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How Wine Became Modern

Design + Wine 1976 to Now

Let’s face it, the Bay Area is a tad wine obsessed. But with neighboring Napa and Sonoma Valleys producing some of the best wines in the world, who can blame us? The question is: What’s everyone else’s excuse?

From wine labels, to wine tours, to wine glasses, to wine diet books, wine magazines, wine infomercials, and more, the delectable liquid has become an undeniable presence in our mainstream culture. But why this agricultural product? Why not orange juice or artichokes?

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s newest exhibition, How Wine Became Modern: Design + Wine 1976 to Now, attempts to decipher what all the fuss is about. The exhibit explores how wine has evolved from something we simply ingest to something so completely infused in our everyday lives. The best designers from architecture, graphic design and product design are at the forefront of this innovation, and the show celebrates this dynamic creativity.

The exhibit begins its story in 1976 when the now-famous “Judgment of Paris” pronounced California wines superior to French wines in a blind taste test. This event sparked a dramatic shift in the global wine industry including the expansion of wine markets, vineyard tourism, and the overall growing popularity of wine. The Time magazine article that chronicled the Paris win, plus the winning vintages — the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and 1973 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet — are on display.

The next gallery room features soil samples from 17 vineyards around the world with detailed explanations of each. Although the display is visually stunning, with the soils enclosed in illuminated petri-like dishes, it would have been more interesting and engaging if viewers had the option to touch the soil or interact with it in some way.

One of the highlights of the exhibit, the art of the wine label, features nearly 200 wine bottles suspended in rows against a white backdrop. Categorized by similar concepts and images, such as “Good + Evil” and “Truth or Consequences,” the label art illustrates how wine has taken on attributes far beyond just the wine itself. My favorite section is “Cheeky,” which features humorous labels such as “Well Hung” and “Fat Bastard.” Although the dramatic effect of the display is magnificent and highly successful in transforming the mass grouping of wine into an art piece of its own, many of the bottles are above eye-level making it challenging for the viewer to appreciate all the labels.

Unique and highly bizarre innovations in glassware, such as a wine glass with a three-foot long stem, are also on view. However, because the glasses are displayed lying down inside a case, the visual impact of these unusual designs is slightly diminished.

The architecture and tourism portion of the exhibit illustrates how the world’s leading architects have re-imagined the winery experience. The gallery features small-scale models of architectural renderings, as well as dozens of photographs of modern wineries. With each winery photo affixed to one end of a red string and the other end tacked to its location on a gigantic map, the effect is awesome. Unfortunately, because the photos are fairly small, it fails to fully engage the viewer.

Next, the exhibit’s video installation, “Spill,” by Dennis Adams features one of the most bizarre art films you’ll ever see. The video follows a man dressed head-to-toe in white trying not to spill an extremely full glass red of wine while he walks. Supposedly, the film has a much larger cultural message, but it’s hard to get past the almost comical, lengthy footage featuring just an extreme close-up of the moving glass of red wine.

The most engaging and entertaining part of the exhibition is the “Smell Wall,” which features highly reputed vintages in perfume-style flasks. When you squeeze the puffer, you immediately experience rare and distinct aromas.

How Wine Became Modern is certainly wine as you have never experienced it before. Slightly disappointing at times, the exhibition is nonetheless intriguing and visually stunning. The Museum’s curator of architecture and design, Henry Urbach explains, “This an exhibition about ideas.” But don’t expect it to answer the questions it puts forth. If you really want to know what all the fuss is about: 1) check out the exhibit; 2) pour yourself a large glass of tasty vino; 3) ponder and enjoy!