On any ordinary day, 11.30 in the morning might seem a tad early to be drinking wine. But it was election day and as things would turn out, it probably wasn't early enough for some. On that crisp, sunny, winter morning in Tasmania at the Pinot Shop in Launceston, a group of wine lovers were contentedly sampling Sam Neill's wine.
The actor was in town for the Breath of Fresh Air film festival, amiably providing the star power. But the pre-lunch wine tasting was an excursion into his other life; the rolling in the mouth of something beguiling and intriguing that spoke of deep icy lakes, steep gorges and snowy mountain ranges. Far away from the red carpets, Neill lives in a parallel universe. One that is profound, rich, sustaining, often hilarious - and literally down-to-earth. ''When I wrap a film I plunge back into life on the farm with my people there, with the animals, vines, the landscape. And the annual rhythm of winter, growth, harvest, fermentation. I think one is kind of a relief from the other; they are completely different worlds,'' Neill says.
Although Neill is a man inclined towards the humorous, making the pinot noir and riesling from his four vineyards in New Zealand's Central Otago is a deeply serious business. Even if the Twitter posts to his 310k followers about the eccentricities of his farm animals - mostly named after his famous friends - might suggest otherwise. ''Everything is free range here, almost to the point of feral.''
Now, 71, Neill has previously said: ''Wine-making is the only thing I've really formed any ambition for. My acting career has always been muddling from one thing to another, and a lot of good luck.''
In the evening, after the wine tasting, the actor and director Gillian Armstrong presented a remastered version of My Brilliant Career to celebrate its 40th anniversary. To add to this slightly surreal day, Neill's partner, ABC chief political correspondent Laura Tingle, hovered over the event, reporting on the election on the ubiquitous televisions. My Brilliant Career, in which Neill stars, was undoubtedly good luck. Before being spotted by producer Margaret Fink in Sleeping Dogs (his only other film role), Neill had been an unknown, long-haired hippy Kiwi documentary maker. His ''accidental'' international acting career would soon speed him to London to play the Antichrist in The Omen III.
And it was there, in 1979, that he encountered a miraculous glass of wine, when the legendary actor James Mason took him to one of Charlie Chaplin's favourite restaurants in the Lavaux region of Switzerland.
''It was very good food and Charlie Chaplin's name was carved in the timber beside the table. James bought a bottle of Gevrey Chambertin. That glass really changed my life. It was an extraordinary discovery to me to have your first glass of something that glorious. And you were a) not drunk and b) your senses were alert. It was an absolute clarion call. He told me 'this is Burgundy' and explained where it was from and what the grape was. I was really quite astounded and then doubly astounded when I discovered that you could actually grow pinot noir down the road from where I live in Central Otago.''
In 1993, a friend offered Neill a block in a subdivision near Queenstown in the South Island - ''and that is where all this hideousness started.''
Still, it took guts - and a lot of movie money (fortunately, this was the year the actor starred in Jurassic Park) - to plant pinot grapes at his first two hectare Two Paddocks vineyard in the ruggedly scenic Gibbston Valley. Nowadays, Central Otago pinots are recognised as world class, but back then it was still to be proven. He knew that planting in a valley where the temperature can lurch from 23 degrees to minus 3 could be a ''heartbreaker''.
But in 1982, Neill's friend Rolfe Mills had planted pinot. ''We went over to his place for lunch one day and had a bottle of his pinot. It wasn't great, but it was really surprising. This was telling us something. The pinot was sitting up and going 'I want to grow here'. If it had been sav blanc I couldn't be arsed. But pinot was a different story.'' In 1997 he tasted his own wine for the first time. ''I thought 'I hope it is drinkable'. And it was much better than drinkable, it was very bloody good.''
The genie was out of the bottle, so to speak. ''That was the fatal error really,'' if this was the movies he would narrow his eyes here to a glint ''then I realised I didn't just want to grow and produce really good pinot, I actually wanted to make the greatest pinot in the world.''
Neill kept planting the elusive Burgundian pinot grapes, battling through the numerous potentially deadly frosts every spring.
''Central Otago is beautiful but very, very challenging,'' he says. ''The climate is both our great ally and our most profound enemy, but it is most important that you grow in a cold climate''. He has now bought an additional three blocks in the other nearby valleys and can make five different pinots in any given year.
''We have to carefully look at what we have got in the barrel and then make sure we have got the best blend we can evince from all four vineyards. And to keep to our house style, which is restrained. In a good year we will produce a small amount of single vineyard from any vineyard that is speaking clearly to us.''
