New SFMOMA exhibit “How Wine Became Modern” begins in the Napa Valley

Judgement of Paris, image courtesy Diller Scofidio + Renfro
Judgement of Paris, image courtesy Diller Scofidio + Renfro

The San Francisco Museum of Art exhibit “How Wine Became Modern” should more accurately be called “How the Global Wine Industry Became Modern” because it tells the story of how the triumph of Napa Valley wines Stags’ Leap Wine Cellars and Chateau Montelena at the Judgment of Paris wine tasting in 1976 inspired legions of U.S. vintners, designers, architects and the media to do what Americans do best – reach out to the consumer – and created a more vibrant global wine market as a result.

Curator Henry Urbach suggested that this marketing juggernaut was helped along by larger societal changes going on in the mid-70’s such as the rise in world travel and mass media.  A media alcove acknowledges the influence of the press – such as the 60 Minutes piece on The French Paradox – and of critics like Robert Parker, in shaping novice consumer opinions about wine.

Smell Wall, image courtesy Diller Scofidio + Renfro
Smell Wall, image courtesy Diller Scofidio + Renfro

Design plays a big part in appealing to consumers.  One of the galleries is devoted to over 200 wine labels organized by narration such as cheeky (Fat Bastard), femme, truth or consequences, sport, animals, understated and grape, showing the range of messages vintners send in an attempt to connect with the consumer.  A gallery on glassware shows the evolution of wine glasses and decanters not only for style but also for improving sensory enjoyment.

3.Zahia Hadid, R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia, 2006; image: Pepe Franco, courtesy of Viña Tondonia
Zahia Hadid, R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia, 2006; image: Pepe Franco, courtesy of Viña Tondonia

Nothing could be grander in capturing a potential wine consumer’s attention than by architectural masterpieces and Clos Pegase in the Napa Valley must be credited for beginning a trend when it teamed up with SFMOMA to sponsor a global design competition in 1984 for the building of this estate, ultimately won by Michael Graves and Edward Schmidt.   The exhibit highlights subsequent master works of winery architecture from around the world including Frank Gehry’s Marques de Riscal in Rioja and Napa Valley’s Dominus Estate, designed by Herzog & de Meuron.

The exhibit also pays homage to the traditional communication of wine by “terroir”, documented by a diversity of soils from vineyards from as far as Golan Heights Winery.  But it goes beyond the Old World concept of terroir by highlighting how vintners’ newfound confidence led to innovation in the vineyard and cellar, using examples of “precision viticulture” and additives in winemaking.

This exhibit is titled “How Wine Became Modern” but it’s really a tribute to the role of the Napa Valley and the U.S. in changing how the world looks at wine in modern times.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third Street (btwn Mission and Howard), San Francisco 94103.  “How Wine Became Modern:  Design + Wine 1976 to Now” through April 17, 2011.  Open everyday except Wednesdays, from 11 am to 5:45 pm (except Thursdays, 8:45 pm).  Adults $18, seniors and students $9.  For more details, call 415.357.4000 or check out the website.

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