The actor/winemaker talks about terroir and terriers, sheep and sheepishness, Oscars and wine scores
Actor and winemaker Sam Neill looks stricken. If he simply had to choose between 99 points from Wine Spectator or an Oscar, which would it be, he was asked.
"Do I have to choose? Oh my God! Can I take both? Please?"
"I’ll just take a little flattery. That’ll do me," he says, more in character with his reserved, gee-shucks manner.
Neill’s acting career — his filmography lists 96 movie and TV roles, including The Piano, Jurassic Park and The Hunt for Red October — is clearly his day job. But his 17-year-old New Zealand winery is not simply a vanity project, and he’s in town to promote Two Paddocks Winery at the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival. The winery is known for its Pinot Noirs which frequently score in the 90s (out of 100) by the likes of Wine Spectator and Robert Parker.
You’ll find a lively read about the winery on its website, written by Mr. Gee-Shucks himself. "I wanted to produce a good Pinot Noir that would, at the very least, be enjoyed by my family and friends," he writes. "Frankly, my friends will pretty much drink anything, so this didn’t seem too hard . . . With each successive year, we have produced a Pinot Noir (sometimes three or four) that have done us proud and are, to be frank, too good to be wasted on our friends. They still somehow manage to bludge a lot off us, and that, combined with the proprietor’s generous thirst, accounts for the occasional scarcity of Two Paddocks Pinot."
Pinot Noir is known as the "heartbreak grape" because vintners give it such love and attention and are so hopeful of greatness, yet they can turn around and slap them in the face. But it grows happily in Neill’s vineyards in the Otago region of New Zealand.
"I thank the gods, possibly Bacchus or Dionysus, for having been kind to us. Perhaps it was God with a capital G," says Neill.
Why concentrate on Pinot Noir? "I like the flexibility, and I think you can pretty well drink it with anything with the exception of cheesecake or sticky toffee pudding. It’s easy to love," he says.
Asked if winemakers and their grapes are like dogs and their owners having similar characteristics and appearances, he stops to think. "I hope I’m not like my Staffordshire terrier, but I certainly like her. I wonder, though, if it’s true. I’m thinking of all the Shiraz makers I know. They’re not all big and beefy and ebullient. I’ll have to think about that."
Neill recounted events leading to his departure for Vancouver. It involved black-faced sheep, his "self-starting lawn mowers" at the winery.
"It’s the time of year for the ram to ‘spread his love with the ewes.’ Sadly, YouGo Weaving [named after actor Hugo] died in the course of his duties." You mean to say the ram died, ‘doing it’? "It’s a mystery to this day," he says. "Seventeen ewes, that’s an undemanding workload for a chap who can be expected to keep up to 80 girls content."
He wrote a "ewe-logy" on his blog, entitled ‘Ram Stiff’: "We are not all recovered from the shock of YouGo Weaving popping his clogs on the job only 24 hours ago. The ewes, however, have seemingly taken it all in their sheepy stride and YouGo’s passing has gone quite unremarked. George GleeGun [the replacement ram] arrived in style in his personalized trailer and was immediately mobbed by adoring fans and they have forgotten the previous incumbent overnight. On alighting, he set to work immediately, getting on with the job."
Back at the vineyards, the high-maintenance Pinot Noir grapes are a labour of love. "When you pay rather more than you think you should for Pinot Noir, it’s because it’s very expensive to produce. We do the pruning, picking, thinning, by hand as opposed to something like Sauvignon Blanc, which is produced in an industrialized way with machines and tractors.
He aspires to bottle the best Pinot Noir in the world. "Let’s not sell ourselves short," he says. "We’re absolutely striving for excellence. I would not settle for anything mediocre."
Neill heads to Hollywood after the wine festival. He’s playing a character in an ABC-TV series, Happy Town, which launches Wednesday. The series revolves around a mystery in small-town America, a town haunted by unsolved kidnappings. Neill’s dapper but outsider character owns a film memorabilia shop in the town.
One of Neill’s favourite projects in which he and Peter O’Toole starred, fell victim to Miramax studio’s demise. "It’s called Dean Spanley, and it hasn’t seen the light of day in North America. It’s stuck in a vault. It’s about reincarnation, dogs . . . and wine. Tokay [a Hungarian wine] has a sort of rather alarming effect on my character. When he has a glass, he’s inclined to remember of number of previous lives," he says.
Acting, in his ever-humble opinion, was never planned. "It was a process of elimination, maybe, and about the only thing I could do with a reasonable level of competence. Clearly, accounting was out of the question, as I can’t add, and I don’t have a stomach for soldiering, so I was left with acting."
Okay, stop! That’s getting into self-flagellating territory. He’s a terrific actor.
And for the record, Neill is sort of like a good Pinot Noir. Light but complex and not overly tannic, although he doesn’t strike me as high-maintenance.
And I can say from up-close inspection, he does not resemble a Staffordshire terrier.