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“I had never wanted to produce anything that was just plunk. I wanted to produce the best wine in the world, basically. And I think I'm getting pretty close.”

By Ryan Grim
February 19, 2021
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Sam Neill
Credit: Christopher David Thompson

When Sam Neill isn't making blockbusters like Jurassic World: Dominion or charming Australian films like Rams, he's at home in New Zealand tending to his farm animals and his winery, Two Paddocks. Many of his creatures are named after his actor friends, and Neill posts adorable videos with them. The wine is organic and biodynamic and produced from his four vineyards in New Zealand's Central Otago wine region. While there are some questionable celebrity wines and spirits out there, Two Paddocks, which Neill founded in 1993 around the same time Jurassic Park came out, is a well-regarded winery. It's also the southernmost winery in the world—well, most likely the second-most southern; Neill has heard there's one in Chile that's considered to be south of his, but who's counting, really? 

New Zealand wine has changed a lot over the years, and I wanted to get Neill's take on it and learn more about Central Otago and the Pinot Noir he makes there. I also just wanted to meet him, see how he's doing, and talk about movies. We recently chatted over Zoom while he ate his breakfast.

Food & Wine: I feel like a lot of our readers might not be familiar with wines from Central Otago. What would be your sales pitch? Why should someone seek out these wines?

Sam Neill: First of all, there are only a few really special spots on the planet that can actually successfully grow Pinot Noir to a level of distinction, and Central Otago is one of them. There are two or three in New Zealand. There are two or three in Australia. In the States, it's Oregon, and then of course there's Burgundy. So it's with very few exceptions, that's almost it. We produce very bright, vivid Pinot Noirs. 

If I was to talk to one of your readers I would say this: If you're looking at a Pinot Noir from the old world, you'll be paying three times more what you would pay for a similar quality from this part of the new world. How's that? That's not bad, is it?

That's good. So you've been making wine for quite some time in New Zealand. How has the country's wine industry changed?

It's changed enormously. My family were in wines and spirits for, I don't know, 150 years, or something like that. I'm the first member of my family to actually grow wine myself. When I was growing up, there was very little wine made in New Zealand apart from fortified wine made in big gallon flagons. It would be an exaggeration to call them sherry or port; they were just sweet alcoholic things. 

And then in the 1970s, table wine began to gradually pick up momentum. Tastes began to change in New Zealand. We became more sophisticated in terms of what we wanted to eat and what we wanted to drink. And wine growers began to respond to that. One of the game changers, really, was that they discovered that they could grow Sauvignon Blanc. 

Unlike Pinot Noir, which takes a great deal of labor and needs to be hand-picked, Sauvignon Blanc can be produced commercially—and the world loved it. And that drew the attention of the wine-drinking world to New Zealand. And as a result, it became more possible to concentrate on high-quality wines, which is really the only thing I've been interested in. I had never wanted to produce anything that was just plunk. I wanted to produce the best wine in the world, basically. And I think I'm getting pretty close.

When you were first starting out, did you make mistakes that you wouldn't make again? 

It's only by trial and error you discover which clones and which rootstocks of Pinot work in different places. And you can't ever really properly predict that. Particularly in this vineyard just around the corner here, where the soil changes every 10 meters. So we've planted clones that we weren't entirely happy with and replaced them with ones that are actually rock stars. So it's not that I would do everything different, because we knew we would be learning as we went along. On three of those four vineyards I was planting on bare land. It's different from Burgundy. There've been growing grapes on that same bit of land for 2,000 or 3,000 years. They've worked out what works and what doesn't. Here, we're pioneering. But of course we're building on those 2,000 or 3,000 years, or 10,000 years, of agricultural knowledge.

What's the story with your vineyard almost being the southernmost in the world?

One of my vineyards is called the Last Chance, but Jancis Robinson says there's one a few miles further south, in Chile. But I choose not to believe that until I see it.

Since all your wine is organic and biodynamic wine, do you do the thing with the cow horn?

We use a lot of biodynamic techniques, but we're not completely wedded to biodynamics. We certainly think a lot of biodynamics is useful, especially in the preps that we put on the vines. The soil health is extremely important to us. 

I draw the line at the horn at the full moon. That's just… the horn is just absurd. God bless Steiner. He was pretty good at many things, but he wasn't actually a farmer. He was a philosopher, and he knew farmers, but he wasn't actually a farmer. 

Sam Neill
Credit: Christopher David Thompson

When you're not drinking your own wine, what have you been pouring this year?

I'm particularly fond of Australian Shiraz. A go-to would be Yalumba Signature Shiraz, or Penfolds Bin 389. These are reliable and astoundingly good wines and good value for the money.

What have you been cooking during the pandemic?

I'm not a great cook. I think I'm always surprised and impressed by people who find cooking relaxing. I think it's about the least relaxing thing there is, because it fills me with anxiety. Everything has to be ready at the same time. "Oh my God, I forgot to put this on. And what's that burning smell?" The anxiety just ramps up the more I spend time in the kitchen.

When you're on set, what are your eating and drinking habits?

My advice for film producers is if you want a happy crew—and a happy crew is enormously helpful in making a good film, critical actually—get good caterers. Normally speaking, one of the reasons I love doing Australian films is that the catering is usually terrific.

Which of your films had the best catering? 

I did a film called Ride Like a Girl. The catering was phenomenal. As far as drinking goes, I don't drink during the week when I'm shooting; there's no call for it. I like some nice wine on the weekend to unwind. When we were doing Rams, for instance, we were in a very good wine district down there, with some really good Cabernet and Shiraz from that southwestern part of Australia.

But my fear about wine, and this is particularly important in pandemic when people are isolated and locked away, is actually to drink less wine, but drink better wine. Spend the extra money on a really good bottle.

You work with a lot of animal actors in Rams. Is that kind of a treat for you, because you're such a big animal lover?

They haven't necessarily been to drama school, nor have they seen a film crew before. You need patience. So it takes awhile for them to settle down. But we had some very nice sheep to work with on this. They reminded me of my own sheep, and the dog was good, too. I'm with my dog right now; she is asleep over there. Let me show you my dog. [Moves laptop to reveal a sleeping dog in the background.]

What's your dog's name?

Chuff. To be chuffed in New Zealand means to be very happy. She's a very happy dog. She is exhausted. She hurtled all over the farm this morning. She's been fed now and is having a good kip.

So you name your farm animals after actors. Is there an animal on your farm that's your favorite?

I've got three rams at the moment, but the star ram is Timothy Spall. He's a weird mixture of affection and aggression. He's fond of you when you're feeding him or scratching his head. But if you turn your back on him, he bucks you up the ass, which I don't take too kindly too. So I treat him with a certain amount of caution.

I feel like there should be a documentary about your farm and all the animals. Would you be open to that?

People ask that a lot, and not really.

It's more private?

Yeah.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity. Rams is playing now on streaming services, including iTunes, Amazon, and anywhere you can rent or purchase films.