Walking along the south bank of the Thames in London is springtime is an exhilarating experience. Entirely refurbished over the past few years, what was once an industrial wasteland has become a masterpiece, albeit in several pieces. The Bankside stretch between Blackfriars Bridge and Southwark Bridge is simply brilliant, with attractions galore. Across the river, muddy but much, much cleaner than it once was, rises the elegant dome of Sir Christopher Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, which pedestrians can reach across the no longer wobbly span of the Millennium Footbridge. We’ve been to Shakespearean plays at The Globe, enjoyed a drink in any of a dozen waterfront pubs, visited the original prison on Clink Street, toured the replica of Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind, shopped in the Borough Market and peered at the latest art installations in the Tate Modern.
This day, however, we’re meeting with Duncan Vaughan-Arbuckle at Vinopolis. He’s the creator of the museum and is guiding us on a personal tour. Duncan’s vision was extraordinary, considering that when he first came across the site it was merely a series of arches beneath a massive railway bridge. Other major local attractions were also merely ideas at the time. The viaduct’s elegant Victorian brickwork was stained by a century of neglect and the ground was littered with decades of detritus from winos and other even less salubrious types. During his career as a wine merchant, in the days long before everyone was an expert, Duncan fielded countless queries about wine and always dreamed about having an exhibit where all these questions could be answered.
It took him years before he could find the right spot, and then a decade to finance and build it, but finally in 1999 it opened. His background in theatre inspired him to create a series of tableaux representing popular wine regions and the three acre site allowed him the space to build great rooms devoted to the pursuit of wine.
Now, a decade later, he’s showing us around and we spend an amiable afternoon wandering through the wine tour exhibits, endlessly refreshed glasses of wine in hand, reading, listening and enquiring. Courtesy of Duncan, we have use of his life pass, which gives us enough opportunities to enjoy whatever we want, in moderation of course. But regular visitors can purchase a pass to suit their needs and taste a revolving repertoire of wines from around the world and make new discoveries or sample old favourites, against a background of detailed information on every aspect of wine and winemaking. After our tour, we stop for a glass of champagne in the bar and then an excellent meal in the Cantina restaurant, one of several on-site.
In both spots, we’re amazed at the number of parties of over-excited young women, dressed in pink and many wearing strange accompaniments, like frilly ballerina frocks or top hats. Turns out, this is a very popular spot for “hen parties,” which we are told is the name for celebrations of those about to be married. The ladies certainly know about celebrating.
Duncan had plans to expand to places such as Toronto, Shanghai and Mumbai, but sadly he was stricken by a massive heart attack shortly after a visit to Toronto, and his dream was never realized. More of this later.
Meanwhile, our wine journey through England takes us into the New Forest in search of the world’s top sommelier. Like Duncan, Gerard Basset has been involved in the wine business most of his life. He founded and then sold the successful Hotel du Vin chain.
Now, he and his wife Nina own the pretty little boutique Hotel Terravina. In 2010 Gerard was officially declared “Best Sommelier in the World” and was also recently awarded the OBE by the Queen. Diane has chatted on the phone with Nina, and we are not surprised by her bubbly personality, but we are nervous about meeting a wine expert as eminent as Gerard. Turns out he’s absolutely charming and unpretentious. After getting lost down little country lanes and arriving somewhat late for dinner, Nina and Gerard welcome us like old friends. We are shown a prime spot in their newly refurbished dining room and offered outstanding cuisine from their kitchen. Nina drops by from time to time and Gerard spends a few minutes with us in between running a very high end wine course in a private room. Diane checks out the beautifully presented and comfortable rooms and we decide this is definitely somewhere we’d like to stay another time.
