Despite recent health set backs, life is good down on Sam Neill’s farm at Two Paddocks in New Zealand. There’s the operatic rooster, Michael Fassbender. Charlie Pickering the duck, described as the farm’s ‘poultry Narcissus’. Imogen Poots the pig. Helena Bonham Carter and her calf, Laura Dern.
The only thing missing from the Jurassic Park star’s spread, perhaps, is a tiny T-rex or two.
Each named after one of Neill’s friends, these farmyard stars have a cult following on Neill’s X feed, their adventures eagerly anticipated.
“People want to be named after animals now,” says Neill. “They take an interest in their namesakes, too. Helena Bonham Carter is always very keen to know about the new calf she’s just had.”
Yet the fame of Neill’s animals is naturally eclipsed by his own. Neill’s impressive career spans more than four decades on the big and small screens.
It includes critically acclaimed roles in everything from My Brilliant Career to The Piano, Hunt For The Wilderpeople, Dead Calm and The Dish, TV’s Peaky Blinders and much more.
From the suave bad guy to the charming romantic lead, comic sidekick and dinosaur aficionado, there is seemingly no part the versatile Neill can’t make his own.
However, Neill has also been winning international acclaim in another arena – wine.
His winery Two Paddocks is producing great drops beloved by consumers and critics worldwide.
For instance, Two Paddocks’ Fusilier Bannockburn 2015 scored 95 out of 100 in Wine Spectator US, while The Fusilier Pinot Noir 2014 was named one of the top 50 “Most Exciting Wines of the World of 2016” in the UK’s Decanter magazine.
“It’s good that we’re being taken seriously, critically,” says Neill. “The problem with being an actor-slash- wine producer is that people might more easily hear of your wine, but they might not take it quite as seriously as the wine deserves.”
“When you’re getting 95 points from Wine Spectator in New York, then you know [you’re being taken seriously] … often, as is the way, it takes an overseas critic to recognise you.”
Two Paddocks is located in Central Otago, one of the world’s up-and-coming wine regions, noted for its impressive pinots noirs.
It is part of a wave of Central Otago wine producers that has put New Zealand wine on the international map.
“There was a bunch of us who we call the second wave, who started planting in the early ’90s,” says Neill. “But there were people that went before us, notably my friend, Rolfe Mills, who founded Rippon.
“Now, Rolfe, along with two or three others there, were planting anything and everything to see what worked. It was obvious to people, like my father for instance, that Central Otago would have possibilities.”
A family affair
One could argue that Neill’s interest in wine is in the family blood: “Certainly, my great-grandfather started Neill & Co. in Dunedin in 1860, so there was three generations of wine merchants before myself.”
His passion for wine – and, in particular, pinot – was sparked during a meal with actor James Mason at Charlie Chaplin’s favourite restaurant in Switzerland.
“James took me and his wife out to dinner and we had a great bottle of burgundy. That was one of those life-changing moments that if you’re lucky, you might experience.”
It motivated him enough to purchase an initial subdivision in Queenstown in 1993 (the same year he became a global superstar thanks to Jurassic Park).
“That was 20 acres. I put, I think, initially, about two acres into grapes at the beginning.
Neill continues “I had no great ambitions at that point. I just wanted to grow some wine … but now I just want to grow the greatest wine in the world.”
In 1997, he tasted his first vintage. How was it? “It was surprisingly good, and I was just expecting something that was drinkable that would do the job, but it was much better than that. So, that completely changed things around.”
Today Two Paddocks is home to one proprietor, two varieties (pinot and riesling), 50 sheep, 12 pigs and four beautiful vineyards committed to organic and holistic farming.
Passion for pinot
It is interesting that Neill has chosen to champion pinot because, just as Paul Giamatti’s famous speech about pinot in Sideways says, pinot is not a survivor like cabernet.
It is temperamental and needs constant attention. “I think anything that’s difficult, when you get a good result, of course, it’s more rewarding.
“Pinot is very challenging to grow, and it’s very time consuming and labour intensive. So, when you are paying a bit more for a bottle of pinot, there are good reasons for that.
“I used to say our vines get visited by a pair of hands 13 times a year, but my vineyard manager has revised that. He said it’s more like 15 to 16.
Now, you can grow wine with, well, different varieties anyway and grow it in a fairly mechanical way with machines, but you won’t produce something that has magic like a well-grown pinot.”
The weather in Central Otago can also make producing pinot a challenge.
“Yes. I mean, everywhere that’s any good for pinot should be challenging. Central Otago is as challenging as any. We’ve had snow on Christmas Day, for goodness’ sake. So, stuff can happen and usually does.
This year, for instance, we’ve had a very cool and wet spring, unlike Australia, which is on fire, we’ve got floods. “We’re all subject to more extreme weather events these days.”
Will climate change will be a problem for the wine industry?
“I think the wine industry is taking things onboard. You’d be silly to try anything without being cognisant of what’s going to happen. So, we’re finding people growing hot climate wines in areas that you wouldn’t expect. One of my vineyards, we think, is the southern-most vineyard in the world.”
It’s interesting that Neill is championing wines because wine is the most sociable of beverages, best enjoyed with friends and good company (his website says Two Paddocks has been in the “cheering up” business since 1993).
One can only imagine what a spectacular raconteur Neill would be over a few bottles of pinot.
“Yes. I think that’s the great thing about wine: it’s no good without company. There’s nothing sadder than drinking a bottle of wine on your own. I’ve done it.”
From the vineyards to Hollywood
Neill once told an interviewer that his two greatest achievements were “still being in work” and “my vineyards”.
What ambitions does he have left in acting? “I don’t really have any, I’ve never been ambitious.”
As for his ambitions for Two Paddocks, he says that with increasing familiarity about each little pocket of his vineyards, his wines keep getting better all the time.
“We can only get better. The pursuit of authenticity and excellence is what it is all about.”
Neill is also interested in ‘no adds’ or ‘no additives’ wines, which are likewise known as natural wines, and have no added sulphur (such as the 2018 Two Paddocks Au Naturel Pinot Noir).
“There’s a great deal of interest in natural wines, we’re making some so-called natural wines. All our wines are natural, really.”
Neill holds a special place in the history of Australasian acting. Last year he received one of Australia’s most prestigious acting awards, the Longford Lyell Award from the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts for lifetime achievement.
Yet he admits he’s probably reached the point in life where he’d rather get good reviews of his wines than for his acting. “I care more about the wine reviews than acting reviews. I try not to read those.”
5 wines you should try now
Two Paddocks Pinot Noir
The flagship from Two Paddocks has a rich, elegantly textured mouthfeel.
A great introduction to Central Otago riesling. As much a dinner wine as a luncheon wine.
Picnic Pinot Noir
Reflects the qualities Central Otago Pinot does so well. Will keep you reaching for the next sip.
The First Paddock Gibbston Pinot Noir
The First Paddock is Sam’s original, much-loved vineyard.
The Fusilier Bannockburn Pinot Noir
Shows a blue fruit spectrum interlaced with herb aromatics.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY CHRISTOPHER D THOMPSON