by Tim Atkin

What went wrong at Vinopolis?

Is it really 16 years since Vinopolis opened its doors to the public? I can clearly remember the hoopla and sense of anticipation that accompanied the launch of London’s self-styled “premier wine tasting experience and visitor attraction”. If they’d handed them out on the night, I’d still have the t-shirt to prove it.

Big claims were made for Vinopolis back in 1999. This, we were assured by its owners and backers, would cement the city’s position at the centre of the wine world, attracting hordes of punters to the Southbank keen to learn about the difference between a Bordeaux and a claret, as Basil Fawlty once put it.

At least that was the theory. Right from the start, the reality was disappointing. Little attempt was made to engage the very consumers who were paying to visit the venue. From memory, the initial “world tour” began with a few amphorae and wall displays dedicated to winemaking in Egypt and Ancient Greece. Some equally fascinating material about the history of the London wine trade and a few photos of Masters of Wine subsequently replaced this.

The only vaguely novel thing about the tour, assuming you weren’t excited by a few signs in French or an old Renault 2CV, was the chance to sit on a Vespa and pretend you were driving through the hills of Chiantishire. There were wine tastings, of course, and some decent bottles on show, but it was all a bit conservative and predictable. What happened to the idea that wine can be fun?

Vinopolis didn’t carry on like that. In fact, in recent years, it got worse, morphing into a venue that appeared to make most of its money from corporate hospitality and private events and was less and less interested in wine. (Stag and hen parties are both mentioned on the website.) It added bars and restaurants, a few Enomatic machines and some half-decent wines, but the ambitions of the founders remained unfulfilled.

A premier visitor attraction it was not. The more Wineworld London tinkered with the format, attempting to keep their shareholders content, the less happy punters seemed to be. If you believe what people write on tripadvisor, Vinopolis was bombing, even before the decision earlier this week to pull the plug at the end of 2015. “Cold, clinical and boring”, wrote one visitor. “A money saving scheme…with no thought to the customer experiences,” added another.

It’s a sad moment when a project that’s part of the wine trade fails. Or as Vinopolis’ managing director Samantha Anderson would have it, realises that a “retail opportunity” is a “better proposition than a wine tour”. No one likes to hear about 180 people losing their jobs either, but I can’t help feeling that Vinopolis was misconceived from the start.

The Vinopolis experience was initially based on education rather than interaction. You were even given the sort of headset they hand out in museums and art galleries. This is fine, if the visual and audio material is arresting and innovative, but it wasn’t (give or take the Vespa). People were taught how to taste by an on-site expert, but even this felt a little pedestrian.

The world tour, however flawed, was better than the tasting zones that replaced it, where the emphasis seemed to be on how many glasses of wine your ticket would enable you to drink. The hen and stag party market again…

These days, it’s not enough just to put on a tasting. There are plenty of opportunities to sample wine for nothing – at your local Majestic, for example – so why would you pay £27 for seven small glasses and a self-guided tour? The answer to that is that not enough people did. The price was too high, the experience insufficiently special.

And yet there is a real hunger to learn about wine, at least in person. As the music industry has realised, the money is at the door rather than in CD sales. Punters may not spend much time reading books, magazines or newspaper columns about wine, partly because there is so much free information on the internet, but they are more than happy to go to events, providing they feel they’re getting decent value and (just as important) having a good time.

If the event can also teach them a thing or two – a chat with a winemaker or a master class perhaps – then even better. People are interested in things beyond the wine in their glass, especially if it’s presented in a way that doesn’t bore or patronise them, but most of all they are looking for an experience.

Vinopolis never really provided that. In short, it didn’t give visitors the chance to engage with wine in a memorable way. It was, and remains, a great venue in an equally great location, but the project itself was a missed opportunity. People were ready to listen, all right. It was the message that was wrong.

Originally published in Harpers

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