Sam Neill joins us this episode of the Drinks Adventures podcast to discuss Two Paddocks wine, the business he has run in parallel with his acting over the last 27 years.
It’s been a pivotal few years for Sam’s winery, which he tells us is now making the best wines it ever has, and is finally getting the respect it deserves from critics.
The Two Paddocks wine venture began in 1993 when Sam planted five acres of pinot noir in the Gibbston subregion of Central Otago, New Zealand.
Two Paddocks has since expanded its holdings to include three other small vineyards in the Alexandra and Bannockburn districts.
Sam fell in love with the pinot noir grape when he first tasted Burgundy in Europe in the late 1970s.
He spoke to me from Sydney prior to setting off for London to reprise his role as Dr Alan Grant in Jurassic World: Dominion, the sixth film in the Jurassic Park franchise.
Two Paddocks Pinot Noir is available in Australia through Vintage Cellars and selected independent retailers.
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Two Paddocks wine with Sam Neill: Full transcript
JAMES ATKINSON: Sam, you’ve been very active doing media for Two Paddocks in recent weeks. Is that simply because for obvious reasons, you’re more readily available to the business at the moment?
SAM NEILL: Well we have gone through a very strange time and normally I’d be at the farm at this time and there’s always 1,001 things to do there. And if it’s not something to do with being out at the vineyard, I’d be at the office or with the animals. I mean, just there’s 1,001 things. Gardening you know, my hands are full there. But I’ve been actually marooned so to speak in Sydney, which I have to say is no great burden. I love Sydney. But it has meant that yeah, I’ve had more time on my hands and I’ve been able to do a bit of social media and so on, so I kept myself busy one way or another.
JAMES ATKINSON: I’ve seen some of your wines achieving some quite big scores in recent times. Do you feel like Two Paddocks wine is currently making the best wine that it ever has?
SAM NEILL: I think that’s absolutely right. The 18’s are out now and that was a really good vintage for us. There’s a couple of things about that. Obviously every vintage speaks for itself, but now all my vines are close to 20 years old. In fact, on three vineyards they’re older than that. So 20 years is the commonly accepted line in the sand for mature vines. You know, these vines, they now know where they live and they’re acclimatised. You know, they talk about grape vines rather like they do about people. They’re very delightful but mercurial up to the age of about 10. And then they go through their teens and they become sort of sulky and moody, and often brilliant, but not always. And then after about 20 years, they’ve settled down into some kind of maturity. Rather like humans. So I think that vine age is making for more consistency, we are more insulated against the vagaries of the seasons as a result. And I’ve been very happy with the last four or five vintages, they’ve been terrific.
JAMES ATKINSON: And presumably you and the Two Paddocks wine team have gotten to understand your vineyards better, also?
SAM NEILL: Yes and you know, you spend your life growing your understanding of your own vineyards. In any given vineyard there are always spots that stand out, that are going to be brilliant. There are going to be parts that are problematic and you work out how to work around that and that’s for a number of reasons. You know, we have different clones of pinot noir in different parts of the vineyards, and some we’ve actually removed. That clone won’t be happy in that particular space. Any vineyards, particularly in Central Otago, the soil changes every 10m or 20m. You’ll be in bright yellow clay here and you walk, you go for a 20 second walk and suddenly you’re in shisty soil or wind blow loess. Things change all the time. Yeah, so we’re learning more about our place and the vineyards are learning more about us. It’s a sort of two-way process.
Two Paddocks Pinot Noir
JAMES ATKINSON: Central Otago has been known for making a bigger, riper, richer style of pinot noir. Where does Two Paddocks wine fit within that?
SAM NEILL: Well, I’ve never been in favour of that big, bold style. That’s not me at all. I always encouraged understatement and restraint, in all things actually. Including my wine. I think we’re typical of Central Otago to the extent we tend to make bright, fresh, savoury wines and they’re in the red fruit spectrum, as opposed to the dark red plummy spectrum. You see, I came to pinot via Burgundy. And Burgundy is all about elegance and restraint. We tend to perhaps pick a little bit earlier than others, I think we’ve always done that. We farm very carefully, we use oak very subtly and of course, we’re fully organic. And that takes a great deal of work and it’s expensive to do, but I think it’s worth it. And I think we make, as a result, very interesting wines that are also healthy. They’re healthy to grow, because I don’t use round-up and all those sort of things that I really disapprove of. I think that’s reflected in the wine too. I think they’re a tonic.
