Newman Wine Vaults
(436 Water Street, St. John's)
The front facade of the building at 436 Water Street hides an architectural treasure, two massive brick and stone vaulted wine cellars, once used by the English mercantile firm of Newman and Company to age port wine.
© 1998 Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador
The origins of the practice of aging Newman's Port in Newfoundland dates back to 1679. According to tradition, in the fall of 1679 a Portuguese vessel loaded with port wine bound for London slipped its moorings. As it floated out to sea it encountered French privateers. The privateers drove the ship further off course and, in attempts to escape, it ventured out into the Atlantic. After weathering severe Atlantic storms, the captain decided to head for St. John's, where the ship stayed for the winter months. The cargo of port wine was safely stored in caves in the Southside Hills of St. John's.
The following spring the vessel finally completed its long, arduous journey to England. It was soon discovered that the port that had over-wintered in Newfoundland had acquired a bouquet, a smoothness and a flavour that it did not have before. From that point on, Newman and Company decided to age its port wine in Newfoundland. The practice continued at the wine vaults on Water Street from the early nineteenth century onwards. The wine was aged in the vaults by the Newman's until at least 1893, possibly until 1914.
The exact construction date of the vaults is unknown, but it is suspected to be around the early part of the nineteenth century. The builders constructed the vaults of stone and fired red brick. They tapered the bricks to fit the curve of the wall and bound them in place with lime mortar made from seashells. Between 1905 and 1907, the owners built a hydrostone block and stone building on top of the vaults to give them protection from the elements. It was the third such protective structure built over the top of the vaults.
Newman and Company later rented the vaults to a variety of tenants, including a tobacconist in 1919. It was later used as a bonded government warehouse by the Board of Liquor Control. The vaults last held port in 1966. After this, the port was aged at another Newfoundland location until 1996. In 1998 the Newfoundland Historic Trust hosted a "Farewell to Newman's" port tasting inside the vaults in honour of the last bottling of the product in Newfoundland. Although the wine is now aged in its native Portugal, the Newman Wine Vaults remain as the only existing intact historic wine vaults in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Today the building is on a long-term lease to the Newfoundland Historic Trust. The Trust has developed the vaults into a museum interpretation space dedicated to relating the colourful history of the liquor trade in Newfoundland. The vaults have also been used as a film location by local bands The Punters and Rawlins Cross for music video shoots. The structure has also hosted a production of Edgar Allen Poe's gothic tale, The Cask of Amontillado, which was produced by the Newfoundland Historic Trust as a fundraising benefit for the Newman Wine Vaults restoration project.
Because of the unique architecture and colourful history of the Newman Wine Vaults, the structure was designated a Registered Heritage Structure by the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador in May 1997.