SFMOMA Probes the Contemporary Culture of Wine and Presents How Wine Became Modern

From November 20, 2010, to April 17, 2011, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) will present How Wine Became Modern: Design + Wine 1976 to Now. This exhibition explores transformations in the visual and material culture of wine over the past three decades, offering a fresh way of understanding the contemporary culture of wine and the role that design has played in its transformation. Organized by Henry Urbach, SFMOMA’s Helen Hilton Raiser Curator of Architecture and Design, How Wine Became Modern marks the first exhibition to consider modern, global wine culture as an integrated yet expansive and richly textured set of cultural phenomena.

Zahia Hadid, Lopez de Heredia, Pepe Franco, courtesy of Viña Tondonia

The story begins in 1976, the year of the now-famous Judgment of Paris. There, in a blind taste test, nine French wine experts pronounced a number of northern California wines superior to esteemed French vintages. However apt the decision, later criticized and repeatedly restaged, the event released shock waves across the globe as it gave the nascent California wine industry, as well as winemakers in many other parts of the world, new confidence, credibility, and visibility. This, in turn, had multiple effects including the expansion of wine markets, growing popular awareness of wine, the birth of wine criticism, vineyard tourism, and a host of other manifestations. From this moment forward, the culture of wine began to accommodate and valorize new priorities such as innovation, diversification, globalization, marketing, and accessibility.

“In many ways,” Urbach 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 exhibition, designed by the renowned architecture studio Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R), combines original artifacts such as architectural models and photographs with works of art, some newly commissioned, as well as multimedia presentations and interpretive text. Viewers will encounter artworks, objects, and information within immersive environments that engage multiple senses including smell.

The exhibition is organized as a suite of galleries, as follows:


Upon entering the exhibition viewers will hear the sound of clinking wine glasses, triggered by a simple motion sensor. To one side is a large, newly commissioned wall work by Peter Wegner that charts more than 200 house paint colors named for wine (varietals such as Cabernet and Pinot Noir; events such as Crush and Harvest). As Wegner demonstrates the diffusion of wine-related language into everyday life, he also calls our attention to the gaps that structure language and its relation to natural phenomena such as color.

The Judgment of Paris

Few traces remain from the actual event, a rather modest affair despite its mythic status. Key artifacts will be presented—the two winning bottles as well as the original Time magazine article. Working with snapshots of the judges at work, DS+R will produce a life-size, illuminated tableau accompanied by sound to provide viewers with an immediate sense of the judge’s gestures and comments. Along one edge of this gallery, a translucent wall offers visitors a tantalizing sense of the exhibition’s final exhibit, a wall dedicated to the smell of wine.


Viewers pass behind the tableau to discover that the table represented in the image has become a display surface, one that recurs throughout the exhibition. In this gallery the concept of terroir is introduced, a theory of place that is fundamental to the culture of wine, the notion that distinctive, even unique qualities of soil and climate can be discerned in the character and taste of the liquid. With the expansion of viticulture across the globe, terroir has become something of a holy grail that winemakers compete for and claim as their own. The installation combines, from eighteen vineyards across the globe, the following elements: a small soil sample, real-time temperature and other microclimate data, maps of various scale, a clear bottle of wine, tasting notes, and a quotation from the winemaker about his or her understanding of terroir.

Worldwide Wine

A large map will be animated with data that demonstrates key transformations in wine production and culture over the past 30 years across the globe. This display, state-of-the-art and highly legible, will clarify what has happened to the world of wine in this period. Viewers will learn, for example, about the sharp decline in land dedicated to viticulture in Europe, the expansion of vineyards in new wine-growing regions such as Denmark and Brazil, the effects of political changes (such as the end of South African apartheid and the fall of General Pinochet), and other important developments.

In an adjacent gallery, viewers will encounter extended video debates between contemporary winemakers, wine consultants, and others with strong points of view about the nature and culture of winemaking today.

Terroir and Technique

A gallery will introduce visitors to contemporary imaging of vineyards, from the ‘precision mapping’ of heat and moisture across a plot of land, the result of a collaboration between Robert Mondavi and NASA in the 1970s, to ‘harvest-eye scanning’ that can assess the relative ripeness of grapes across a single vineyard. These maps, often stunningly beautiful, are equally surprising in their capacity to re-imagine the space of viticulture. A large, suspended vine and rootstock, their graft line presented at eye level, will address the hybridization of American and European rootstock over centuries as well as the more contemporary practice of grafting to address consumer demand for new varietals. An artwork by Nicolas Boulard produces a 1946 vintage of Domaine de la Romanée Conti, a vintage that never existed because of an outbreak of phylloxera that year.

Wine Labels and Brand Identity

Wine labels are charged with a unique challenge: to provide consumers with a sense of the liquid that remains, until the bottle is opened, entirely beyond reach. This exhibit gathers several hundred recent labels and organizes them within a particular taxonomy, the kind of display one might find in a wine store … but with a twist. Along the horizontal axis, categories of identity are elaborated (Cheeky, Fuzzy Animals, Instructive, Meteorological, etc.) while the vertical axis registers price point.

