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Candid Cameraman

Over an intimate New Year's Eve dinner, cinematographer Michael Seresin explains the connection between making great movies and making great wines, like the ones from his dynamic young New Zealand estate.

Cinematographer and vintner Michael Seresin is passionate about all art forms; an April Gornick painting dominates the dining room of his London town house.

There's yet to be a great movie about wine. (The Year of the Comet, a caper about the world's most expensive bottle of Bordeaux, was a box-office failure.) Still, creative people in the film world seem to have an urge to own wineries. Francis Ford Coppola has put down roots in Napa, Gérard Depardieu in the Loire, and in New Zealand you can find both the actor Sam Neill and the cinematographer Michael Seresin making wine on their recently acquired estates.

Talking to Michael Seresin—who was responsible for the look of Midnight Express, Fame and the famously damp-looking, green-tinged Angela's Ashes—you sense that by starting a winery, he may be searching for permanence in an ephemeral world. A youngish fiftysomething, Seresin is already fretting about whether one of his five children will one day want to take over his 400-acre estate on New Zealand's South Island. After spending much of his adult life in Europe, Seresin says he sometimes feels "like a fish out of water" in his native New Zealand, but nonetheless, that was where he decided to start a winery. And not just any winery, but one that would be one of the best in the world. Otherwise, Seresin says, "I'd rather sell the damned place."

Seresin, who is based in London, spends about four months out of the year in New Zealand. His Waterfall Bay home in the Marlborough Sounds is close to his eponymous winery—about 40 minutes away, including the 15-minute journey by water.

Although Seresin admits he founded his winery in New Zealand in part because of his love of the ocean, he also had a less hedonistic agenda: to improve the quality of life in his native country. Because he is passionate about all art forms, visual as well as gastronomic, he recently started an award program for New Zealand painters. Says Seresin, "I'm trying to contribute to the culture of the place."

It's a mission he shares with his friend, chef Peter Gordon, a fellow New Zealander—turned—Londoner and frequent visitor to Waterfall Bay, who became famous in the mid-1990s with his restaurant the Sugar Club. There Gordon introduced his adopted city to fusion cuisine, mixing European and Asian ideas. His new restaurant, the Providores, showcases his latest global inspirations. As Seresin and I chat in his town house in Little Venice (a London neighborhood where two canals meet), Gordon is at work in Seresin's kitchen, preparing a much-anticipated New Year's Eve feast.

Seresin's awakening to great food and wine began in Italy some 40 years ago. At the time, he says, New Zealand was a very dour place, its social life revolving around pub-opening times. That trip to Italy, in a way, was almost overwhelming. "It was like going from the back of beyond to the center of civilization," says Seresin. "The whole social thing of food, wine and restaurants, where people sat for four or five hours over a meal just talking, was a revelation."

When Seresin began looking for property in New Zealand in the late 1980s, he found the country much changed, thanks, in no small part, to its developing wine culture. And although he loved many of the New Zealand red wines he tried, especially the cool-climate Pinot Noirs, he was less enthusiastic about the Sauvignon Blancs—even though they were the wines that had brought New Zealand international fame.

"Marlborough Sauvignon is pretty much like New Zealand," says Seresin. "What you see is what you get." He quickly adds, "That isn't a criticism, it just isn't a place with a lot of mystery, and to me that was manifested in the wine." He describes what he's looking for in a wine in terms of photography and lighting: "Chiaroscuro is when you get used to the shadows in an image and find some interesting quality in them. That's what I found missing in some New Zealand wines. I was looking for a bit more mystery and a bit more depth."

Fortunately, he found a winemaker on a similar quest. In 1996, Seresin hired Brian Bicknell, a New Zealander who was working for Chilean producer Errazuriz. Seresin described what he was looking for, and the resulting wines, says Bicknell, are "a marriage between Michael's philosophies and my winemaking beliefs." Bicknell cites a seminal experiment he'd carried out some years earlier at another New Zealand wine estate. He had run a batch of Chardonnay juice straight into the barrels, fermenting it with the wild yeasts, just as it is done at some of the best properties in Burgundy. "That," Bicknell says, "taught me that you could make interesting wine very simply, which was quite the opposite of what I'd been taught at wine school."

According to Seresin, he and Bicknell share "a certain purity of vision." This translates to organic cultivation, close-spaced vines, low yields and hand-harvesting, as well as the use of wild yeasts in fermentation. The winery is also unusual in that it processes only what the estate produces; no grapes are brought in.

The enterprise hasn't been without some false starts. An experiment with Tuscan varieties ended when they failed to ripen reliably, as did plantings of Merlot and Cabernet. On the other hand, a shipment of 500 Tuscan olive trees has taken root; the estate has produced its own extra-virgin oil for the past three years.

It's as nerve-racking to launch a new winery as it is to start a new film, says Seresin, calling them both "baptisms by fire." But the reviews of the wines have been overwhelmingly positive. New Zealand's top wine critic, Bob Campbell, is an enthusiast, as is English wine critic Steven Spurrier, who organized the famous California vs. France tasting in Paris. Spurrier hesitates over whether Seresin Sauvignon Blanc is the very best or just one of the four or five best New Zealand examples he's had, adding that Seresin also makes "a very Burgundian Pinot."

Local boys who make good abroad can sometimes arouse mixed feelings when they go home. In London, Michael Seresin's dinner guests—several of them expatriate New Zealanders—share bittersweet stories about returning to their homeland. New Zealand, it seems, is no stranger to the "tall poppy" syndrome, which calls for cutting people down to size.

But Michael Seresin may be even more prominent after this year. Postproduction is scheduled to begin on his most recent collaboration with film director Alan Parker, The Life of David Gale, about a Texan who campaigns against the death penalty, starring Kevin Spacey and Kate Winslet. His other big project for the year is the extension of biodynamic cultivation—the most rigorous version of organic farming—on the estate. But for Michael Seresin, excellence is the only option. "We have to import everything here—every bottle, cork, tractor, barrel. New Zealand can't compete on economies of scale, so we just have to make the best product possible, whatever it takes."

Patrick Matthews is the author of Real Wine: The Rediscovery of Natural Winemaking.

Published January 2002
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