Two Paddocks vineyard expansion
JAMES ATKINSON: Your most recent vineyard acquisition for Two Paddocks wine was the Fusilier in the Bannockburn sub-region. Which is right in what I understand they call the dress circle of Central Otago. Has that new vineyard, well relatively new, been an important addition for your fruit sourcing?
SAM NEILL: I think it has, it’s a really good vineyard. I think it’s our biggest vineyard, because it’s six hectares. Which is quite big for us. You know, we have four very small vineyards. We’ve carefully converted it into organics. And I think we’re producing beautiful wines. We’re right next door to one of the more famous vineyards, which is Felton Road. We’re right on the Felton Road and we’re their neighbours and I’ve always liked their wines. I think it’s probably helped in some ways in the perception of our wines, because that’s a very sort of prestigious part of Central Otago. And our vineyard’s previously have always been on the margins. So, the first vineyard was called The First Paddock, it’s in Gibbston. That one I planted in ’93 and at the other extreme end there is The Last Chance. The first and the last. And The Last Chance is possibly the, it’s certainly one of the most southerly vineyards in the world. And they’re very different vineyards, but they’re at the outer limits of Central Otago. Not just geographically, but also in terms of their composition. The Last Chance is in a very arid, it’s sort of perched high above a valley. The First Paddock is a much wetter site, and cooler. In a great year it is quite astonishing. In fairness, that’s probably only one year in three. So it’s a very special vineyard, but very difficult. But the Fusilier is right in the centre of things and I did find early on that my wines weren’t really taken as seriously as I would like, given the seriousness that we… how we apply to things. And that’s because I think we were at those really exciting peripherals. But now that we’re right in the centre of things, I think critics and writers and so on take us a little more seriously than they did before. But I’m very pleased that we are the only producer that has holdings in those three great Central Otago valleys. And Viva la Difference.
JAMES ATKINSON: When you talk about not being taken as seriously as you would like for your wine making, do you think your celebrity has played a part in that? Because I would imagine it’s a bit of a double edged sword. On the one hand you have the PR benefits of being a famous actor?
SAM NEILL: I think that’s absolutely correct.
JAMES ATKINSON: But that can also bring with it an element of cynicism among some people that maybe your wines aren’t the real deal?
SAM NEILL: Yeah, yeah I think that’s a sort of prejudice that’s taken a while to overcome and there’s a couple of reasons for that. First of all there are so called “celebrities” who put their names on labels and someone else makes the wine. Or they buy a vineyard and it’s a kind of vanity project. But I’ve been at this for 27-years now, and I’ve been seriously involved in every aspect of my wine making. It’s become the other half of my life if you like. And there’s also that tendency… I cope it if I express a mild political view about something. I’ll get shouted down from all corners by people saying what would he know, he’s only an actor? So, there is a tendency not to take actors terribly seriously for whatever reason. I actually take actors quite seriously because most actors I know are actually very bright people and very amusing and knowledgeable, and you’ve got to be smart to be a good actor. So I know a lot of smart people in the work that I do. But if they have another interest, like if they’re a painted or they’re a wine maker, or whatever it is. They will have to overcome certain prejudices to have whatever they do taken seriously.
JAMES ATKINSON: I guess that’s where blind tastings are quite helpful, because those prejudices can’t come into play?
SAM NEILL: That’s certainly true, that’s certainly true. Now I’m getting 95 points from the Wine Spectator or 97 from James Suckling, you know, these sort of things. So now finally, I think we’re getting the recognition that we deserve.
JAMES ATKINSON: And I understand you’ve done quite a lot of work on the farm to bring back the native birdlife?