In the beginning, his wine was greeted with scepticism, with Neill dismissed as a dilettante, a hobbyist. ''We have had to overcome certain prejudices. So while I don't think scores from wine magazines are really important, I am really grateful when I get one and can go 'well stuff you, this is 95 points from Wine Spectator'.''
In awarding this score (consistently), New York Wine Spectator's MaryAnn Worobiec described Proprietor's Reserve 2016 The First Paddock Pinot Noir as one that ''leaps out of the glass with sophisticated aromas ... and the whole package is balanced and complex.''
As it happens, Neill's family have been in ''the booze business'' or ''the cheering-up business'' since the gold rush. ''I have been bathing in wine since birth,'' he says. Neill & Co were alcohol importers, his great grandfather sold liquor to the thirsty gold miners. The family have been in Otago for more than 150 years, his great grandfather set up his business in 1862.
''I feel like I'm part of the soil,'' the actor says. Growing up in Dunedin, the family would go camping in remote parts of Central Otago, fishing and swimming in pristine lakes and rivers.
''Dad would say, 'I don't know why nobody is growing wine here, this is exactly the conditions it needs.'''
The acclaimed pinot wine was a natural progression, a generational continuum. When asked if he gives his winemaker Dean Shaw directions, Neill says - ''yes I do, but I don't think he listens to any of it''. But he is, perhaps, being a trifle disingenuous. He is a consummate winemaker. What started as a ''delightful diversion'' has become a ''crazy obsession''. He admits, ''I love sitting down with those in charge who sort of nominally call me the boss to think about what do we want to do next year, what worked last year. I love that process.''
But he is not always completely hands on. ''If it is cold and wet I have got lots of things to do in the office, if there is any pruning involved I have got RSI and my hands aren't up to it. Because a lot of it is very boring. We estimate that every one of our vines is visited by a pair of hands about 13 or 14 times a year - but not usually my hands.'' Because it is so labour intensive, Two Paddocks is in limited supply, a rareness that gives it cachet and makes it reasonably expensive.
''It is very low yielding, we are about five tonnes maximum per year, so we produce very little wine. This is probably about 700 cases a year from Two Paddocks Pinot Noir, and then Proprietors Reserve, about [another] 120, 150 cases. The Fusilier, we made 300 cases last year. We are a tiny brand, but this is as it should be.''
He has been committed to organic techniques and sustainability from the beginning. Every year, Neill says, they plant more of the oak trees that are used for barrels. They farm Highland cattle, because ''Rudolph Steiner insisted that Highland cattle shit is so much better than other cows. I am scared of them because they have long, sharp horns. Around the vineyard, composting is everything. It is a long, intricate and fascinating process getting to know your own land and what it requires. With each year our understanding becomes more profound.''
Neill has created something beautiful, radiant and living. He loves country life. He has planted rows of cypress trees. There is lavender and saffron. He bought the commercial orchard next door, which grows nectarines, apricots, cherries, loquats, plums and ''all kinds of strange fruit''. Oddly, his animals are social media stars now. Thousands follow tweets and Instagram posts that show him going for a morning waddle with his white Muscovy duck Charlie Pickering. There was a recent proud tweet when the previously land-bound Charlie took an inaugural flight over ice.
Then there is the ongoing drama between Angelica, ''my old Kunekune pig'', who has been breaking down fences to fight big boar Taika Waititi for the affections of former girlfriend Imogen Poots (the human Poots visited recently to meet her namesake). Other characters include a calf called Graham Norton, the offspring of Helena Bonham Carter and James Nesbitt. Susan Sarandon and Angelica Huston are black faced sheep. Then there's a platoon of chickens named after famous actresses. They are named to protect them from ending up on a dinner plate.
The wine will be his legacy, he says, not old movies.
''I do hope and trust that Two Paddocks will long outlast me. It is not really terribly profitable. If you're good and we are, you don't actually lose money. It is more about the immense reward of producing something brilliant. A good sculptor or painter understands that.''
Twenty years ago when he planted his grapes, Neill says he craved approval, if not acclaim, for both his acting and my wines.
''I am more relaxed and philosophical now,'' he says. ''I know my acting is OK - and I am sure my wines are great. It's fine.''
- Sam Neill stars in Palm Beach which opens on August 8. Susan Chenery travelled to Tasmania courtesy of the Tasmanian tourist board