How Wine Became Modern


Whether you consider wine to be an elite status symbol, a humble partner to food or an aid to social integration at the dinner table, a new exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art suggests the cultural context of wine is a subject ripe for exploration.

How Wine Became Modern: Design + Wine 1976 to Now marks the first time a major art museum has attempted to catalogue the relationship between wine and modern culture. Curated by Henry Urbach in collaboration with New York–based architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the show uses the 1976 Judgment of Paris—widely touted as a victory of California wines over their French counterparts—as its starting point, rendered as a photo&ndashrealist interpretation of da Vinci’s The Last Supper. It moves on to a large-format photo series by Mitch Epstein, commissioned for the exhibit, in which each frame is an action shot at a winery in Napa or Sonoma, combined with subtle commentary: It implies that visitors to set-piece wineries like the Egyptian-themed Darioush or Castello di Amarosa, with its crenellated medieval walls, aspire to far more than a wine tasting. Thirty-four years after victory in Paris, modern Napa, the photos suggest, falls somewhere between Disneyland and Las Vegas, home to a new kind of tourism that’s as much a destination of the imagination as anything else.

This show also may be the first time that an art museum has gathered a micro-oxygenation machine, packets of yeasts, enzymes, flavor enhancers, oak chips and Mega Purple together, presented here in a section on modern winemaking. Quotations from figures like vintner Paul Draper and writers Matt Kramer, Alice Feiring and Mike Steinberger are displayed on the viewing glass to provide some insight as to why a winemaker might or might not decide to use these methods. It’s the most succinct and compelling summary of the natural wine debate yet.

Elsewhere, the exhibition covers label design, winery architecture and glassware and decanters, the selection of which demonstrates how thoroughly high-concept design has penetrated the wine world. An entire room is given over to media as well, with clips of wine-related scenes from television and film along with artifacts like back issues of The Wine Advocate and the cult Japanese wine manga Drops of God. As pop culture ephemera, these items are interesting, but they tend to lose significance in context. You can’t really compare Robert Parker’s scores for 2005 Bordeaux, for instance, with a viewing of Dennis Adams’s Spill, in which the artist, dressed in a white suit and holding a glass filled with red wine, walks through Bordeaux recounting some of the city’s darker historical moments, the wine spilling as his anger rises.

Then again, inspiring that kind of comparison is what this exhibit is all about.

This story was featured in W&S April 2011.

Based in San Francisco, Wolfgang Weber was the Italian wine critic at W&S. He now works with the Revel Wine and Selection Massale, and continues to write freelance. Nebbiolo is his spirit grape but if he were to live anywhere in Italy, he’d choose Liguria.


This story appears in the print issue of April 2011.
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