SAM NEILL: Yeah, I love birds and I’m also involved in various environmental causes. So it only makes sense that I would pay attention to the birdlife on my property. And not all birds are the same, of course. We have a lot of problems with starlings and so on, that want to you know, gorge themselves on our grapes. We have to net our grapes every year. But the native birds, which have been pushed out for one reason or another over the years, I’m very keen to get those back and I’ve spent a lot of time planting natives to attract the native birds back. And there were no native birds in the farm valley at all. But now we’re seeing Tui and Bellbirds and Fan Tails, Grey Warblers. All kind of native birds that hadn’t been seen in the valley for years. And they’re slowly coming back. I go to a lot of trouble to grow honey trees, so that there’s something for them to eat during the long winter months and we do have long winters there. Long, bitter winters. But that’s been immensely rewarding. We saw a native pigeon the other day, a Kereru. But my whole approach there is a holistic one. We use biodynamic techniques, we’re not religiously biodynamic. I have some doubts about Rudolph Steiner. You know, he was by no means right about quite a number of things. But he had some very sensible ideas and it’s very important for me that it’s a healthy place to live. A healthy place for my people to work. We have quite a few cattle, they’re really there for the composting, for the manure. We have all kinds of poultry and sheep as well. Not because they’re there for the meat, although I love a good leg of lamb on a Sunday. They are there for weed control as much as anything and we graze all these vineyards during the winter. Everything that we do there is a kind of holistic approach to wine growing. I have neighbours that spray everything with chemicals and so on, and I don’t like going near them. And I don’t particularly approve of their wines. Even though it’s a very troublesome business. Every vine on our vineyard’s is visited something like 14 or 15 times a year by a pair of hands. So it’s not just hand harvested, but these are hard grown wines. That’s a lot of work.
JAMES ATKINSON: You’re obviously really dedicated to organic viticulture and putting environmental considerations first. Where did that ideology stem from?
SAM NEILL: That was a sort of slow dawning really and I, it started off. I had a holiday job when I was a student and we were spraying gorse and other weeds around Southland. With what was then the equivalent of something like Agent Orange. I think it was called Toren. It was a terrible chemical you know, that just killed everything. You were supposed to wear masks and sort of hazard suits, and of course none of us had them. It’s amazing I’m still alive actually. But it was then that struck me that conventional farming, there was something terribly wrong with it. If you can kill cabbages from 20km away, if the wind is right, you’re not using something that’s… you know, it’s very short sighted. And the same thing struck me about agri-chemicals and I started to become interested in soil health. And it was actually quite difficult to establish vineyards initially, organically. So we started conventionally and gradually turned everything round, so it’s fully organic now and it’s been a long process. But a very rewarding one and I’m much happier about what we do and what we make. And what you drink, as a result of that. And I think that my legacy really is going to be these vineyards. No one’s going to remember the films that I’ve been in. There’s such a turnover of actors and what we do, that no one’s going to remember that. But these vineyards that I’ve established, these four vineyards, will live on long after me and I’d like to think that just as in Burgundy, people are growing wine on vineyards that were established by the Romans 2000 years ago. In 2000 years, if the planet is still alive, then these vineyards will still be famous in their own way.
JAMES ATKINSON: You spoke earlier about your stylistic preferences for Two Paddocks wine. Does your winemaker, Dean Shaw, produce the wines to your brief or were your personal tastes both already aligned in that regard?
SAM NEILL: I think it’s a combination actually because it’s… Dean and I have been making wine since ’99. We don’t really have to talk a great deal about things anymore, because he knows what I want. He knows what he should be doing and he’s really good. In addition to that, even before I was working with Dean; those first two vintages. I was using Larry McKenna from Escarpment Wines, whose Australian incidentally. And Larry comes down four times a year and wanders around the vineyards with me and Mike, my viticulturalist. And he’s in the winery with Dean. And he’s been absolutely fundamental to what we do as well. So Dean and I listen very carefully to what Larry has to say. And value it and I think that’s all been you know, wonderful for us.
JAMES ATKINSON: Many people of my generation are sadly unable to taste Burgundy because it’s priced so far out of reach. How would you describe the stylistic differences, in comparison to new world pinot?
