Wine as a Cultural Nexus

Sna Francisco Museum of Modern Art explores the wine boom from a different angle
Nov 19, 2010

At first the idea was simple, to pull together an exhibition of wine-related architecture and design. But the more Henry Urbach thought about it, the more he was struck by how much wine had seeped into our culture. Urbach, curator of architecture and design for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), let the exhibition morph into something much broader. It opens Saturday and runs through April 27, 2011.

“How Wine Became Modern: Design + Wine 1976 to Now,” is not about bottles and labels, although they are part of it, nor is it about winery architecture or glass design, although those are in it too.

“It evolved into something that would allow the world of wine to become a mirror of our culture,” Urbach said as we walked through the exhibition space on the fifth floor of the museum across from Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco. “I asked myself, ‘What is it about wine that it seems to connect with so much else in our culture?’”

That, it turns out, is such a big question that even this show can’t do it full justice. Any single room could expand into its own exhibition. But it covers a tremendous range of ideas in a tight space. “Design affects wine’s accrued value,” Urbach mused at one point. “But it also works the other way. Wine has affected design.”

As if to underscore that point, the first thing you see at the entrance is a maze of connected dots that wraps around a curved wall floor to ceiling. Berkeley artist Peter Wegner found more than 200 paint colors inspired by wine, and organized them into a fascinating art piece.

To its right, bottles of Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 1973 and Stag’s Leap Cabernet 1973, spotlighted behind glass like objects of art, flank a copy of the June 7, 1976, Time magazine open to a short one-column storyby George M. Taber titled, “The Judgment of Paris.” The story described how these California wines outperformed their classic French counterparts in a blind tasting. On an adjacent wall, a mural done in hyper-realist style shows the tasting in progress in a visual nod to Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper.

Though the story didn't make much of a splash at the time, in retrospect it took on mythic status, a watershed moment when the New World of wine served notice on the Old World. “It was part of a much larger series of developments around the same time,” Urbach pointed out, “including globalization, communications, travel and more. But it’s as good a starting point as any.”

Around the corner, in the Terroir display, soil samples from 17 individual vineyards around the world come from the stones of Cloudy Bay in New Zealand, the clay loam of To-Kalon in California, the mixed soils of Erath in Oregon and flat slate of J.J. Prüm in Germany. Plaques detail soil composition, climate data and altitude for each site, and computer readouts display current weather conditions.

A room devoted to wine design ranges from a grafted grapevine and its roots suspended in mid-air to a glassed-in table drenched in red wine and filled with modern wine glasses. Wall recesses show three elegantly long-necked decanters by Riedel and several eye-catching multi-branched carafes by the artist Etienne Meneau.

A wall of 200 bottles focuses on label design, arranged not by wine types or country of origin but into categories such as “Understated,” “Sex” and “Sport.” Across the room is a label of another kind. Displayed all by itself like an art piece is a double magnum Burgundy bottle sporting a Domaine de la Romanée-Conti label, vintage 1946. It’s a fake. DRC did not make a 1946.

The most audacious alcove delves into another aspect of design—how vintners can manipulate wine to make it what they want. Behind a window with a quote from Wine Spectator columnist Matt Kramer (“Despite their seeming openness, many wine producers are reluctant to reveal how they make their wines”), the display artistically arranges bags of oak chips, a micro-oxygenating device and containers of chemicals used in winemaking. On the opposite wall, a 2007 art piece by Nicolas Boulard titled Delicately Woody lines up 12 bottles of Chardonnay with increasing quantities of oak chips in them, the colors ranging from pale gold to dark amber.

The largest space focuses on wine country lifestyle, including architectural models and silent films of showcase wineries in Bordeaux, Spain and Napa Valley. Michael Graves’ “temple to wine,” Clos Pegase in Napa Valley, was an assignment  the architect got by winning a competition organized by SFMOMA in 1984. Frank Gehry’s mind-bending Marqués de Riscal hotel in Rioja is also shown.

The design for the innovative exhibition, by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, scores its most ingenious coup with the Smell Wall. Visitors squeeze a bulb attached to various decanters to sniff the aromas that emerge from wines, each associated with a word used in describing wine. I found gooseberry (Sauvignon Blanc) and petrol (Riesling) more revealing than bell pepper or hamster cage.

“We insisted that [a visitor] had to come close to wine in at least one place,” Urbach said. The wines, chosen by sommelier Christie Dufault of the Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning RN74 in San Francisco, are changed daily.

Several art pieces fit neatly into the show, including Spill, a film by Dennis Adams that follows him as he walks through Bordeaux, clad in a white suit, holding a full glass of wine that starts out full but stains his attire as he tours the city. A series of photographs by Mitch Epstein, commissioned for the show, captures iconic scenes in Napa Valley. In another video, wine-oriented scenes flit by rapidly on a grid of 16 images. An alcove with several small video screens, earphones attached, offers glimpses of TV and movie wine moments, including the famous I Love Lucy grape stomp.

“The toughest task was to take a subject that’s very popular and not dumb it down, which is what museums often do to draw big crowds,” Urbach said as we paused at the exit. “It’s celebratory but it’s also critical.”

Museum director Neal Benezra put it more succinctly shortly before the opening. “It’s very much about experience, rather than objects,” he said

In the end, this mix of complex ideas and simple pop culture references manages to embrace an enormous range of ideas and artistic disciplines in a fairly limited space. Art and design fans might gain a better appreciation of wine. And vice versa. A valuable way to spend an hour.

Artists San Francisco

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