Global wine culture is the dripping, whirling, pulsating heart of the sensorial exhibit “How Wine Became Modern” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). It has attracted a chic following of wine appreciators from around the world. The exhibit is the first of its kind, assembling diverse media and art forms — graphic and industrial design, architecture, performing arts, visual arts and film — in a mind-altering celebration of the overlap between art, culture and wine. Each display illustrates how winegrowing, winemaking and wine-sipping have served as inspiration for artistic creations across cultures and countries.
Here are a few musings around my favorite “samples” from the exhibit:
- In [ ] Veritas, by Peter Wagner. This 70-foot long mural is a mind map composed of 200 different wine-related colors and terms. Lovers of linguistics will enjoy this playful representation of the ever-evolving terminology around wine. As the circle of international wine connoisseurs continues to expand, the words used to describe wine shift to accommodate a wider range of taste buds and cultural references.
- The Judgement of Paris display includes a life-size photomural that depicts the (in)famous 1976 Paris tasting while evoking Da Vinci’s Last Supper. It would seem that the French judges are likened to Jesus in this analogy — and thus British journalist Stephen Spurrier would be Judas. If you’ve seen the movie “Bottle Shock”, you know about the betrayal of 1976, when Stephen Spurrier snuck a few wildcards from California into a blind tasting of French wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy. Much to the French wine experts’ chagrin, many of the California wines outperformed the Grand Cru Classés of Bordeaux and the whites from Burgundy. When Château Montelena Chardonnay 1973 and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon were pronounced the winners, mayhem ensued. In addition to the striking mural, the two original bottles from the tasting are on display.
- Terroir. This installation combines soil samples from 17 vineyards of famous winegrowing countries such as Germany, South Africa, Spain, France, Chile, Argentina and California. Wine geeks, geologists and linguistics alike can enjoy this exploration of world-famous terroirs, gleaning information on their varying climates, humidity and soil structures, the etymology and translations of their place names and quotations from the winemakers on the somewhat abstract notion of “terroir”.
- PrePrecision Viticulture. This projection by Diller Scofidio + Renfro highlights a technique that Napa icon Opus One has used to track the evolution of its vines and to map their growth and disease. Opus One combines multispectral aerial photography with remote sensing technology to keep a maternal eye on each individual vine in their prized vineyards. This projection is viewed against a white film on the floor of the gallery. The patchwork of multi-colored vineyard plots is as lovely as it is mind-blowing, an expression of “science-meets-quilting” or perhaps “landscape painting with infrared”. It is no wonder the wine from Opus One is among the highest quality in the world.
- Label Wall. For amateurs of graphic art, this is a delectable display of over 200 bottles exploring common themes for wine labels from around the globe, such as “the good and the bad”, animals, “femme”, the weather (not surprisingly, many California wineries include “fog” on their labels), humor, science and understated or minimalistic artistic renderings. Famed French estate Mouton Rothschild is given center stage with its series of art labels, each designed by a famous artist commissioned by Baron Philippe and later Baronne Philippine de Rothschild. Picasso, Miro, Chagall, Kandinsky, Warhol, Motherwell and recently Charles, Prince of Wales are a few of the privileged artists who have designed for Mouton since the instauration of this tradition in 1924. A lesser known fact is that each featured artist receives a case of the prized Premier Grand Cru Classé vintage for which they created the label. An autographed label of Opus One’s first vintage is also on display, adorned with Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild’s signatures. This is quite the collectible.
- Crafty Carafes by Riedel and Strange Carafes by Etienne Meneau. These decanters may be awkward to handle, but their charm is readily apparent. The vessels for storing and serving wine have been a source of inspiration since the dawn of winemaking. Whether ceramic jars, crystal classes, jeroboam glass bottles or earthen bowls, wine has traditionally been honored with beautiful containers. These carafes speak to the pleasure of gazing at wine, and the visual foreplay that precedes wine tasting. Connoisseurs talk about wine as if it were a painting — describing its delicate hue and reflective qualities, the clarity and depth of color, and the viscosity of the brushstroke-like trails it leaves along the surface of crystal. This display celebrates the visual beauty and brilliance of wine — allowing you to forget about the technicalities of decanting and proper oxygenation for a moment.
- “Spill”. This short art film is definitely inebriating. Creator Dennis Adams explores the streets of Bordeaux while cradling an overflowing glass of red wine, presumably a Cabernet from the region. The strange, dreamlike narration similar to Freudian free association is superimposed on visuals of Adams’ crimson-stained white suit. The underwater voice sounds like it is speaking from the depths of your mind, swirling together French cultural references, literary and artistic commentaries and poetry. The video has French subtitles. This must have been an incredibly challenging monologue to translate. Chapeau (hat’s off) to the translators here! Disclaimer — “Spill” may make you tipsy.
- The Smell Wall offers an intimate encounter with seven different wines, each focusing on a particular aroma or fragrance that can typically be found in specific combinations of grape and terroir. A few of the featured scents include anise, cat pee, bell pepper and petrol. The wines are in perfume flasks on a transparent wall. This mise-en-scene projects a golden and crimson light show on the other side of the wall, thereby extending an olfactory experience into visual art. This display also explores the role of language in crafting and structuring our sensory experience. For example, “petrol” was a particularly disputed word that critics have mainly stopped using to describe wine, due to its negative connotations.
An amazing amalgam of sensory experiences and vinous works of art, this exhibit is daring, unique and refreshing. Art begets wine begets art: a perfect circle. Or wine stain, as it were.