Beaujolais City

Dominique Vorillon

Georges Duboeuf, thinks big. The man they call the King of Beaujolais started out as a physical education teacher and has ended up as a wine producer and (most of all) negociant, selling about two out of every ten bottles of beaujolais produced. The Duboeuf brand is featured in premium wine shops and on the best restaurant lists all over the world. He ships more than 30 million bottles of beaujolais (plus some wines from other parts of France) per year.

Just when one would have thought that there was nothing left for the man to prove, that it was time for him to play a few rounds of golf and rest on his vine-leaf laurels, Duboeuf launched a $7-million, 30,000-square-foot tourist attraction—part theme park, part museum, part tasting room, and part history lesson—called Le Hameau du Vin, or The Wine Hamlet, located in Romaneche-Thorins, about 24 miles north of Lyon.

A lot of people—especially Duboeuf's competitors—expected the venture to flop. But in its first year, the Hameau received 80,000 visitors, each paying about $10 to $14 for admission. Since then, more than a million people have visited the park, which is surprisingly tasteful and informative. For anyone the least bit interested in wine, beaujolais and otherwise, it is a very agreeable stop for an hour and a half or so.

Le Hameau du Vin, part of the Romaneche-Thorins train station, occupies one immense building and looks like a cross between a fin-de-siecle music hall and Grand Central Station, with trains coming and going and people rushing to catch them. Surprisingly, mentions of Duboeuf products are kept to a minimum—an example of what they call discreet branding in the beverage trade—and customers don't get stung by the corporate message until they wander into the gift shop on their way out.

What they do get is well-presented information and displays, in French and English (the explanation of the different soils found in Beaujolais is particularly well done, with samples of sands with varying degrees of chalkiness), including such winemaking curiosities as ancient winepresses and corkscrews. There are also puppet shows, a wax museum, short films, and tastings of beaujolais and maconnais wines, with a look at a barrel-filled aging cellar thrown in for good measure. It all looks very smart too. As our guide confided to me in hushed tones, "Even the gravel between the barrels is raked every morning."