The second keynote at the recent Pinot Noir 2013 conference was given by actor Sam Neill, who has a vineyard – Two Paddocks – in Central Otago. This was a beautifully delivered bit of stand-up comedy.
Neill begins by showing a video of him standing in his vineyard behind a table laden with bunches of a range of different grape varieties, which he introduces one by one. He then throws all, save the Pinot Noir, to his pigs, before staring into the camera and stating, ‘nobody eats my Pinot Noir.’
‘Pinot Noir is a performance-enhancing substance,’ claims Neill. ‘I know from experience. This is absolutely true.’
He then has a good natured dig at the previous speaker, Matt Kramer. ‘Matt, if 2+2 = 5 in Burgundy, why do I always get sold the 3s?’
On critic ratings: ‘When I left school, I thought I’d left the uncomfortable business of being scored out of 100 behind me. After a blind listening of your speech Matt, out of 100 you got 84.’ He pauses. Matt looks crestfallen.
‘I’m kidding, but just for a moment you felt that sinking feeling that comes from being damned by faint praise by The Wine Spectator.’
Neill carries on with the quips. ‘Nick Mills suggested changing the title of my talk to “what was it like to shag Meryl Streep?”’
‘That’s terrible, Nick. I didn’t shag her. We were pretending. It was just acting.’
Neill pauses, then adds: ‘The answer to that question is, of course, “scary”’
He then begins a sequence based on the variant use of ‘bastard’ by Aussies and Kiwis, and how it can sometimes be used in an affectionate way, but only for men. Returning to the more common use Neill makes the following statement:
‘We are the bastards of Pinot Noir. We didn’t just self-invent; we came from a tradition in Europe that is thousands of years old. Nevertheless, we are the bastards of Pinot, because we are unwanted, unacknowledged, and we live and thrive outside the old house. And like the best bastards anywhere, we don’t care. We take what we need from the old culture, and we are free to discard what is obsolete or useless, and we are free to innovate.’
The tour de force then follows. Sam Neill’s top 10 tips for prospective Pinot Noir winegrowers.
- You are clearly barking mad and clinically insane. Seek medical help as soon as you can.
- Since you are approaching middle age, two things are now inevitable, as a wine producer. (1) You will acquire a ride-on mower; and (2) you will have an enlarged prostate. On reflection, the mower is more fun than the prostate, so buy a good one.
- Every bottle of Pinot you produce you will have to sell three times. Firstly, you will have to persuade your distributor to distribute your wine. Then you will have to help your distributor to sell that bottle of wine through a retailer or restaurateur. Thirdly, you will need to persuade the punter to buy that wine. And having gone to the trouble of selling your bottle of wine three times, you will still not make any money.
- Once you have joined the world of Pinot, know that you will meet and work with some of the very best people you can imagine: creative people, bon vivants, conversationalists, philosophers, people of the land. Try not to annoy them too much. You are already annoying me. Remember, this is not a competitive thing. In New Zealand we meet at events like this in a spirit of collaboration. Your neighbours success is your success. In unity is strength. We are all in this together.
- You will be required to attend far too many dinners and functions than you can possibly healthily survive. You will be required to listen to far too many speeches: the sorts of speeches where you would rather stick a fork in your eye than endure 20 minutes of.
- Remember that they don’t call Pinot the heartbreak grape for nothing. Expect to fall helplessly, hopelessly in love with all things Pinot: the delightful folly, the glorious seductiveness, the immense satisfaction and so on. And you must expect to have all your dreams shattered again and again. Your worst fears realized, your nights sleepless and to be wracked with nightmares. You will need courage, strength, knowledge, flair and the capacity for immensely hard work. Since you are unlikely to have enough of these things, go instead now to the funny farm (and I mean this most kindly).
- Learn humility, lest you have humility thrust upon you. And just as in acting, distrust good reviews and try to ignore bad reviews. All wine criticism is subjective and all critics are fallible, so be true and know thyself and know thine own wine.
- Beware of scientists doing studies. Red wine is good for you and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
- You must try to avoid using the word ‘passion’, as in ‘passion for Pinot’. Passion is an overused word that should be reserved for the sort of heightened emotion that can happen between two people that may possibly result sometimes in the discarding of trousers. If you are a grower of Pinot you may lose your shirt but you are unlikely to lose your trousers.
- Give thanks to those who have led the way before you. Countless generations of Burgundian monks and peasants that developed the grape and how to deal with it. And in this country all those wonderful Dalmatians who got off the boat in Auckland and gazed with horror at all those beer-swilling thugs in Queen Street, walked straight past them and found a bit of land, and planted that most wonderful thing the grape vine. And give thanks also to the pioneers of Pinot in New Zealand: the Larry McKennas, the Rolfe Mills’s, the Patons, the Bradys, the Neil McCallums, the Rudi Bauers and so on. Tread carefully, because you are about to tread in their footsteps.