This stop on Nancy and Louis’ National Historic Site tour has your intrepid adventurers in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
The timing of our recent visit to Canada’s most easterly province was serendipitous. St. John’s was hosting its annual “Doors Open” weekend. As in other cities across the country, many of St. John’s historic, architectural and cultural gems were opened to the public, free of charge.
High on our list of “must-sees” was the Newman Wine Vaults on historic Water Street, which runs adjacent to St. John’s busy harbor.
Even from the wee snippet of information advertised about The Vaults, we knew we were in for something very, very special.
Pirates and Gales
Let’s turn the clock back to the year 1679. A Portuguese shipping vessel, loaded with port wine and bound for England slips its mooring. It drifts dangerously into unknown ocean territory.
French pirates, bent on plunder pursue the ship. She outruns them, but in the course of the chase, strays further and further off course. Now in the mid-Atlantic, she’s battered by fierce storms. Eventually the ship is blown towards the coast of the rugged island called Newfoundland.
With crew and ship tattered, and the gales of winter blowing, the Captain decides to put into port. They’ll sit tight through the winter. The precious wine cargo, ageing in wooden barrels is unloaded.
Guided by helpful Newfoundlanders, the crew is directed to caves which have been burrowed into the hills near the settlement of St. John’s. There the sailors store the barrels.
Spring ice breakup sees the ship’s Captain making plans to deliver his load to England. The ship sets out across the fickle Atlantic. This time, ship, crew and cargo reach their destination.
An Unexpected Pleasure
What’s this? Uncorked, the Portuguese port wine, over-wintered in the cool caves of St. John’s, Newfoundland has acquired a more pleasing bouquet. The beverage has also grown a new smoothness and a sweeter flavour.
No slouches, Newman and Company of London, the distributor of the beverage make a bold decision. Henceforth, all Newman’s port wine will age a winter in the cool, damp caves of St. John’s, Newfoundland.
And so, over the next century, Newman’s Port Wine makes the trip from Portugal to Newfoundland to London before it is sold to discriminating fine wine buyers.
Sprucing Newman’s Up
Not until the early 1800’s, are improvements made in Newman’s rustic cave storage space. The curved cave walls are covered with fired red brick. Lime mortar, fashioned from crushed seashells holds the brick in place.
Sometime later, a protective block and stone shelter is constructed over the vaults. The Newman Wine Vaults has become the historic building visitors see today.
The St. John’s Vaults remained in business until 1966. At that time, the location was abandoned for another more modern facility. Newman remained in Canada until 1996.
At this time a “Farewell to Newman’s” Port-tasting event was held inside the original vaults. It honoured the last bottling of the product in Newfoundland.
Stepping into a Time Machine
“It’s like stepping into a time machine to the distant past,” I say to Louis as we step through the heavy wooden doors to the Vaults. As historically dazzled as I am, my spouse readily agrees.
Both born, raised and living in Southern Ontario where old is represented mid-19th century buildings, we have not seen old–this old—in Canada before.
“This was here almost two centuries before Canada became a nation,” I comment. Our wonder grows as we go further.
Bigger and Taller Now
While the weathered red kiln bricks and the smooth stone walls speak loudly about “age,” it’s the doorways of The Newman Vaults that reinforce the mood of antiquity.
“People were so much shorter two centuries ago than they are now,” I observe. I have to duck to move from room to room. The doorways are no more than 5 feet 6 inches high.
One tiny room is a particular curiosity. Furnished with stout iron bars, it was the domain of the Customs Officials who verified the amount of alcohol content and the volume of the wine. As every barrel was of a different size and thickness, this was no quick or easy task.
Imagining “The Life”
A journey through The Newman Vault invites the imagination to blossom.
“Imagine the hard lives of the sailors who carried all those heavy barrels in here,” I suggest to Louis. “Bad food, bad beds and no showers.” “And good luck if you get sick,” he adds.”
A scene from the film Master and Commander dances through my mind. After a crew member suffers a life-threatening head injury, the ship’s doctor, an imaginative soul, fills the head hole with a silver coin.
Back to the Present
The return to present day St. John’s after our voyage into the past is a jarring one. Only a few hundred meters away, a massive cruise ship is pulling into the Harbour.
It’s the Eurodam, the largest vessel in Holland America’s luxury Cruise line. Towering 11 decks above the water, 800 crew members cater to every whim of the 2100 passengers.
The leap between the past and present seems almost too great to contemplate.