Raise a glass to 'How Wine Became Modern' at SFMOMA

Bonnie Tsui explores a show that examines modern wine culture, high concepts and the 'gorgeous artifacts' of wine
Production still from Dennis Adams' video, SPILL (2009)
Production still from Dennis Adams' video, SPILL (2009)



San Francisco Museum of Modern Art


From: 20 November 2010
Until: 17 April 2011

How Wine Became Modern

Opening hours:
Monday - Tuesday 11 - 17:45
Thursday 11 - 20:45
Friday - Sunday 11 - 17:45
Wednesday Closed



From the very start, the new How Wine Became Modern exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is a sheer delight. A wall blooming with circles of paint colours associated with wine - Bacchus, Midas Touch, Wine Barrel and Sour Grape are just a handful of the joyous bouquet - welcomes visitors, opposite a life-scale photo mural that dramatises the famed 1976 Judgment of Paris, where California wines bested those from France in a blind tasting competition and turned the wine world on its head.

It’s a smart, irreverent opening to this thought-provoking exploration of modern wine culture, dreamt up by the museum’s architecture and design curator, Henry Urbach, in collaboration with Elizabeth Diller of the architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro. The show not only examines the gorgeous artifacts of wine - swan-necked lead crystal decanters by Riedel, branched carafes by Etienne Meneau that recall the human heart - but also cleverly tackles the high concepts that we have come to associate with it.

Some pieces are high-tech, like World Under Vine, a riveting five-minute digital infographic film about global wine production, by the filmmakers Robert Gerard Pietrusko and Stewart Smith; in it, exports and consumption are tracked visually by fountains of wine that spray from one continent to the next. A display on terroir - the characteristics of soil and climate that determine what a grape may become - uses soil samples, real-time weather data, and descriptions from winemakers to give a sense of noted benchmark wineries around the world.

But most exhibits are presented in simple yet innovative fashion. One wall explores the brand identity of wines by grouping bottles according to their labels and the stories they tell; rubrics include 'family','science', 'sports', 'the grape', 'weather', and 'animals'. In the next room, the rise of the winery as art piece is charted from the building of Napa Valley’s Clos Pegase, designed by Michael Graves (the museum itself had a hand in beginning this trend - the project originated in 1984 when SFMOMA sponsored a competition for the design of a winery). Many more architecturally significant projects would soon follow, with top names in the field at the helm: Zaha Hadid, Santiago Calatrava, Herzog & de Meuron, Mario Botta.

The show has plenty of cheeky fun on tap, most notably at the interactive smell wall near the end of the show, where flasks of wine are each paired with a word commonly (and/or extravagantly) used to describe them. Squeeze a bulb, and you can inhale the scent puffed out from a 'hamster cage' Rhone varietal or the 'petrol' whiff of a Riesling. Who says wine has to be stuffy?


Bonnie Tsui lives in San Francisco. She is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and the author of American Chinatown.


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