Drink: The grapest story ever told

Vinopolis - part theme park, part temple to wine - opens next week in London. The verdict? Suck it and see
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The Independent Culture
NOT TO be mistaken for the barrow-boys of Borough market, Sir Robert McAlpine's men, complete with standard-issue hard hats and builders' cleavages, were frantically wheeling barrows of cement up and down Park Street at the Vinopolis site less than a month ago. Given the evident state of unreadiness, it was probably just as well that the grand opening had been put back, thanks to a fishy odour emanating from a nearby sewer. But with less than a week to go now before the Secretary of State, Chris Smith, unveils a major new London attraction, the "No alcohol allowed on site" posters have finally been dismantled.

Vinopolis is the brainchild of Duncan Vaughan-Arbuckle. When, a decade ago, he observed his wine warehouse customers buying wine, it occurred to him that they wanted to know more about it, without having to wade through an encyclopedia. Enter Tony Hodges, the ideas impresario who put the Go into Wash'n'Go. Hodges realised that wine as entertainment was the only way to appeal to a wide public. In short, nothing less than a theme park of wine had to be created, designed and moulded into shape. "Wine was not to be the be all and end all," says Hodges.

"Vinopolis is mainly for people who are newish to wine, and for people who enjoy wine," he adds, defining this audience as anyone who drinks a bottle of wine or more a week. "It's not about education, but factual entertainment," he explains, at pains to reject any suggestion of dumbing down. "The key to the design has been to go beyond the obvious, without being obscure. We want to communicate that wine is both a pleasure, and a lubricant of civilised life."

If the grand idea of a city of wine needed a suitably impressive home, not even Richard Rogers himself conspiring with the Guild of Master Builders could have created a more atmospheric site than this two-acre complex of 25ft-high Victorian brick-vaulted railway arches, within spitting distance of Southwark Cathedral, the Globe and the new Tate. The Wine Odyssey is a leisurely stroll through this labyrinth of cavernous, vaulted chambers, each devoted to a wine region or country. Pause in front of one of the many exhibits along the way, and the audio-guide triggers more detail if you want it. With fair logic, the story begins in the Vintner's Room, with London and its place in the wine world featuring a reconstruction of a Roman cellar, a tapestry of the Thames and a peep at England's green and pleasant vineyards. "Metamorphosis" then shows a silent, four-minute film of four seasons in the vineyard, followed by the Cradle of Wine chamber, uplit by urns with suitably ancient relics, and a celluloid Hugh Johnson talking you through wine's origins in Greece, the Middle East and Georgia. Putting England first may not thrill the French, but France then gets its due in the shape of a series of chambers housing the classic regions of Bordeaux, the Rhone, Burgundy, Champagne, Alsace and the Loire. Bordeaux is reflected in its rivers; the Rhone room is entered via a Chateauneuf- du-Pape-style portal with part of a Roman amphitheatre inside. Burgundy's historic association with the Church and its fragmentation is symbolised by a stained-glass window triptych and Romanesque arches encrusted with cellar mould. A Citroen 2CV representing the peasantry, however, might more realistically have been replaced by a Mercedes. Teasingly, what you thought was just an oak barrel turns out to be an info-satellite with a touch-screen computer, its wine content an accessible database.

If you feel saturated by wine, you can remove yourself to the Hess Collection, an art gallery that will house both a permanent and visiting exhibitions. Back to Italy's architecturally grand Renaissance Room with film projected on to the windscreens of five Vespas, then Spain and Portugal, an elegant colonnade of arches, and the Teutonic totems of northern Europe. If at this point the Odyssey seems top-heavily weighted in favour of Europe, the Chile and Argentina room that comes next is just the first of a series of chambers devoted to North America, Asia, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia (a Jumbo cockpit jutting out into the room takes you on an aerial tour of Oz). A corridor on wine and health leads to the Millennium Room hall of fame, then a Sensibilia Room on how to taste wine and, in case you hadn't quite got it, the art of the winemaker.

Feeling thirsty? You've at last reached the Grand Tasting Hall, where your ticket entitles you to a taste of five out of 240 wines, plus, if you wish, another five for pounds 2.50. Probably just as well, then, that parking space is limited and you came by Tube. To a degree, the choice of wine available for tasting is dictated by the depth of the big boys' pockets. Forty wine sponsors have each paid a princely pounds 24,000 a year "to suck it and see", as one producer put it, for the privilege of putting up six wines each. Gallo is there, of course, along with Mondavi, Southcorp, Seagram, UDV and a couple of champagne houses, Laurent-Perrier and Nicolas Feuillatte. The participation of pukka importers such as Mentzendorff and Ehrmanns suggests that a fair selection will be available. But it'll be interesting to see how staff will manage to lure travellers away from the champagnes and clarets to the more obscure delights of Macedonia and Georgia. A new 4,000-square-foot Majestic Wine Warehouse will carry the company's full range, and the 240 tasting wines. In due course, Vinopolis will house four restaurants, with a brasserie, Cantina Vinopolis, open from the start, followed by a coffee shop and wine bar, Root & Branch, next month and, eventually, Vinum, the fancy one, with its own bubble bar and brasserie. With two of London's leading restaurateurs at the helm, Claudio Pulze and Trevor Gulliver, the restaurant side has success written all over its menu. Especially if it realises the ambitious aim of offering Europe's best list of wines by the glass. Vinopolis has enough bookings to be a resounding success in its first year, but what about the future? Too early to say, really. It's not a place for the kids, after all. Yet, with flair and pounds 23m behind it, it deserves to succeed. Much will depend on whether it can keep things fresh, and on the quality of its facilities and the calibre of staff. And the Jubilee line extension, due to open in autumn, will help deliver the target of nearly half a million visitors a year. As between the Dome and Vinopolis, I know which one I'd back - and it wouldn't be the Dome.

Vinopolis hotline: 0870 444 4777 Website: www.evinopolis.com Opening hours: 10am-5.30pm seven days a week from 23 July. Admission pounds 10, or pounds 9 if booked in advance. Address: 1 Bank End, London SE1 9BU. Stations: London Bridge, Southwark