SAM NEILL: Yes, that’s a difficult one. And it’s very difficult to give descriptors to pinot noir at all, because it is the most elusive of wines. I’m lucky in that I got to live in the UK for 10-15 years, back in the days when you could actually afford pinot. That was before the Americans discovered it and the Japanese, and they’re happy to spend a bit of money on a good bottle of wine. And now, sadly, its become increasingly unaffordable for that reason. But I could, when I first got to London in 1979/1980, I could get a Grand Cru for 30 quid, you know. Or at least a Premier Cru for 20 quid. So I drank it on a regular basis, because I’d found something I’d profoundly fallen in love with. And that’s what drew me to growing it when it was a marvellous discovery when I found that people were beginning to grow pinot noir in the area that I loved most in the world. I built a house in Central Otago in 1987 and soon after that, about 1991 pinots were beginning to become evident. There were three or four growers that were producing pinots that were really interesting, and I though if they can do it, then why can’t I? And that led me to planting my first grapes in ’93. Yeah it’s a shame about Burgundy. Some of the greatest wines in the world come from there. Wines that absolutely fascinate me. But I think to get a bottle of Burgundy that is equivalent to say one of our single vineyards, you need to spend about $300 or more to get that kind of quality from Burgundy.
JAMES ATKINSON: Do you have much of a cellar of wine at home?
SAM NEILL: I do, every three or four years when I remember I go and see my distributors, who also distribute Burgundy and I get them to… I leave it to them actually. I just say I’d like four or five cases of Burgundy, of pinots and the chardonnays. And you choose, and I’ll put them down. And then 10 years later I’ll wander down to the cellar and see what’s doing well. The wonderful thing that we’ve discovered, that we had no idea would be true, was that our wines would age gracefully as well. I mean, it was always thought that new world pinot’s, drink them young. But that is actually not true and it’s kind of sad that very few of us actually have cellars and it’s important to cellar your wine well. It has to be the right temperature and you know, the humidity has to be right and all that sort of thing. But 99.9% of us can’t actually afford to have a proper cellar, so very little wine actually that we drink is cellared. But it’s wonderful to pull out a 2010 Two Paddocks and see how its evolved into something extraordinary, different. And the same is true of our Rieslings. That was a big surprise to me, because I was really only growing Riesling and about 10% of what we produce is Riesling. It’s the only white we do. They also age. I don’t know why I was surprised really, because Riesling is a noble grape. And one of the things about noble grapes is that they are supposed to age and they will, if they’re treated right. So our Rieslings develop into something completely different. Unfortunately most wines, I think statistically are actually drunk within 20 minutes of purchase. So we do make a point of actually cellaring our wines, that will be sold later on. We have a wine club and occasionally we will offer some older vintages to our members and we get great feedback from that. And they would have been cellared properly.
JAMES ATKINSON: So do your top tier wines need further cellaring upon release?
SAM NEILL: We don’t release them until we think they are you know, singing so to speak. But if you can afford to do so, you will find it very rewarding to put them down. Even five years and see how they’ve evolved. I like the title of your podcast because wine is an adventure and one of the great adventures in wine is putting it down and being patient. Patience in all things.
JAMES ATKINSON: I heard you say that winemaking is the only thing you’ve ever formed any ambition for. Which came as a surprise, given the success that you’ve had with acting.
SAM NEILL: I’ve never really had any ambition as an actor and I still don’t. It’s always surprised me that I actually get work at all. And I hadn’t imagined that I’d be able to have a career as an actor. That was a surprise in itself. So every time I get another job, I’m as surprised as the first job I ever got. I never really wanted to be a movie star. I didn’t see the value in that. I love working in movies and I love being in them. I love working with movie people. But being a movie star, I can’t think of anything worse really. I mean, for instance now I’m in Central Sydney and I’m perfectly able to go down and buy a coffee around the corner and no one bothers me. But I’ve got friends, contemporaries, other actors who that would be very difficult. They’d need a body guard or I don’t know, all those trappings. All the nonsense that goes with being a star, I don’t have to worry about. So I can live a perfectly normal life and the same is true in New Zealand. I can go for a ride on my bike and no one troubles me. So I count myself very lucky that I’ve sort of got a good balance in my life. Nothing is too difficult. I’m successful enough for me. And that’s been very good and I feel very lucky. But with wine it was different. When I opened that first bottle of my pinot, from that first vineyard and I realised it was really good. About five minutes later I realised that very good wasn’t enough. I wanted it to be the very best. So those last 27 years have been about working towards absolute excellence. And everything we do is geared around that.
Two Paddocks wine Australia
JAMES ATKINSON: It seems to me that Two Paddocks wine has become more visible in Australia. Have you been expanding distribution over here?
