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New museum show: Wine as cultural icon

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There’s a new show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art you’re going to be hearing a lot about. I’m going to write about it soon on Wine Enthusiast’s website, so here on the old blog I’ll only take a meta-view.

The main thing to understand about the show, which has the intriguing title “How Wine Became Modern: Design + Wine 1976 to Now,” is that it is more conceptual than visual. There are plenty of visual aspects, of course–a museum after all has to fill up its walls–but HWBM also features olfactory and aural elements. However, its overriding message lies not in the perceptual sphere but in the intellectual. “This is outside our usual way of working,” museum director Neal Benezra explained, almost apologetically, during introductory remarks, while the show’s curator, Henry Urbach, called it “an exhibition of ideas as much as of objects.”

The central idea of HWBM, Urbach continued, is to address the question, “What’s all the fuss about wine?” He elaborated. “Why are the world’s greatest architects, [fine] artists and graphic artists working in wine? You don’t see them doing orange juice labels.” While the exhibition never quite answers this question–how could it?–it drove home the point that wine has invaded (or enhanced) our lives to such an extent that it has gone (again in Urbach’s words) “from being a comestible to a cultural icon.”

HWBM seizes on the year 1976 for a reason most of you will instantly recognize. It was the year Jimmy Carter was elected President, that the Two Steves founded Apple Computer, and that the U.S. celebrated its bicentennial. More importantly, perhaps, to wine lovers, it was (on May 24) the date when the famous Judgment of Paris wine tasting was held, about which I need say no more because you know all about it. Urbach explained that he dated wine’s “modern” period to the JOP rather arbitrarily, because wine had been becoming modern (meaning: becoming iconic in American cultural thought) before then. But he had to start somewhere.

In the mid-70s, we already in America were seeing the tamping effects of globalization, mass media and jet travel; those three forces shrunk the world, bringing the rest of it (including its wines) closer to us than ever. At the same time (and maybe due to those forces) we saw the rise of the boutique winery in California, a phenomenon whose architects explicitly modeled their cultural  revolution after France’s (even as they insisted they were out to establish something uniquely Californian). Wine’s rise to the top of the cultural heap also could probably not have happened without the active and conscious participation of the Baby Boomers, who had been primed (by the media, by capitalism, by the cultural forces of the 1950s) to think of themselves as iconic. Human icons need cultural icons to validate themselves and to symbolize their relevance. The Baby Boomers adopted wine (along with other tangible icons, such as bluejeans, Rock and Roll and marijuana) as their icons.

Wine fit in with the Boomer mentality, which celebrated hedonism and instant gratification, and also–being educated, often at the college level–enjoyed things that offered some intellectual complexity. The evolution of Rock and Roll illustrates this through music. From bubble gum music and Hey Nonny Ding Dong we got Pink Floyd, George Harrison tinkering with the sitar and Yes, with their classical aspirations. The Boomers proved they could appreciate complexity and nuance and external references in the things they surrounded themselves with. Hence, Bali Hai and Ripple evolved to Heitz Martha’s Vineyard and to the wines that prevailed in the Judgment of Paris.

As if to prove how integral wine has become to our culture, we now have one of the defining authorities of any culture’s proclivities–an art museum–officially recognizing its place. Remember how certain exhibitions have become iconic talismans in themselves as calibrations in the culture’s march forward: the 1867 Exposition Universelle, in Paris, exposed the Impressionists to Japanese art; New York’s 1913 Armory Show, which introduced modern art, including Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, to Americans; and the famous Ferus Gallery show, in 1962 in Los Angeles, in which Andy Warhol first showed his soup can paintings. I’m not suggesting that HWBM is in that league; the show is too small and cramped, and a bit too precious, to have that sort of lasting impact. But it is a start toward recognizing that wine, per se–as consumer product, as art, as concept, as lifestyle–has played a transformative part in the nation’s life in recent decades, and will continue to; and that it is “a local story,” as Director Benezra pointed out, “showing our region’s commitment to wine,” makes it all the more appropriate that HWBM was launched in San Francisco.

  1. I thought the scent station was the strongest part of the exhibit, though I also enjoyed the video scree with images of popping corks and glasses of wine thrown in faces, among other images. Having spent far too much time finding exactly the right shade of purple for my walls at home, I was charmed by the paint color mural

  2. Virginie Boone says:

    I’ve got a story about this coming out in the Press Democrat tomorrow, as well. I had a chance to see the exhibit still being installed, so didn’t get the full effect, but really thought it compelling and still fun. The room of additives and oak chips should be particularly thought provoking I would think, as well as the last-station “kiss” of 100-point Penfolds Grange.

    Kudos to SF MOMA for putting this on.

  3. Virginie, the Penfold’s smell was pretty bad (to me). I can’t believe the actual wine smelled like that. As for the additives, a bunch of us had a lively conversation about it. It broke into two overall views: “Uggh, I didn’t know they put all that crap into my wine” and “Gee, just because it’s in a box or can doesn’t make it unnatural.” I tend toward the latter.

  4. San Francisco has always been in the shadows of New York and Los Angeles for artistic culture. I remember not too long ago the MOMA was in an old Civic Center building with exhibits a in dark narrow hallways. But we have the artistic expression in Wine! Yes, great to see a great start. I cant wait to see it.

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  1. Terroirist » Blog Archive » News Roundup: You Talkin’ To Me? - [...] Heimoff takes a “meta” look at a new exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, “How Wine …

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