Those who know me well will recall that I don’t drink wine any longer (I like it, but it doesn’t like me) and wonder what I’m doing meeting the cream of the wine world. A business proposition is the answer. Duncan has proposed that Diane and I take up where he left off in his quest to expand the Vinopolis vision. He’s done a ton of research in southern Ontario and determined that Toronto is the best spot for a version of his wine tour. He gives us piles of paper, a list of contacts and a letter of intent and off we go, our enthusiasm as bright and shiny as a newly minted loonie.
With help from his contacts we meet the folk from The Distillery District and find the perfect location. The connection to such an historic drinks-related site is obvious. The site would also be ideal for a boutique hotel, hence our journey to meet Gerard and Nina, whose expertise we also engage. Others come on board and we get the seal of approval from all the right people at city hall. We talk to architects and get our creative juices flowing.
Then comes the first hitch. Turns out Duncan has lost control of Vinopolis after his heart attack and no longer has the rights to the brand. The holding company is called Wine World, so that name is out too. One of Diane’s old colleagues is another Brit, Canada’s pre-eminent wine writer Tony Aspler and kicking around ideas over a meal one day, we show him our list of about 50 names in consideration. “Corks” is top of the list, but Tony’s suggestion is brilliant: “Spell it with an X.” We duly register Corx® as a trademark, which we own today. Tony sends us on a journey through the vineyards of the Niagara peninsular, where Ontario’s wine industry has come of age.
We meet Ed Madronich, at the time head of the Ontario Wine Council and founder and owner of Flat Rock Cellars. He loves everything about our proposals and promises full support, except for one thing. Ed bottles all his wine with screw caps. Corks are anathema to the modern wine maker, he says. We spend a very pleasant afternoon on the terrace overlooking his vineyards, tasting his latest offerings and enjoying the view, which reaches all the way to Toronto’s skyline in the far distance across Lake Ontario. Ed also endorses the idea of locating our wine experience in the city, as to build it in the heart of Ontario’s wineries would draw people away from their individual wine shops, the only way most of them can sell to the public. Did someone mention the Liquor Board of Ontario and massive government monopoly where small output wineries cannot get a foot in the door?
We meet the folks from the LCBO. From the outset, they love the idea of our Corx® Wine Experience and much to our surprise give it full support. They are very keen on our location too and we start talks to partner with them on a high end wine outlet on-site. A developer comes on board and we have our financing in place. We are cooking right along when the second hitch (actually about the 100th, but the second big hitch) stops us in our tracks. The Ontario Realty Corporation (now Infrastructure Ontario) owns the abandoned red brick warehouse we have our eye on. It’s the perfect size, in the perfect location on the periphery of The Distillery District, but not part of that private enterprise site, and has been unoccupied for 15 years. As a brownfield industrial property we’d get massive tax concessions. Nobody wants it but us. But new rules means they can’t unload it without an environmental survey. We don’t think this will be a big deal, and even offer to pay the cost. But they’re government and cannot allow it. The survey isn’t budgeted in the current fiscal year, perhaps next year or the one after. The wait nearly kills us.
Fortunately, we have another avenue for our enthusiasm. A Canadian restaurateur in Shanghai, an acquaintance of Diane’s, sees an opportunity to bring our operation to that booming city. The newly wealthy residents of that city know very little about wine, but love luxury brands. Seems like a match made in heaven. After months of searching he finds the perfect place in the former English Rowing Club on The Bund. We expend a lot of time and energy re-purposing all our materials for presentations in Shanghai and yet again, everyone loves the idea.
Now for the perfect storm. Within a few weeks we lose the site in Shanghai (the government wants to put a jazz club there) and the ORC completes the environmental study on our site in Toronto. They decide not to release the site or the study. We can only conclude that it is too heavily polluted and will cost too much for them to fix.
We decide we’ve put enough energy, time and money into the two projects. It is time to shut it down and move on. We call everyone to tell them the news, thank our volunteers and donors, close the website and the bank account, shutter the companies and put the files in boxes. But we do know a lot more about wine than before, and on our journey we’ve met some truly interesting people. We’ll stay in touch and visit them again over the years.
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