Art Museum Explores Evolution of Wine

SFMOMA opens nine-gallery show highlighting how winemaking has changed since 1976

by Kate Lavin
SFMOMA wine exhibit
Judgement of Paris, image courtesy Diller Scofidio + Renfro.
San Francisco, Calif.--Since the closure of Copia two years ago, Bay Area oenophiles have had one less place to indulge their hobby. That changes tomorrow.

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Starting Saturday, Nov. 20, the nine-gallery exhibit “How Wine Became Modern” will open to the public at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). The show spotlights how wine has evolved since the groundbreaking 1976 tasting recorded in Time magazine as “The Judgment of Paris.” Comprised of soil samples, art, architecture, media and technology--a precision viticulture map of Opus One created by VineView is projected onto the floor, while oak adjuncts and fining agents are displayed in the Design of Wine gallery—the exhibit includes items from North and South America, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Australia and New Zealand.

Neil Benezra, director of SFMOMA, told media members at a preview Wednesday that “the visual culture of wine began to change” following The Judgment of Paris. For that reason, the first gallery contains a da Vinci-style mural depicting the scene at Steven Spurrier’s historic blind competition between Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon wines from France and Northern California. Also featured are bottles of the winning 1972 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon and 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, as well as a bound copy of the magazine article.

Walking into the exhibit, visitors see a 70-foot-long mural by Peter Wegner, who used paint, graphic tape and vinyl to create a word-and-spot-color web of more than 200 house paints named after wine and grape themes.

SFMOMA wine exhibit
Terroir Gallery, image courtesy Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

The next room is darkly lit and lined with soil samples from winegrowing regions all over the globe (Thailand and Israel among them), paired with information about growing conditions in these areas. While terroir is given a large and prominent space in the exhibit, curator Henry Urbach follows this room with one devoted to winemaking tools that can enhance--or in some cases negate--the effects of terroir.

Speaking of the practice of grafting rootstock to imported grapevine clones on Wednesday, Urbach said, “Place is so hybridized that the idea of terroir is somewhat suspect.” To illustrate his point, a 25-year-old Cabernet Sauvignon Clone 7 grafted to American Rootstock 11 hangs above a mirrored surface just outside a room where painter Nicolas Boulard’s "Nuancier finement boise" (“Swatches of Fine Wood”) displays 12 bottles of Chardonnay growing darker from left to right as more and more oak cubes are added.

More than a matter of taste

SFMOMA wine exhibit

In the Labels and Storytelling section, some 200 wine labels are sorted into 15 categories: science, family, truth or consequences, good and evil, sport, weather, animals, fame, good guys/bad guys, femme, cheeky, sex, understated, bold and the grape. Many North American bottles grace the wall, among them (seen at right) Sibling Rivalry Red by St. Catherines, Ontario-based Speck Brothers in the family category, and Saldo Zinfandel from Orin Swift Cellars, the label for which is rightly falls in the “understated” group.

In a section devoted to glassware, Etienne Meneau’s “The Strange Carafes” collection is displayed, appropriately, behind glass. His piece “Carafe N°5” (below) appears on many of the exhibit’s promotional materials. The section also showcases eclectic decanters and stemware designed to highlight varietal attributes.

SFMOMA wine exhibit
Etienne Meneau, Carafe No. 5, 2008, fabricated 2009.

In a gallery devoted to architecture and tourism, the SFMOMA acquired images, and in some cases models, of notable winery structures such as Mission Hill Family Estate in the Okanagan Valley, designed by Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects, and 4,000-case Quixote Winery on Napa’s Silverado Trail, designed by painter and sometimes-architect Friedensreich  Hundertwasser.

An architectural model of 40,000-case Clos Pegase Winery, Calistoga, Calif., is in a place of special reverence: Its design was prompted by an SFMOMA-sponsored competition in 1984. The artist-architect team of Michael Graves and Edward Schmidt won the contest, which challenged entrants to design a winery shortly after the museum opened its Department of Architecture and Design.

A gallery devoted to the love of wine features wine-related books that have risen to fame since 1976, including The Red Wine Diet by Roger Corder and The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil, an educator at the Culinary Institute of America. Tasting guides, wine carriers, boxed wine packaging and the Aroma Wheel developed by the University of California, Davis, are also displayed.

SFMOMA wine exhibit
Smell Wall, image courtesy Diller Scofidio + Renfro

A unique “Smell Wall” allows visitors to get a whiff of wines that embody oft-used sensory terms such as “noble,” “petrol” and even the mouth-watering “hamster cage.” The olfactory experience continues later, when visitors are invited to experience a 100-point wine as rated by Robert Parker for just the price of admission. Actually drinking a 1976 Penfolds Grange Hermitage is not on the menu, but odor artist Sissel Tolaas took the scent of the wine on his breath and synthesized it for museum-goers to experience it for themselves.

Another sense comes in handy while touring the exhibit: hearing. Museum-goers can don headphones to listen—and watch—classic wine moments on television: Lucille Ball stomping grapes and Morley Safer’s 1991 report on resveratrol in red wine, the infamous “French Paradox” presented during a “60 Minutes” episode.

According to Urbach, curating an exhibit about wine is difficult. The challenge, he said, is using objects to portray ideas, among them how wine went “from being something agricultural, or comestible,” to something that has taken on a life of its own; the industry has become more concerned with how it is perceived, not just through taste but through visual appeal.

His conclusion, Urbach said, is: “Wine is about more than wine. Wine is about a way of seeing the world."
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