Grape expectations

Vinopolis, City of Wine, will open the doors of its glass and steel entrance on London’s South Bank next month. As a concept, it hopes to cash in on the growing popularity of wine, and from a design perspective, it is both exciting and bold. The aim is to transform the disused Victorian wine vaults at Bankside into the world’s most important wine venue. The plans are making full use of an area covering more than a hectare, under the arches of Cannon Street Railway Bridge and facing the Thames – London’s fastest-growing tourism area.

Vinopolis is the first visitor attraction totally dedicated to the world of wine. It will cover every conceivable aspect of the grape, exploring its relationship with food, culture, and art history via a multimedia tour called the Wine Odyssey, and taking visitors through the history of wine using interactive information satellites and personal audio guides.

Vinopolis is a perfect example of a mixed-use site, integrating leisure and retail. As well as the exhibition space, it also boasts grand tasting halls, four restaurants, (two to open in July and two to open next year), banqueting venues, a contemporary art collection, the Hess Collection, and a Vinopolis Vaults Majestic Wine Store, leading into an upmarket retail avenue.

Costing £23m and nearly ten years in the planning, it is a breathtaking approach to what was previously regarded as a stuffy, elitist field. But can it popularise wine without eroding its cachet? And is such a highly-branded themed environment commercially viable?

The concept is the creation of Wineworld London. Managing director Tony Hodges says Vinopolis is aimed at: “Anyone and everyone who enjoys wine. Eleven million people in this country drink a bottle of wine a week or more, nearly double what it was ten years ago.”

Hodges, a former adman, is a strategic branding and marketing consultant. Vinopolis, he says, is a totally integrated brand creation, with identity and graphics designed by Lewis Moberly. “It’s unusual in the leisure and tourism industry that a graphic approach to branding is a foundation stone of the enterprise – but this was a deliberate move with Vinopolis,” he says.

The original idea, conceived by Wineworld executive director Duncan Vaughan-Arbuckle more than a decade ago, was for a theme museum of wine. A major wholesaler of wines, Vaughan-Arbuckle discovered the site, comprising 9300sqm of disused arches close to Southwark Cathedral, and saw its potential.

As Hodges says: “The arches are a designer’s dream, 8m high, a series of cathedral spaces. But it was much too big for a mere museum and we realised that wine, food, travel and shopping are all burgeoning areas, and London is the crossroads of the world’s wine trade. So we developed a business plan that incorporated all these income streams.”

At the end of l995, Wineworld selected Jasper Jacob Associates as lead design consultant on Vinopolis, and Lewis Moberly was brought on board for the brand identity. “We started designing the brand identity in parallel with the exhibition design work, and the research showed we had a great integrated concept,” says Hodges.

The lips, glass, nose symbol, devised by Mary Lewis and her team at Lewis Moberly, is, says Hodges, perfect for such integration. “It will be used for everything, from internal signs to on-site literature. It works perfectly with the design strategy for the interior, a balance of information and fun with a cultural focus.”

Most of the 20 vast rooms inside Vinopolis are themed to a different country, using interactive audio-visual guides. “In the Italian Room, for instance, there are half a dozen Vespas. The visitor climbs on the Vespa to get a commentary on the audio guide; on the windscreen they watch a film tour of the wine and food regions of Tuscany and Piedmont,” explains Hodges.

Funding for the concept is largely from 400 private investors, plus a £2.5m investment by the Government urban regeneration agency, English Partnerships. Income will be derived from a number of sources. Visitors pay £l0 entrance fee, which includes five free tastings. Ticket sales, estimated to generate £5m per annum in the first four years, will make up around 40 per cent of projected income. There are many other ways of generating revenue, such as corporate hospitality. “We have six brilliant hospitality venues, seating up to 400 people, and we’re building gallery space for all kinds of functions. So that’s our second main income stream,” Hodges adds.

The third revenue stream is sponsorship. Hodges cites examples such as Piaggio, the Vespa-maker, and Seguimoreau, world-renowned barrel maker, and Vinopolis’ official cooper. Wine tasting is another source of sponsorship, “an important sampling opportunity for the wine producers of the world”, says Hodges.

Retailing will also create revenue. Nearly half the 750sqm of retail space is devoted to a giant Majestic Wine Store, the biggest in the UK. The other half, which has interiors by Studio Hagger, will sell books, CD-ROMs, glassware, accessories and gourmet foods: “Everything a wine lover might want, including glasses designed by Hugh Johnson or corkscrews branded by Screwpull”, Hodges adds.