Glassware and Modern Wine

Along with other aspects of wine’s visual and material culture, glassware — including wine glasses, decanters, and carafes — has undergone a dramatic transformation. Decanters and carafes have been reinvented to increase their oxygenating effects and to intensify their expressive character. Likewise, the wine glass has been subject to ongoing formal investigation during this period; in addition to varietal-specific glasses, we now have glasses that tilt to facilitate smelling and ‘breathable’ glasses that are porous to oxygen. A slow drip of red wine from the ceiling will gently disturb the glassware’s liquid backdrop.

Wine, Architecture, and Tourism

Over the past twenty years, there has been an explosion of new architecture related to wine across the globe. Architects including Santiago Calatrava, Zaha Hadid, Steven Holl, Herzog + de Meuron, Renzo Piano, and Alvaro Siza are among the best-known architects to design new wineries as well as to explore the emergence of wine tourism with facilities such as hotels, visitor centers, spas, and tasting rooms.

The exhibition will present these projects at three distinct scales. First, a map of the globe will indicate where notable projects are found and demonstrate areas of concentration. An intermediate scale of photographs with accompanying text will identify approximately thirty of the most significant buildings. Finally, three buildings will be presented in depth: Clos Pegase Winery, Dominus Winery, and the Hotel Marqués de Riscal. Each of these projects will be exhibited with original architectural models, video interviews with architect and client, and other materials.

Dominus Winery by Herzog & de Meuron (1997) and the Hotel Marqués de Riscal by Gehry Partners (2007) mark two ends of a spectrum. On the one hand, Dominus asserts a strong and certain link between the building and the land; its gabion structure articulates a nearly invisible building that, among other qualities, establishes direct visual contact with the vines below. Riscal, by contrast, aims for maximum visibility as it sets, above a medieval village in the Rioja region of northern Spain, a miniature Guggenheim Bilbao, a tangle of polychromatic metal that contains, beneath its exuberant burst, a hotel and conference center for tourists as well as a spa specializing in grape- and wine-related treatments.

The third project, seen at the very end of this gallery, marks the starting point for more recent developments. In 1985, SFMOMA organized the first architectural competition for the design of a winery (indeed the first time a museum organized a competition for a building other than its own): Clos Pegase (1987), located near St. Helena in the Napa Valley. The winning architect-artist team, Michael Graves and Edward Schmidt, designed the winery at the height of American postmodernism as a faux-Pompeian compound. Three years later, the Centre Georges Pompidou organized two competitions for wineries, one speculative and the other to renovate Château Pichon-Longueville in Bordeaux. Together these events signaled wine’s effort to become ‘modern’ by reaching towards contemporary architecture.

Along one wall a suite of newly commissioned, very large color photographs by Mitch Epstein will consider issues of tourism, labor, and class in the Napa Valley.

Screening Room

A screening room presents two video works related to wine. Dennis Adams’ ‘Spill’ follows the artist’s walk through Bordeaux, a full glass of red wine hovering perilously close to his immaculate white suit. Walking through the city, the artist recounts unpleasant historical moments such as the city’s role in the slave trade and Vichy France; Adams slowly loses composure as the red wine spills and stains him. A second documentary film by Bêka gives access to a dining facility designed by Herzog & de Meuron for Château Jean-Pierre Moueix in Pomerol, Bordeaux, a place where workers dressed as American cowboys drink and celebrate during the period of intense labor that marks the harvest.

Connoisseurship and Popular Culture

The taste of wine has been mediated, in our times, by a panoply of sources, from sommeliers to wine critics and popular media. The role and influence of these mediators cannot be overstated as, for example, critics such as Robert Parker influence not only what some consumers buy but also what some producers make. A range of artifacts, including the influential Japanese manga ‘Drops of God,’ and interpretive displays will reveal the importance, and occasional bravado, of these sources. Words used to describe wine will be presented as a commissioned sound work that quietly fills the room.

Smell Wall

A translucent wall with suspended flacons, partially visible from the Judgment of Paris gallery, draws viewers into an intimate encounter with the smell of wine. Here, at the end of the exhibition, after learning about wine at a wide range of macro- and socio-cultural scales, the wall brings viewers into nearly direct contact with the liquid itself, providing an opportunity to enjoy its fragrance while learning about the education of the nose. Sommeliers and other experts will select flights of scent on a rotating basis.

Dinner Party

A dining table marks the exhibition’s coda. Viewers are invited to sit and watch a new multi-channel video work by Marco Brambilla. The artist will provide each viewer with a surrogate dinner party companion, recapitulating the generic intimacy of dinner party chat while focusing on the role wine plays at such events. When the museum is closed the table can function as an event space for real-time rituals, including wine tastings and intimate dinners. Viewers exit the galleries along the Peter Wegner mural, seeing it for a second time and understanding more clearly the ambiguities it poses.

How Wine Became Modern: Design + Wine 1976 to Now is organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Major support is provided by Riedel Crystal. Generous support is provided by Helen Hilton Raiser and Thomas Weisel. Additional support is provided by Pro Helvetia, Swiss Arts Council.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
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San Francisco, CA 94103