintage from this mature 15-acre vineyard on Felton Road. That makes one vineyard for each of his and his Japanese make-up-artist wife’s four children.
When I asked him what he was most proud of in a wine context, he readily admitted he had switched to a long-term view. ‘I’m very intent these days on these vineyards being a legacy. I became aware early on that the wine side of things would never make a profit. Our cherry and apricot orchards do but we lease them out. I put all my energy and investment into making beautiful wine and creating beautiful places. With all my vineyards, and especially Red Bank, I’m as much interested in the landscape as in what’s produced. So we’re organic etc and we spend lots of time planting trees and getting the native birds back.
‘We have all sorts of plants and animals for the good of the place. All we ask of these ridiculous cattle we have, for instance, is that they poo on a regular basis for our organic vineyards.’
In the local town, Queenstown, Neill is just one of the boisterous wine crew, albeit well heeled enough to own a third of the Central Otago Wine Company that makes wine for a host of local vine growers. ‘I like to think I get preference', he says of his relationship with the head winemaker Dean Shaw, the one he had to persuade to dabble in a small quantity of natural wine from the Fusilier vineyard earlier this year. ‘We’ll keep back 20 cases and the rest will be added into the main blend', he said. But we should hold on for an eventual Undressed Pinot with Sam Neill’s almost illegible signature in the bottom right hand corner of the label.
He reminded me that during a previous encounter I had suggested he avoid the obvious celeb wine label route. I must say that I am now truly convinced that he is serious about vineyard ownership, and I don’t blame him at all for using his fame to shout about its results. On Saturday morning this weekend he will be taking the stage at this year’s New York Wine Experience with two Oregon producers and Erwan Faiveley of Burgundy to extol the virtues of The Last Chance Pinot 2013 (94 points out of 100) to the assembled 1,000 wine lovers. I’m sure his will be the most entertaining turn by a mile.
* Have just come across this on the Two Paddocks website:
'Neill had some advice for prospective vineyard owners at the 2013 Pinot Noir conference: 'Since you are approaching middle age, there are two inevitable things in your future. First, you will acquire a ride-on mower. Second you will have an enlarged prostate. The mower is more fun that the prostate, so make sure you buy a good one.'
CURRENT GEMS FROM CENTRAL OTAGO
Tasting notes on these should be in our database, mainly as standalones rather than as part of a tasting article.
Burn Cottage Pinot Noir 2013
Cloudy Bay, Te Wahi Pinot Noir 2014
Felton Road, Bannockburn Chardonnay 2014
Felton Road, Cornish Point Pinot Noir 2013
Prophet’s Rock Pinot Gris 2014
Prophet’s Rock Riesling 2013
Prophet’s Rock, Estate Pinot Noir 2013
Two Paddocks, Red Bank Riesling 2014
Two Paddocks, The Fusilier Pinot Noir 2014
Two Paddocks, The First Paddock Pinot Noir 2013
Two Paddocks, The Last Chance Pinot Noir 2012