Harvey’s Wine Museum: ship shape and Bristol fashion.
By Elizabeth Sagehorn & Don Lipper
Sherry lovers from all over the world feel the compulsion to visit Bristol, England at some point in their lives. The siren song of the Harvey’s Bristol Cream Museum is simply too strong to resist. Especially since they give samples.
Having spent the day before at Vinopolis in London, We dreaded the thought of schlepping through another wine museum. We were pleasantly surprised to find that Harvey’s Museum is fun, slightly campy (you’re greeted by the sound of seagulls and a disembodied voice describing “ye ole seafarin’ days”), and (most important) easy to walk through in an hour. Instead of erring on the side of exhaustive, they offer bite-sized but tasty exhibits that teach about a wide range of imbibing topics. In addition to specialized information about sherry and port, they include the standard:
- The history of wine
- The different types of wine
- Classic grape varieties
- How they make different types of wine
- How to taste wine, etc.
For the historian who can’t just enjoy a vacation and is determined to learn something new, there is plenty of info about the wine business in Bristol. It began when the ever-feisty Eleanor of Aquitaine married the English King Henry II in 1152. Part of her dowry was the French winemaking province of Bordeaux. Over the next 300 years, the people of England developed a taste for fine wine (probably to compensate for their cooking). When Henry VI lost Bordeaux back to the French, English wine merchants had to scramble for another source of spirits. They turned to the friendlier (at least that week) nation of Spain, which specialized in producing sherry. Sack, as the Elizabethans called it, became very popular in England. And thus a new industry was born.
One of the preeminent men in the wine importing business was John Harvey. After losing several members of his family to rough seas, this decided landlubber refused to enter the family business of ship captaining. Against his father’s wishes, he became a successful sherry merchant. Descendants of John Harvey are still involved with the firm to this day.
If you’re fond of old things (aside from your spouse) the museum has an extensive collection of antique glass, crystal and silver. One large case boasts 74 examples of historical wine and sherry glasses and decanters dating from 1680. One of the specimens is worth £50,000 (about $80,000)! On the other side of elegance (and hygiene) there is an ancient leather wine pouch.
If it’s precious metals you fancy, one wall is lined with endless silver relics including goblets, funnels, tasting cups and bottle labels. Smaller exhibits include the blue Bristol glass collection (the result of an 18th century tax on all colorless glass) and plenty of interesting side stories about corks, bottles and corkscrews. One long hallway features an extensive art collection devoted to antique cartoons, sheet music and advertisements all featuring wine. Barrel-makers (and their countless fans) will enjoy the coopering exhibit further down the hall.
The museum is located in John Harvey & Sons former wine cellars. The main room of the cellar/museum is large and open with the original flagstone floors and whitewashed brick walls and ceiling. Be sure you get a map before you go any further. As a result of the architecture, visitors must wend their way through a rabbit’s warren of corridors and rooms. Don’t stop walking until you’ve reached the mock-up of the Elizabethan pub “the Unicorn”. This charming little room is so cozy you’ll want to curl up in front of the fire and break out into a chorus of “I Am ‘Enry the Eighth, I Am”.
It was John Harvey Jr. who in 1882 was indirectly responsible for the name “Harvey’s Bristol Cream”. A consummate salesman, one day John Jr. invited a foreign aristocrat to visit the cellar and sample his sherries. The lady had a distinguished palate and after tasting an average product (Bristol Milk) and a superior one proclaimed, “If that be milk, then this is cream”. Thus was born one of the world’s favorite sherry blends. The recipe is still a carefully guarded secret.
Harvey’s Bristol Cream Museum is open Monday-Saturday 10:00-5:00. If you’re interested in tasting Mr. Harvey’s “Cream”, plan your visit carefully. We highly recommend that you call Mr. Alun Cox to make an appointment first. The museum offers morning, afternoon, and evening tours, but requires a minimum of 30 people for each tour. Be prepared to change you plans in order to fill out an existing group. Entry is £6.50 (about $10). Entry to the museum is down narrow steps through a low-roofed tunnel, so folks planning on visiting with wheelchairs or strollers may want to make alternative plans. Special wine, sherry and port tastings are also available by appointment. Phone ahead for prices and availability.
Harvey’s Bristol Cream Museum is located at:
12 Denmark Street
Bristol, BS1 5DQ