Bring water, bring wine, boy! Bring flowering garlands to me! Yes, bring them, so that I may try a bout with love.
Anacreon c. 570 – c. 480 B.C. Fragment 27
How Wine Became Modern, the first exhibition of its kind, looks at the world of wine and the role that architecture, design, and media have played in its transformation over the past three decades.
“The exhibition really began with a series of questions about ‘Why wine?’ ” said Henry Urbach, the museum’s curator of art and design. “Why not orange juice or coffee?” Well, actually juice, coffee and tea transformed their social worlds just like wine did – and the manufacturers of the time produced the expensive consumer goods to go along with the transformation. Never mind that wine has been around since 5000 or 6000 BC and had ALWAYS been intertwined with the culture of the times. From Ancient Greece to 19th century Europe, wine was celebrated, worshiped and held in esteem. So, while the format and paraphernalia of the current exhibit at SFMOMA are 21st century, the culture is as old as ..well, wine.
But that’s all the old, old past and we live in the new, new now where SF MOMA has decided that the definitive moment for modern wine culture was 1976 and built a whole exhibit around that transitory event. Urbach chose the 1976 “Judgment of Paris,” as his point of department where California wines trumped France’s best. That upset (Bottle Shock!) so the theory goes, was a defining moment – a starting point for wine to become more than just a beverage. SFMOMA’s take is that after Paris, wine bridged a gap between a desire to return to the land and a need to feel civilized. The show celebrates the expensive consumer culture and the billion dollar wine industry (17.9 billion in 2009*) that followed.
“In many ways,” Urbach (the curator of the exhibit) claims, “wine has become ‘modern’ as it re-imagined its own representation and joined itself to other forms of culture,” including architecture, graphic and industrial design, visual arts, performing arts, and film. And it is here, he adds, “at this particular intersection between nature and contemporary culture, that the social meanings of wine reveal key issues of our moment, including the status of place and authenticity in a world increasingly structured by dematerialized, virtual experience.”
The first room has a wall of wine-inspired colors and a hyper-realistic mural, a la “Last Supper”-like presentation of the “Judgment” tasting from Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the New York architecture firm that helped design the exhibition. The second room provides a global snapshot of terroir: soil samples from 17 vineyards around the world, from New Zealand’s Cloudy Bay to J.J. Prum’s slate parcels in the Mosel, each with a detailed explanation and even real-time weather data.
One fascinating part of the exhibit is a display of the tools needed to create this product. Here’s a clue – wine is not just made by happy peasants stomping down the grapes in picturesque vats. Opposite this display is a line of bottles from artist Nicolas Boulard showing how varying quantities of oak chips change a wine’s tint, arranged according to Fibonacci sequence – Chardonnay as a material? Well, why not. I’ve seen exhibits where lint, dust and honey were listed as artistic elements. Why not wine (although some of the colors are more reminiscent of an unwanted hospital experience than anything you’d want to drink). There is a wall of wine labels, categorized into categories as “Understated” and “Good + Evil.” (why not the good, the bad and the unsell-able or undrinkable? )
There’s an entire room devoted to oenophilia, complete with copies under glass of the Wine Spectator and Tadashi Agi’s manga series “Drops of God” about the son of a renowned wine critic. The visitor can participate in a “smell wall” and inhale some of the more controversial aromas used in wine descriptions, including petrol (in this case from a 2004 German Riesling) to the “hamster cage” animality of the northern Rhone wines.
Some of the most astonishing parts of the exhibit are the architectural models of wineries, surely today’s contemporary temples to the ancient gods of wine and the equally ancient and equally pervasive gods of money. No amount of “art talk” can hide the fact that this version of wine culture, at least in Northern California, is bound up with a certain life style or appeals to those who aspire to that life style, which requires money. Sometimes lots and lots of money.
In fact, I would have enjoyed the exhibit a lot more if I felt that the museum was more open about that aspect but with $30 corkscrews for sale in the gift show, maybe they didn’t have to. Is the show pandering and pop (as Ms Dobrzynski questioned?) or a hymn to contemporary culture? Your mileage may vary. Sometimes you get in vino veritas and some times you don’t. One thing is sure – it’s a clever marketing strategy, designed to bring a new demographic group into the museum and appeal to a category of donors with deep pockets. As museums struggle to survive in a harsh economic climate, that’s not a bad thing.
How Wine Became Modern: Design + Wine 1976 to Now
Opening November 20, 2010, to April 17, 2011,
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
151 Third Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
Museum hours: Open daily (except Wednesdays): 11 a.m. to 5:45 p.m.; open late Thursdays, until 8:45 p.m. Summer hours (Memorial Day to Labor Day): Open at 10 a.m. Closed Wednesdays and the following public holidays: New Year’s Day, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas. The Museum is open the Wednesday between Christmas and New Year’s Day.