The two completed restaurants, designed by Jestico and Whiles – the main Cantina Vinopolis (sited by the front entrance) and the Root and Branch Wine Bar (on Stoney Street) – will also boost revenue. And there are three levels of club membership: Club Vinopolis, essentially a loyalty club; the Vinopolis Society, an industry club with its own clubroom; and a Founders Club. E-commerce will be phased in next year.

The idea, says Hodges, has attracted attention worldwide; a separate site is to open in California, in two years’ time. And he is adamant that it is the design of Vinopolis that links everything it offers. “I really believe we have leading-edge exhibition design here,” he says.

DESIGN

Budget for fitting out: £7m

Design consultant: Jasper Jacob Associates created the concept scheme for the exterior, in conjunction with architect Hunter & Partners.

Jasper Jacob says: ‘What excited us spatially were these fantastic arches; some of the most Piranesian spaces in London; the brick vaults are absolutely stunning.’

The overall aim was to keep very close to the association with wine. ‘So we’ve left the brick arches as a backdrop. And we’ve introduced durable materials like matt stainless steel for display mounts, as well as wood from wine barrels for other display mounts,’ he says.

Flooring varies throughout; in some areas there are wood floors or linoleum; in others flooring is made from crushed wine bottles. ‘This is a very ecologically interesting idea – dark green wine bottles are crushed with an epoxy mix to create a very hard-wearing material.’

In the Odyssey itself, the overall aesthetic is a different feel for each country: modern vibrant colours are used in many themes.

‘For instance, we used bright oranges and yellows in Argentina; there’s a fantastic rust feel display relating to the Andes,’ says Jacob.

‘There were technical problems with being under a railway line, so all our electrical equipment had to be very carefully specified. But it’s one of the most exciting projects I’ve worked on for a long time.’

SITE MANAGEMENT

Opening Day: 23 July

Wineworld Operations Director: John Lowther, who has been involved with the project for more than two years.

Lowther says: ‘I’ve let the design lead it, there’s no point in having something working perfectly in the operational sense if it’s boring. This is not an easy facility to operate because the site area itself is congested. But the entrance on Park Street is designed to reduce congestion. And a lot of the sets for the individual countries are built off-site (by Kimpton Walker) which makes it less complicated.’

Lowther points out that Vinopolis is quite a low-cost project for London. ‘The site already existed. If you tried to buy a site this size in London and then build on it, it would cost £40-50m. We managed to get a 60-year lease with Railtrack; our rent is a percentage of the turnover.’

RETAIL INTERIORS

Budget: £300 000 for a total of almost 460sqm retail space.

James Hagger at Studio Hagger says: ‘We were effectively designing the last element in the entire experience, so we didn’t want to end on a whimper. It had to be as exciting as the attraction itself.’ The retail area is split into three halls. Flooring throughout is power-floated concrete for a smooth finish. ‘All the focus is on the product and the space it sits in,’ says Hagger.

The first hall is devoted to glassware. ‘Here we created a visual magnet, a giant illuminated cone, 7m tall; then the visitor moves through a smaller arch to a space where antique decanters and giftware are sold,’ says Hagger. To add sparkle, fibre optics have been used in the ceiling of the glass hall, with metal halide spotlights elsewhere.

The second retail hall is for books, CDs, souvenirs and accessories. ‘The big feature there is the 8m-high wall of books,’ says Hagger.

The third hall, a lower space, sells food and wine. ‘We’ve used a lot of galvanised steel and plywood throughout. We’ve tried to make the shopfitting fairly recessive, so that the products stand out,’ says Hagger.

IDENTITY

Identity consultant: Mary Lewis, with designers Nin Glaister and Ann Marshall at Lewis Moberly.

Lewis says: ‘Vinopolis is a designer’s dream. It’s a very shrewd, far-seeing marketing vision. Historically, we’re a beer-swilling nation – here was a brand new venture that was trying to change the perceptions of wine and its imagery.

‘If you look at the marques of most wine brands, they have a certain formality, but this was a marque to reach out to everyone. So the identity comes from the physical pleasures of wine, you see it, smell and taste it.’

‘The face symbol is a smiley logo, it reaches out to you to shake you by the hand. By using a figurative abstract marque, it is extended quite easily, for example, on to carrier bags.’

The branding extends through the literature, product packaging, a Vinopolis book, the building facia and signs. ‘The signs have been very exciting because the image has lent itself so readily to stretching; it’s got “legs”,’ says Lewis.

The logo also brands the entire space of the Vinopolis building. ‘The handwriting is very important; there’s a feel that one hand alone has done this,’ she adds.

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