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Newman Wine Vaults have a spirited past.

Apparitions abound in St. John's, NL. From the phantom of a fatal duel to the headless victim of a jealous lover, a gruesome gaggle of ghosts inhabits the oldest city in North America. Yet in the Newman Wine Vaults, the only resident spirits were those in the port that was aged there for almost two centuries.

The historic Newman wine warehouse, on Water Street, may be short on spooks, but there's something strangely crypt-like about the barred windows in the arched doors, and the semi-circular curve of the vaulted ceiling. Rusty bolts and barrel staves contribute to a subterranean ambiance that makes the vaults a fitting venue for tales by the likes of Edgar Allen Poe and the Brothers Grimm. "It's a place that makes it easy to get into character," says Newfoundland actor Chris Hibbs. "The air is so still that my voice develops a raspy quality - perfect for blood-curdling screams."

In addition to their recent popularity as a playhouse, the wine vaults have their own historic cast of characters, and a plot line that's as colourful and rich as the port that was stored there. The story begins on a dark and stormy night in the fall of 1679 when, after successfully eluding an attack by French privateers, a British merchant ship owned by Newman & Company took a wrong turn in the wind - tossed waters of the mid-Atlantic. Once safely sheltered in St. John's, the captain concealed his precious cargo of Portuguese port until he sailed home in the spring. Whether the result of being tossed more than usual at sea or a winter exposed to Maritime air, the port seemed remarkably improved when it was eventually uncorked back in England - a happy turn of events that prompted an almost 300-year tradition of maturing Newman's port in Newfoundland.

For the first hundred or so years, Newman & Company stored the port in the cellars of its fishing premises in Harbour Breton and St. John's. Eventually the company built the wine vaults on Water Street, where a rowdy mix of taverns and tippling houses made an appropriate setting for a wine business. The two vaulted wine cellars were constructed from stone, red brick and mortar made from seashells. To protect the vaults from the elements, a separate wooden shed was built to enclose them.

After the outer shed burned in 1887, it was replaced it with another enclosure; the existing warehouse, made from rubble stone, bricks and hydrostone blocks, was built in the early 20th century.

Although the exact age of the inner vaults is uncertain, they were likely constructed in the late 1700s. Memorial University professor Robert Barakat collected archaeological data and materials at the site in the 1970s; in company documents he discovered a reference made in 1786 to a building in St. John's where "wine stores are shipped." There is no conclusive evidence to identify this building as the Newman Wine Vaults, but it is certainly plausible. After all, if legend can be believed, the vaults were already well established in 1815, when officers on board HMS Bellerophon are said to have toasted the surrender of Napoleon Bonaparte with port that was aged in the Water Street premises.

For most Newfoundlanders, port was a luxury reserved for special occasions, a fact that goes a long way in explaining the commotion in 1937 when a barrel of port broke in a fall from a horse-drawn cart. As the coveted liquid ran down Water Street, a boisterous crowd gathered, reputedly admonishing teamster Richard Bambrick to pick up his mug and take a drink before it all ran away. More than the spectators' high spirits was dampened when the mayor instructed the fire department to hose down the cobblestones, sluicing half a ton of Newman's Port into Beck's Cove.

Gordon Bastow missed the excitement of that spill, but the following year he landed a job that took him inside the Newman Wine Vaults as a customs agent for Baine, Johnston & Company, a Scottish merchant firm acting for the Newman family. Bastow's first visit to the vaults made a lasting impression. "It was dark," he says. "The only light was from a 40-watt bulb and I had to grope my way around." The barred windows at the top of the high ceiling were open to the elements, and the only warmth came from the dirt floor. "It was cold and dank…. There was no attempt to heat it. That would have been detrimental to the wine."

At the time, Bastow was 17. He had a high school diploma, a rudimentary knowledge of French and Latin, and one year of business school under his belt. "Jobs were difficult to get in Newfoundland in 1938," says Bastow, now 88. "The world was just out of the Depression and we were the poorest of the poor."

Import and export duties were an important source of revenue for the Dominion of Newfoundland. When port arrived from Portugal in tapered oak barrels called pipes, the pipes were gauged and measured twice, once when they arrived at the wharf and once when they reached Newman's Wine Vaults. It was Bastow's job to verify the volume recorded for each barrel. "We made sure that nobody had swiped any along the way," he says.

Security was clearly a priority: the door to the wine vaults had three locks, and three people each held keys. All three had to be present to unlock the door. Despite these precautions, one employee managed to take a few sips from bottles reserved for the church.Gordon Bastow had a drink as well, on a hot August afternoon in 1938. "We had just returned from the wharf with a large shipment and we were gauging the pipes by inserting a hollow glass rod into the bung holes. Someone drained the rods into a metal bucket and I took a few sips to help pass the afternoon. That was my first drink - other than what I'd had in church."

Before joining the services, Bastow did the paperwork for the last shipment of port that arrived from Portugal prior to the Second World War. After the war he went back to work for Baine, Johnston & Company, as a cashier, but he didn't return to Newman Wine Vaults until 2001 as a visitor, when the province opened them to the public as an interpretive museum.

There have been many changes since Bastow last measured port there, but the vaults are essentially intact. And on a foggy, bone-chilling night with a dramatic tale of terror in full swing on the makeshift stage, the spirits appear remarkably friendly.

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