SAM NEILL: We actually sell more wine. I mean, we don’t make very much wine anyway. We’re tiny. But we sell more in Australia than we do in New Zealand. But then it’s a bigger market. We have good profile here and I’m very pleased to run into people who say oh, look I’ve been buying your wine for years and it’s my wife’s favourite and all that. So we’ve got a long, loyal following and that gives me great satisfaction.
JAMES ATKINSON: I heard you say recently that you’re a huge fan of Australian Shiraz. Anything in particular that you’ve been enjoying at the moment?
SAM NEILL: Well I bought a couple of bottles of Yalumba Signature a couple of weeks ago. And they were just magnificent. And the last bottle, which wasn’t pinot noir, was something I opened last night and it was a Sicilian wine from the slopes of Mt Etna. And I’ve no idea what the grapes are, but it was some very, very beautiful wine. Actually I might just get the bottle, see if I can… just hold your horses for a minute. Yeah, look much in all as I’m a fan of pinot noir, it’s really marvellous to discover someone else’s wine that you just adore. I spent some time in Sicily, I had two or three weeks in Sicily last year. And I found some wines there that I thought were really good, but nothing as good as this. The producer seems to be someone called Girolamo Russo and it’s a vineyard called Calderara Sottana. So it’s clearly volcanic and it’s like nothing else I’ve ever drunk, and I just thought it was fantastic.
JAMES ATKINSON: Now you’re leaving to London next week, to go and shoot. Are you looking forward to getting back to work?
SAM NEILL: I certainly am. I mean, it’s going to be interesting. We are the first big film I think out of the blocks. They’ve sent me a 100 page document, which concerns all the protocols that we will work under. But I can’t wait to get back to work and I feel actually really fortunate, because so many of my peers, my fellow actors and so on are unable to work at the moment. And I’m very, very concerned about that. Not just actors, but artists in general and the arts have been abandoned really. I don’t know what the future is for the performing arts, really. Because without an audience, I’m not quite sure what one does. So I’m very worried. And I’m also worried about the great institutions in this country, like the Sydney Theatre Company and the Melbourne Theatre Company and the Royal Australian Ballet. What happens? Nobody knows. So I’m very fortunate to be actually able to go to work at all. I’m well aware of that. I suppose there’s an element of being pioneers, you know. And anything can happen. But I’m confident that the studio will be doing everything in their power to keep everyone safe and keep the production on track. It will be great to be with Jeff Goldblum and Laura Dern again, who are good friends. And DeWanda Wise, who is someone I worked with last year, she’s terrific. And then there’s Chris and Bryce, I don’t know them but we’ve all been in contact and we’re all sort of a bit thrilled to get back with the dinosaurs. Because we’ve all been there before and it’s always been an enjoyable experience.
JAMES ATKINSON: Do you see yourself continuing to do as much acting as you have been, in the future?
SAM NEILL: I want to spend more time at the farm and that’s certainly my first priority once we’ve finished the film. But we won’t be done until October. I’ve just built myself a little house on the farm. I was previously living in what was an old seed shed and it’d be lovely to be around during the building process. But that hasn’t been possible. I always say look, I’m not going to work this year. I’m just going to be on the farm for a year. And I might just do that. I’ve been thinking about documenting a year in the life of the farm and perhaps doing a book. That might be fun. And take a year off acting. I did that two or three years ago, and we did the James Cook documentary. I didn’t act for a year, I spent that year either on the farm or in various parts of the Pacific and that was a fantastic year. So I’d love to do that again. But you know, you never know. I always say these things and then someone offers me a film in a place that I’ve never been before and I think oh what the hell, it sounds like an adventure. Let’s go.
JAMES ATKINSON: I suppose you wouldn’t do it if you weren’t still enjoying it?
SAM NEILL: Yes, I wouldn’t do it unless I loved it and I love going to new places. Meeting new actors and being in the company of film people, of other actors. That’s one of the best aspects of my life actually. I’ve been very fortunate in that respect.
JAMES ATKINSON: Well Sam, thanks for taking the time to speak with us. It’s been a really enjoyable chat and I hope everything runs smoothly for you over in London.
SAM NEILL: Thank you James, it’s been fun for me too.
Where to buy Two Paddocks wine
Two Paddocks wine in Australia is available nationally through Dan Murphy’s and Vintage Cellars, along with selected independent retailers.