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Sam Neill
by Ben Calvert
Magazine Issue: AUS/NZ Issue Two

the sum of sam

As an actor, he's prolific, varied and bored of the same old thing. As an environmentalist, he's feisty, proactive and ready to go 'em. As a viticulturist, he's X-rated -- well listen to the way he talks about pinot noir. Ben Calvert chats to Sam Neill, who, as the sum of all these things, is not a bad bloke.

Ben: How did you first fall under the spell of pinot noir?

Sam: I read somewhere that serious wine drinkers inevitably graduate from white to red so I thought I'd better make an effort to drink some red. I was hanging out in London in the late '70s and early '80s and Burgundy was pretty reasonably priced and I could afford it. You could get great premier cru and grand cru for 10 quid down on my corner. It was such a bloody revelation to me -- I'd never realised wine could be so good or so complex, straight out amazing.

Nothing compares to a great pinot. Nothing even comes close.

Ben: What is it about pinot that has maintained your interest since then? Sam: I think pinot is one of the most useful wines. It's good with fish or meat, or even sitting around getting pissed with -- there's nothing wrong with that either.

Ben: When you first encountered Burgundy in London, was it a new experience to drink wine from a bottle? At that time in New Zealand and Australia, the wine mostly came in a cardboard box you could carry to the barbie, and anything that didn't rip your tongue off was considered a great vintage.

Sam: Well, that's what I was used to as well. There's a great wine culture in Britain -- I mean they virtually built Bordeaux and most of the claret was shipped into Britain. Burgundy was a favourite in Britain for many, many years; long before the Americans discovered it and jacked the price up..

Ben: There's a mystique about pinot that's almost tied up with sex -- I bet you're wondering where this is going -- in the way it is described as sexy, raunchy, voluptuous...

Sam: ...seductive. A lot of female metaphors. It's curious that you don't get them attached to other wines. There is something elusive about it that you can't ever quite nail down...like women.

Ben: To be tenderly nurtured like a woman?

Sam: Mmmmm...if that's what one does with a woman. It's the differences in women which make them interesting. If women were like blokes, they wouldn't be interesting at all. A shiraz is a blokes' wine, predictable and muscular. I think you're absolutely right to identify pinot as feminine; it is more about subtlety and nuance.

Ben: Have you noticed that pinot is becoming more connected with lifestyle and fashion?

Sam: I'm deeply suspicious of anything that's fashionable or has lifestyle attached to it. God forbid that pinot should ever become fashionable. It's too much of a classic variety to ever be anything as whimsical as the dictates of fashion...I think...I hope.

Ben: You were involved in a New Zealand wine-growing operation prior to having your own vineyard.

Sam: I pulled out of that after two or three years because all they wanted to do was make champenoise and I don't drink Champagne, I'm not interested in Champagne. I thought, why make something you don't want to drink?

Ben: So you bought your own land and starting planting pinot almost 10 years ago. What sort of vintages have you had?

Sam: Ninety-seven was a bad year to start because it was tough for everybody. Nevertheless, we produced a wine which quite surprised us how good it was. Ninety-eight, our second vintage, was the first one we were actively pleased with. Ninety-nine is in another league altogether and we seem to be going from strength to strength. Having said that, the 2000 is down from 800 cases to about 200 because it was a much harder year with a cold spring and very small fruit set. It's like any sort of farming, swings and roundabouts. Wonderful highs and nail-biting lows.

Ben: What's the character of the Two Paddocks pinot?

Sam: It shares a lot in common with other Central Otago pinots, with lots of delicious fruit and with toasty, sometimes smokey, herby overtones.

I try to hold onto my pinot a little longer. I was at the Queenstown Wine and Food Festival and tasted some 2000 pinots. I said to the winemakers, "Why have you released these now?" And they replied that they had mortgages and had to pay the bank, but luckily I don't have to worry about that too much. At the bare minimum, my wines will be two years in the bottle before they come out.

Ben: Do you ever chill your pinot?

Sam: No. I think you lose some of the aromatics. I had a couple of English wine writers here who opened a bottle in Cromwell, then came up here with it rolling around on the floor of the car and getting all warm. They said it was twice as good at the other end of the journey. Oxygen and a bit of a slosh around brings out a lot of things in the wine that weren't there before.

Ben: Let's talk about your film work. You seem to make a deliberate effort to skip between high-profile studio movies to material that's a bit more offbeat.

Sam: I think it would be terribly dull if you just did the same shit.

"I just want to come here and relax, put my feet up and watch the grapes grow, but one day I realised I'd had a gutful and it was not going to do me any good just grumbling by myself."

Ben: I remember The Sullivans...

Sam: Oh God, some roles you can't get away from.

Ben: You were Kitty's lover and ran away to Sydney with her...

Sam: ...until Dave Sullivan punched my lights out.

Ben: You've recently finished The Dish in Australia...

Sam: It's going very well. The fifth biggest film in Australia ever. Bigger than Priscilla and Muriel's Wedding. It just struck a chord. I read the script and thought it was great, but had no idea that people would take to it the way they did.

Ben: You obviously feel at home in Central Otago. How much time do you spend in New Zealand?

Sam: About four or five months in a good year. It will become more as I become more vineyard bound and lose the inclination to go off and shoot things.

Ben: You've been involved recently in a very public spat with the local mayor over inappropriate development in the Queenstown area.

Sam: It has become apparent to me how much resentment, frustration and anger there is in the community. People just feel powerless because these buggers have just done whatever they want.

We are at a critical point in New Zealand. We can't just let these developers and these local politicians with these sad, lame brains just do whatever they want with what we have. Otherwise our future, and that of our children, will be severely compromised.

If they go on unchecked, there will be no point going to Central Otago. It will be tracts of dull suburbs. Fuck it. It's too important for that.

Ben: Do you think if the developers took over, instead of Two Paddocks pinot we'd have Two Multiplexes with Underground Parking pinot?

Sam: Sometimes you despair. I just want to come here and relax, put my feet up and watch the grapes grow, but one day I realised I'd had a gutful and it was not going to do me any good just grumbling by myself.

Ben: You're not going to back down when the fight is brought to you?

Sam: No. Stuff them.

Sam Neill's Two Paddocks wines are produced from the family's two vineyards in the Central Otago region, near Queenstown on New Zealand's south island. A third vineyard has been purchased for more pinot vines although one day it may also grow riesling or chardonnay. Sam Neill has starred in The Dish, Jurassic Park, Death in Brunswick and Dead Calm. He's just finished filming Jurassic Park III.

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