Going global

Drink

As any grammar-school boy knows, vino is from a Latin root, polis from the Greek for city. So what are we to make of the tautological "Vinopolis - City of Wine", the new "visitor attraction" that opens this week in London? Is it for the ill-educated, sloppy-brained tourist who wants someone else to take responsibility for whiling away his hours, or the oenophile whose alcoholic tendencies have obliterated all functioning brain cells? And will it actually inform and entertain?

It's hard to say. The deputy chairman of Vinopolis, Tony Hodges - despite the prosaic name, a bit of a smoothie if ever I saw one - has eloquent expectations. "The more you explore, the more you enjoy wine," he says with the practised but slightly worn air of one who has been saying the same thing all his life, to business associates over alcohol-free lunches, to girls over expensive hotel dinners and now to visitors to Vinopolis. "And life, too," he continues. "That is my hedonist's charter."

Vinopolis is going to have to be good to live up to this. It promises to be a wine odyssey - an informative journey through the world's wine regions. Still, I'm not sure what to expect when I am swallowed into the trendy brick, glass and metal Thameside pleasure dome, a £23 million development of London's second-largest bonding warehouse for wine.

Actually, I feel as if I'm on a school trip. I put on a set of headphones and sling the audio-gear over my shoulder. First stop: a three-minute film (Vinopolis caters expertly for those with short concentration spans) on a year in the life of a vine. It's not that absorbing. Lots of speeded up leaves unfurling, grapes swelling on the stalk - that sort of thing. When it finishes everyone around me exchanges slightly bewildered glances before shuffling on.

As I cross the threshold of the next room, my audio guide automatically trumpets into action. I giggle too loudly as Hugh Johnson's voice rises over a background of heraldic music. "Over three-and-a-half thousand years ago winemaking played a key role in Egyptian life," Johnson intones solemnly. It's almost as over-egged as the voiceover of an Imax film, you know, the sort that goes: "Since - the - dawn - of - time - man - has - yearned - to - fly." I'm not the only one to be amused. The man next to me removes his headphones and remarks to his companion, "Used to work for London Transport, that bloke did".

Vinopolis is not without interest, however. And I am charmed to discover that it is here to help the indolent. You don't even have to tire yourself out reading explanatory plaques on the wall. When I see a picture of something I'd like to know about, I just punch a few numbers into the audio-equipment and a wine expert belts out an explanation.

The concept is clever. There are rooms (this is an odyssey, remember) for most of the world's great wine-producing regions. In France, there is a battered old Citroen 2CV and a video about the various Loire chateaux. In Argentina, there's climate control to make it too hot. In Italy, there are cut-outs of cathedrals and also Vespas which you can sit on and watch a screen that whizzes you past vineyards on winding roads. I want there to be a wind machine, too, and assorted small flies and mosquitoes flinging themselves against the scooter's windscreen.

Elsewhere there's an (electronic, obviously) interactive wine encyclopaedia to browse. The trouble is that it's not easy to make pictures of vineyards, pictures of grapes and wine bottles in glass cases interesting to look at. Being in a vineyard is about being on holiday and outside and drinking too much during the day without it mattering. So unsurprisingly, everyone congregates in the wine-tasting area at the end - which, I muse unkindly, is probably all they came here to do in the first place. Yet it's only now I realise that not only am I rather enjoying myself but that I've learnt lots, too. Well, did you know that the Greeks considered it barbaric to drink undiluted wine; or am I just a brain-dead oenophile?

Vinopolis, 1 Bank End, London SE1. Tickets can be booked through the Vinopolis Ticketmaster Hotline, 0870 444 7777

This article first appeared in the 26 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, I took tea with Pinochet