Did I Ever Tell You This? Sam Neill

08 Sep 2022

"There surely can’t be many Hollywood actors with whom one can have a long conversation about the pleasures of pig companionship," writes Emma Jenkins MW, who spoke to the actor and proprietor of Central Otago's Two Paddocks about his new memoir - Did I ever Tell You This?

Emma Jenkins MW

Sam Neill at Two Paddocks

Sam Neill is a good bugger. This won’t be news to those who’ve met him, but it seems only fair to be upfront. After all, there surely can’t be many Hollywood actors with whom one can have a long conversation about the pleasures of pig companionship. Of course, Sam’s dry, self-deprecating, rather cheeky sense of humour also makes him very good company; a trait that shines through in abundance in his new memoir, Did I ever Tell You This? The book traces the arc of Sam’s life: his birth and early years in Ireland, his New Zealand adolescence and university hijinks, and a wildly amusing, at times fabulously indiscreet, romp through his acting career and adult life.

As has been detailed in slightly breathless news headlines, the genesis of the book was Sam’s cancer-imposed hiatus from acting, where he found himself unable to work and needing to occupy himself in the face of life-changing news and an uncertain outcome. “I had to do something that felt useful and enjoyable. It was an interesting process, writing in real time, against the clock as it were. I didn’t know how long I had to write a book, and it was not a leisurely process at all, I was at full speed. One memory would trigger another, stuff I had not thought about for years.” The book was published remarkably quickly, within a year of its writing. “I sat on it for a few months, thinking that I was not sure if it was good enough, or if I wanted people to read this ... I was very uncertain about it. But I gave it to a few publishers to read and got such a massively positive response. I thought ‘Oh well, let’s let it go and see what happens!’ Now I am getting such a warm and emotional response from people that I am thinking perhaps I did do something worthwhile.”

Sam certainly has the storytelling gift. I wondered if there was any overlap between acting and the writing process. “Acting is a curious thing ... in a philosophical sense, you are on one level pretending, but if you’re acting well, you are looking for the truth – a truth in a moment, a truth in a character, a universal truth in whatever you are playing. An audience knows the difference between that and just a big fib. I think that’s what I probably discovered in writing too: you are looking for the truth, an authenticity.” There are certainly plenty of truths in the book. What might some of those featured think when they read it? “Yes ... well,” he chuckles, “Some of it if I read again, I’d probably say ‘why did I put that in there?’ But I’ve never been able to take myself very seriously and the book reflects this.”

He also does not much take seriously the concept of himself as a celebrity. The thought that his Central Otago winery, Two Paddocks, could be regarded as a ‘celebrity wine’ irks him no end. “I am not a celebrity. I have done everything I can in my life to ensure I am not a celebrity. Two Paddocks is so far from being that sort of wine. It’s been 30 years since we first planted our grapes so that’s a good long commitment, and a serious commitment. It’s always been about provenance and integrity.” Readers will know too well the travails of vineyard ownership. Sam seems quietly thrilled at how things have progressed. “It’s been quite a surprise. Much like my acting career was a surprise. I never really thought I could have or sustain a proper career, but it turned out that I could.

Similarly with wine. We planted a very modest two hectares in Gibbston Valley and that’s sort of all I thought I would do. But as I became more involved, the more I wanted to plant, the more I wanted to know, the more I wanted to produce, the more involved I wanted to be in everything. It was slow surprise, but it was a surprise nevertheless.”


“I was never interested in producing wines that were obvious. I wanted understatement, length and ageability.”


Gibbston’s The First Paddock was followed by Alexandra’s The Last Chance and Red Bank Farm, and Bannockburn’s The Fusilier. Obviously, a day job as a successful actor is a useful thing when owning a vineyard (or four), but Sam’s love of his land, his passion for Central and for wine are palpable. His three righthand people, Vineyard Manager Mike Wing, Winemaker Dean Shaw and General Manager Jacqui Murphy, are the glue that make it all work. “My pursuit with wine has always been authenticity in what we do. The cohesion that Mike and Dean have is absolutely vital. The understanding they have at a micro level in all four vineyards ...” Sam trails off. “They just see it all so incredibly well. Those three people are so important to me, and to Two Paddocks. I feel really lucky that I found them. They understand what I have always wanted from the wine. I was never interested in producing wines that were obvious. I wanted understatement, length and ageability.”

Sam is especially passionate about the subregion of Alexandra, where home is Red Bank Farm. “The Last Chance has always been my favourite vineyard. Not just because it produces great wine but there is something about that site, the connection to that land. I have never been able to entirely describe it. It lifts my spirit whenever I am there. Its strange, incredible rock forms stand like guardians over the vines. It’s extraordinary when you go to Burgundy and think that people have been growing things for at least 2,000 years. No one ever thought to put a vine in the places we have planted and to see how a site – one that you’ve had an educated guess how things might work and that once just had a few merinos and quite a lot of rabbits – respond in such a way is immensely rewarding.” The vineyards have long been run organically. “It’s chalk and cheese for me. Looking at a non-organic vineyard there’s an aridity I find quite depressing. They’re sterile places and you know there is nothing going on in the soil, whereas our problem is the opposite, we are dealing with such fecundity and it’s wonderful.”

We muse over Alexandra being an often- overlooked subregion and agree this might largely be down to being mostly tiny owner- operators. “Coupled with that, there’s always been ...” he pauses and gives an amused snort, “... a slight sense of superiority in Bannockburn, which always irritated me. When [The Fusilier] came up, I thought ‘bugger it, I’m going to buy one right in the dead centre of the dress circle’ and oddly ...” (another amused pause) “... a lot of people who never really took us terribly seriously, suddenly changed their minds!” Much laughter. “But we have proven you can make great wines from Alexandra, and I am surprised more people don’t want to stake a claim there.”

Ultimately, it’s always about the people. “It’s great to see a second generation coming through, like at Rippon. There’s at least a dozen outstanding producers in Central. Of course, the area is blessed in a natural sense but the Māori proverb, he tangata he tangata he tangata really is so true.”

With Did I ever Tell You This? gracing the bestseller lists, is he tempted to write a wine book? “Well, there’s probably plenty of material but I’d say it would be a limited audience. I didn’t want to write too much wine stuff as you can turn into a wine bore, and God knows there’s enough of those.” Indeed.

I’ll spare you our discussion on pigs, but Sam and Angelica’s well-documented relationship is something his social media followers will recognise. “I love pigs, I really do. They have real personality, they’re smart. They’re very rewarding friends, and they are fond of me. They like a good love life too ...” (rest assured all is revealed in the book). There should be more good buggers writing books ... you won’t be sorry you read Sam’s.

This article was first published in New Zealand Winegrower magazine issue 140 and is republished with permission. 

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