Vinopolis can't be defined simply as a museum or entertainment complex or educational facility, as it brings all of these elements and more together. The $34 million complex occupies 100,000 square feet of 19th century wine vaults in the South Bank, a trendy area where Shakespeare's Globe Theatre was recently revived and the new Tate Gallery is being constructed. The vaults have been renovated to house a 21-room exhibition as well as an art gallery, conference and banquet rooms, a tasting hall, dining spots, a retail store and a wine shop.
"It has been four years of massive effort," said Tony Hodges, deputy chairman of WineWorld London, the company behind Vinopolis. "It is an important statement for the wine industry; it is all about experiencing the pleasures that surround wine, and we are encouraging people to enjoy themselves."
The main attraction for the public will be the Wine Odyssey. For about $16 a ticket, visitors can walk through the 21 rooms of wine-related exhibits with an audio-visual guide featuring the voices of such noted British wine writers as Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson. The tour culminates with a tasting of five wines from a selection of more than 200 in the Tasting Hall; visitors may then enter the Hess Collection at the Vinopolis Gallery. The collection, owned by art collector and Napa Valley vintner Donald Hess, will open on Sept. 8 with an exhibition of woodcuts and paintings by Swiss artist Franz Gertsch.
Many of Vinopolis' rooms are dedicated to specific wine regions, such as Bordeaux and Burgundy, or entire countries. Interactive exhibits draw visitors into the setting: In the Italy room, you can sit on a Vespa scooter as either Piedmont or Tuscany roll by in the video placed on the windscreen. Or you may sit in the cabin of an airplane flying towards Australia, or watch the history of California wine through the lens of a movi ecamera.
A few rooms are dedicated to subjects such as "The Cradle of Wine," which looks at the origins of winemaking; "Wine and Health;" and "Sensibilia," which teaches about the sense of smell in wine-tasting. Throughout the complex, computers provide touch-screen access to the Vinopolis Interactive Wine Guide, which includes a wine encyclopedia, a world atlas of wine and food-and-wine-matching information. At the end of the tour, visitors can purchase any of the wines available in the tasting hall at the Vinopolis Wine Vaults.
Nonetheless, Vinopolis encompasses more than the Wine Odyssey. Over the next few months and into early next year, four restaurants will open in or around the complex; Cantina Vinopolis will be first. Also to come are a cigar bar and a wine bar, called Root & Branch, opening in August. Wine courses and wine clubs are also in the works.
"This really is just the beginning, the tip of the iceberg," said Sophia Gilliatt, associate director of the complex. "The soul of Vinopolis is to keep alive and maintain the needs of the international wine industry. Without the industry, it would be more a leisure park with a wine-related theme. We want to service the trade and for them to use Vinopolis."
Now all that remains is to see how wine connoisseurs and novices alike greet the ambitious project. An estimated 500,000 visitors -- one-third of them foreign tourists -- are expected at Vinopolis within the first year. Tickets can be booked through the Vinopolis Web site at www.evinopolis.com.
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