Article – Vini, Vidi, Vinopolis

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Vini, Vidi, Vinopolis
By Elizabeth Sagehorn & Don Lipper

If you’re visiting London and think that it has nothing to offer an oenophile in the way of entertainment, then prepare yourself for a pleasant surprise.  Vinopolis, City of Wine is a wine-lovers dream come true.  What’s not to admire in a place whose motto is “Explore, Taste and Enjoy”?

If London seems a curious place for a wine museum, you need to remember that it has a long history of being the crossroads of the wine trade.  The museum is only a few yards from the archaeological remnants of an ancient wine storehouse.  In fact the first exhibit at Vinopolis features 2,000-year-old Roman wine jugs that were recently unearthed there.

Vinopolis opened just a year ago.  It covers 2½ acres and an infinite amount of information.  Perhaps the reason it has not gotten much publicity in the States, is because the first visitors are only just now finding their way out.  This is definitely a sneakers-wearing day.  They say you can comfortably tour it in two hours, but if you really want to get the most out of your visit, set aside half a day and make a reservation at the café for some sustenance.  You’ll need it.

Each of the 20 exhibit rooms is devoted to a different type of wine or region of wine-making.  Some of them are more interesting than others.  The Italy room invites you to take a video tour of Tuscany on a (stationary) Vespa motorbike.  The California exhibit has (among other features) three large movie cameras with little video presentations that trace the history of winemaking in the state.  Step into Spain/Portugal and you suddenly find yourself in the courtyard of a lovely Mediterranean villa complete with a working fountain.  Then hop on the plane to Australia.  On your way, you get a primer course in the winemaking regions of that nation.

On the other hand, the section on Austria features a wall map.  All together now, “Oooooooh, ahhhhhhhh!”  Another disappointment was the throwaway partial reproduction of the Hotel Dieu in Beaune, France.  Their pale, almost monochromatic version was an insult to the real, vibrantly colored tile roofs that dot the Burgundian landscape.

The only really unprofessional element is the sign posted in each room, which indicates the type of grapes grown in that region.  Each variety is given an obnoxiously cutesy mnemonic name such as Colonel Cabernet Sauvignon, Maxine Merlot, Charmaine Chardonnay, Serena Sauvignon Blanc, etc.  All the grapes with male names are described as having strong flavors while the female grapes are slightly slutty: “she’ll give up her secrets once you get to know her better.”  Gag me with a hoofpick.

Visitors are given headsets in one of six different languages (English, Italian, Spanish, German, Japanese, French) and have the option of listening to as much or as little of the 4½ hours of recorded information as they like.  As you enter each room, there is an automatic brief introduction.  After that you punch in the number of the exhibit you want to learn more about, and there is a ten second to two minute blurb, narrated by international wine experts.

If you’re feeling more daring, you can punch in numbers at random.  You may be surprised at what you hear.  We punched in a missing number and were startled to learn about the iconography of a Roman orgy scene that was allegedly hanging on the wall in front of us.  Sadly, several minutes of frantic searching failed to turn up any sign of it.  No trace of it in the gift shop either.

There are wine tasting tables at four different points in the tour.  You may use your five complimentary tickets to taste whichever of the available 200 wines from 16 countries you wish.  If you’re not driving, you can buy more tickets at the rate of five for £2.50 (about $4).  The table attendants ranged in helpfulness from disinterested to very knowledgeable and friendly.  And each station has some reference books in case you stump the attendant with a question.

If you still haven’t had enough, there is a gift-shop that is packed with enough food, wine, and accoutrements to keep the most avid oenophile in birthday and holiday presents for several lifetimes.  Assuming you can afford them.

Throughout the museum several computers offer access to a wine encyclopedia that provides additional information about the wines of various regions, which wines go well with different types of food and which are a good bargain.  The Vinopolis branded CD-ROM (Oz Clarke’s Wine Guide 2000) is available for sale in the gift shop.

Vinopolis is open Tuesday-Friday 10:00-5:30.  Their last admission time is 3:30 PM.  Admission is £11.50 (about $18) for adults, £10.50 for seniors, and £5.00 for a child (5-15).  Special wine-tastings and other events are offered periodically.  They recommend that you make reservations either by phone or through their website to ensure a place.

Vinopolis is located at:
1 Bank End
London, SE1 9BU
Phone: 011.44.870.4444.777

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Last modified: November 29, 2007