Drinking: A day in wine world

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The Independent Culture
ON BOTH the occasions I have met Tony Hodges, he has quoted an alarming statistic: 70 per cent of customers leaving Sainsbury's with a bottle of wine do not know what grapes it is made of. This is sobering news for wine writers. For Hodges, it is a cause for cautious celebration: he aims to make a packet by educating the parts of the population that wine writers do not reach.

Hodges is the guiding force behind Vinopolis, 100,000sq ft of Victorian brick vaulting near the Globe Theatre in Southwark, London (0171 940 8300). For several years he has been channelling his considerable energy - and pounds 23million of his backers' money - into creating "the world's first visitor attraction devoted to all the pleasures of wine". It opened two days ago.

I visited Vinopolis 10 days before it opened, when the air was still thick with the skull-rattling sound of drills and saws. But I saw enough to persuade me of at least one thing: there is no single word that accurately describes the place. A wine museum it ain't, though this was the original idea. "Multimedia experience" might be better, though Hodges likes "factual entertainment". Installations, an art gallery, slide shows, videos, a personal stereo with guided tour in six languages - these are just part of what you get for your pounds 10 admission fee.

Some of it is delivered with real wit. You sit on a Vespa to watch a film on Piedmont and Tuscany (pictured right), which was itself shot from a motorbike. In the Sauternes section, a huge vine feeds into a glass, to illustrate that each glass of Chateau d'Yquem contains a whole vine's worth of grapes. A "Sensibilia" machine delivers pure whiffs of many major wine flavours (including vanilla, blackcurrant, and even mould from tainted corks).

Displays such as these take us on a "Wine Odyssey", from Bordeaux to Barossa and everything in between. The personal taped guide contains four hours of site-specific commentary. You could skip most of the commentary and do the whole thing in 45 minutes, but the tape gives intellectual substance to the displays. And for those who want still more information, regional and national rooms have a quartet of touch-screen iMacs with content based on Oz Clarke's Wine Guide.

Some experts may dismiss Vinopolis as theme-park superficiality without substance - it is McWine, they'll say, rather than the solid meat and two veg found in serious books and articles. But most wine drinkers do not read books; nor do they visit vineyards and wineries, the best places to learn about wine. For those people, some of the displays will convey real enlightenment.

For many visitors, the highlight of Vinopolis may be the tasting room: 40 tables, each with six wines. Your pounds 10 buys a taste of five wines, which can come from any table in the hall, and for another pounds 2.50 you can buy another quintet. And that's the limit. "People won't be spitting," says Hodges, "and we don't want anyone getting legless." If you're still thirsty you can head to the restaurant, which opens in August. In Vinopolis itself the emphasis is on educational tasting rather than unbridled consumption.

Once you've finished tasting, you pass through the obligatory shopping opportunity. There's a huge range of wine glasses and other accessories, what's claimed to be the world's largest selection of books on wine, and a food shop. Then there's the wine shop, run by Majestic. Vinopolis hopes people will want to buy the stuff once they've learned about it.

And I hope, in turn, that their purchases will vindicate the Vinopolis vision. Most wine sold in this country costs less than pounds 4 a bottle. If Vinopolis can persuade visitors to trade up, and explore new areas, it will have done a great service to the cause of intelligent drinking.

Hodges is expecting over 400,000 paying customers in the first year. I was sceptical about the venture, but having seen the place I find that I'm of two minds. Part of me says the subject can't be explained adequately in this way. Another wants to believe that this doesn't matter. People must be persuaded to buy better wine, and to understand better the complex phenomena that make wine taste as it does. Any venture that promotes those aims is, by definition, a good thing. I won't invest in Vinopolis, but my fingers are crossed for its success.