A Theme Park for Wine Lovers

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This week, after four years of touch-and-go funding and construction, a kind of Exploratorium for wine geeks is opening in London.

Vinopolis takes visitors on a wine odyssey through the wild, wacky and wonderful history of the world's most celebrated beverage (after Coca Cola and Bud Lite, of course). Straddle an Italian motor scooter with a video screen mounted on the handlebars and whiz through Tuscany and Piedmont via film shot with a Vespa-mounted camera! Sit in a mock-up of an airliner and watch a film about wine in Australia, then emerge into a stylized Oz wine region for further edification!

In fact, more information is offered in this 100,000-square-foot interactive exhibit than most visitors will be able to process in one go. Like the British Museum and the National Gallery, Vinopolis provides visitors with a personal CD-ROM player offering up to four hours of enlightening propaganda read by British wine-trade luminaries such as Jancis Robinson and Stephen Spurrier. There's no pop quiz at the end, but a hefty reference book (by Brit wine writer Oz Clarke) is available.

"Consumption of wine has far outstripped knowledge," says Vinopolis deputy chairman Tony Hodges, a marketing whiz who has devoted the last four years of his life and a big chunk of his personal fortune to the project. "For example, most wine consumers don't understand that the nature of a wine is primarily determined by grape variety."

Hodges hopes Vinopolis will attract England's estimated 10 million wine consumers (defined as those who purchase a bottle or more per week) as well as international tourists in London.

Appropriately, the arched brick vaults in the Southwark District--near the London Bridge on the south bank of the Thames--formerly housed one of the largest wine warehouses in England.

But the site's wine history goes back much further than that. The remains of a Roman-era wine shop were discovered during unrelated construction nearby. A replica of the dig is the first thing visitors will see when they enter Vinopolis, underscoring the fact that London has been a crossroads of wine culture for a very long time indeed.

From a tourist's perspective, Vinopolis is in one of London's best neighborhoods. The Borough Market, which has been an active produce market since the early Middle Ages, is right next door. Pedigreed tourist traps in the immediate vicinity include the delightful Clink Brothel and Prison Museum, the luridly kid-pleasing London Dungeon and the new Globe Theatre complex (which is fully booked for all performances through the Millennium, by the way, unless you want to pay five pounds to be a "groundling").

Tourists are sure to flock to Vinopolis, Hodges says, but just in case attendance is lighter than expected, the museum will be available for private functions--dinner for 50 in the Burgundy room, cocktails and a seminar in virtual Champagne, luncheon with art in the Hess Collection gallery.

Hodges says more than 100 such events have already been booked for the yet-unfinished facilities. Food services for events and the museum's four restaurants will be overseen by London restaurateur Claudio Pulze, who operates the high-profile eateries Aubergine and Zaika.

Naturally, shopping is part of the Vinopolis experience too. At the end of their tour, visitors will find themselves in a large retail complex offering wines, upscale foods, books, cigars and every type of wine-related merchandise under the sun, including the world's largest selection of Riedel glassware. Riedel makes a specific glass for just about every type of wine. If like me, you absolutely dread being caught drinking Zinfandel out of a Gewurztraminer glass, the glassware store will beckon strongly.

And that's still not all. Vinopolis aims to be all things to all wine lovers, so it will incorporate a private club for power-networking and business entertaining. Meant to become an instant headquarters for the global wine industry, the Vinopolis Society reportedly has dozens of members (mostly wine companies) already.

There's even a world-class art exhibit in the complex. Napa Valley vintner and art collector Donald Hess, a major investor in Vinopolis, will show works from his Hess Collection for nine months out of the year; in the remaining time there will be shows by individual artists (the first features the Swiss artist Franz Gertsch). "Scratch an art lover and you're bound to find a wine lover," says Hodges with a significant wink.

Hodges has been an avid wine lover since a trip to Burgundy many years ago converted him from a drinker to a devotee. "It was like a 'road to Damascus' moment," he recalls. "I saw a sign pointing to Meursault, and it hit me. I had always thought that Meursault was just the name of the wine, but suddenly I understood that the wine is called Meursault because it comes from a place called Meursault."

Putting wine names with places is the top priority of the Wine Odyssey. The journey starts in a Roman amphitheater with a film montage of a year in the life of a vineyard. "Four seasons in four minutes," says Hodges. "This is where you escape into the world of wine."

Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne and all the other great European wine-producing areas have their own displays. Bordeaux features a meticulous model of the Battle of Castillon, where the English lost possession of Bordeaux in 1453. (I didn't know that. Really.)

The determinedly rustic Beaujolais room centers on a vintage Deux Chevaux truck--purple, of course, and complete with dings, dents and mud-caked tires. Interactive touch-screen computers are deployed throughout to answer any questions not answered by the CD-ROM.

Eventually, visitors cross to the New World (entered through an exhibit on phylloxera provided by UC Davis). Chile and Argentina are there, separated by the Andes Mountains in papier-ma^che.

The California room offers--what else?--movie cameras with films playing inside them; four different short subjects cover the important points of California wine. After jaunting Down Under, The Wine Odyssey concludes in a tasting hall offering some 200 wines for sampling, a chance to bring it all back home to the actual beverage in question.

Walking through the rooms made me feel like I had somehow stumbled inside a glossy coffee-table book hyping wine. To be honest, I thought a lot of it was a little over the top.

That faux plane ride to Oz, for example. It's hard to imagine a jet-lagged tourist--not to mention anyone who's actually taken that hellish 16-hour flight to Australia--wanting to sit in a mocked-up airplane to watch an instructional video. On the plus side, Hodges assures that there won't be an extra charge for headsets.

Are there really millions of wine victims waiting to swarm a show-and-tell museum for an ad hoc wine education? Tony Hodges and his backers are anticipating 500,000 visitors a year. They may be right. Vinopolis has at least one thing going for it--the lines to get into the London Dungeon are really, really long.

Vinopolis is at Bank End and Clink Street in the Southwark District. For more information, visit the Web site at http://www.vinopolis-cityofwine.com/ or call (011-44) 870 444 4777.

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