Chester Osborn's five-storey visitor’s centre to give visitors an extraordinary experience of his winesby Barry Smith / November 16, 2017 / Leave a comment
The world of wine can be intimidating to newcomers. How do they gain access to this closed world? How do they learn to read a label, discover characteristics of different grapes, and begin to feel at home?
If more people are to take up wine as their passion, alternatives must be found to the traditional format of an expert standing in front of a group of shy tasters telling them what they should think. How useful would you find it to be told that this is a tight-knit claret from the Left Bank, with a linear structure, showing abundant tannins and a hint of volatile acidity?
Things are much better than they once were. There are plenty of opportunities for learning about wine in user-friendly tastings. However, more and more wine makers and merchants are looking for ways to give tasters an experience where they can learn for themselves and avoid jargon. All that’s needed is a way to help people focus on how their senses of touch, taste and smell respond to different aspects of a wine. The psychologist Charles Spence and I have conducted such sensory tastings in which people feel part of both an experience and an experiment. But how far can one go?
Someone pushing the bounds of the multisensory exploration of wine is Chester Osborn, owner and winemaker at d’Arenberg winery in south Australia. He has built a five-storey visitor’s centre to give visitors an extraordinary, multisensory experience of his wines. The building, which rises high above the McLaren Vale, is modelled on a Rubik’s Cube with its sides partly rotated. Osborn explained that he has dreamed of building something like this since he was a boy.
Visitors approach the Cube through a corridor of vines, listening to a live data feed of the weather from the vineyards. The Cube sits on a mirrored base to give it the appearance of floating in the air. In one room, visitors sit at a table surrounded by film projections of the vineyards, giving them the impression of being in the landscape. In an adjacent room there is, somewhat questionably, a projection of a naked woman lying in a wheelbarrow of grapes, the top of her head sliced like a boiled egg out of which fruits and flowers rise, as she contemplates the tastes of the wine.
Upstairs is a kitchen and dining area for special events, and on the floor above, a bar with adjacent up-turned television screens as the countertops, in which you watch a mermaid leaping from one screen to another. Finally, on the top floor there’s a more relaxed tasting area with winged armchairs clad in Osborn’s multi-coloured fabrics. The light fittings in the mirrored stairwells are bunches of grapes, while in the lift the walls feature filmed projections of the vineyards as you rise above them. And the bathrooms? I won’t spoil the surprise.
Multisensory it is, and humorous too. It will attract visitors but is it, as Osborn hopes, a new way to bring people into closer contact with wine? That’s not so clear. It felt more like getting a glimpse inside Osborn’s head than it did a way of getting closer to the refined wines he produces at d’Arenberg.
But whatever else it is, it will attract all sorts of people who haven’t already connected with wine, giving them a fully sensory encounter with a rather special wine maker’s fantasy. It will be fascinating to see what reactions it provokes in the world of wine and beyond. The question is whether it signals an end to those traditional wine dinners, or whether it will be seen as a mere amuse bouche.