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The art (and design) of wine on display in San Francisco

November 20, 2010 |  7:00 am

Carafe For wine aficionados, 1976 was a revolutionary year. Not only were Americans celebrating 200 years of independence, but a little wine contest held in France also ushered in an exciting new era in wine consumption and culture. The Judgment in Paris, the legendary blind taste test, had nine French wine experts choosing Northern California wines over esteemed French vintages. That historic contest helped boost global production and vinuous appreciation.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's exhibition "How Wine Became Modern: Design + Wine 1976 to Now" takes a look at the role of art and design in the transformation of the wine industry over the last three decades. "Wine became modern as it became more democratic," said Henry Urbach, the museum's curator of architecture and design.

A new kind of wine consumer, sommelier and wine critic were born during this period. Hotels, wineries and spas popped up to support a new tourist infrastructure. Various forms of art and design (such as labels and stemware) began emerging alongside the explosion of the wine industry.

 "We wanted to explore just what is it about wine that attracts all this design talent," said Urbach. 

The exhibition, through April, is organized as a suite of galleries and offers sensory as well as visual experiences. Design objects, architectural models, multimedia presentations and artworks are mixed in with large-scale interactive installation pieces, including a "smell wall" where visitors can sniff from flasks of wine.


"It [wine] was long associated with the elite or religious rites. But it began to diffuse rapidly into the mainstream and was recast as accessible, healthful and fun," said Elizabeth Diller, cofounder of the New York City-based architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Known for its interdisciplinary approach to architecture, the firm collaborated with Urbach on the design of the exhibition and designed several installation-based pieces.

On view is French designer Etienne Meneau's six carafes and decanters. "Petit Coeur" (Little Heart) a carafe shaped like the human heart, reinterprets the atriums, ventricles and aorta, a reminder of the famous 1991 segment on "60 Minutes" that introduced the idea that red wine is healthful.

The first key piece encountered upon entering the space is a newly commissioned work by Berkeley artist Peter Wegner. "In [ ] Veritas" is an 18-foot-high, 70-foot-long curving wall resembling a star chart that displays more than 240 house-paint colors named after wines and grapes such as New London Burgundy and Golden Chalice. "It represents the diffusion of wine into everyday life expressed by paint," said Urbach.

A wine label wall by Diller Scofidio showcases nearly 200 labels with names such as Shameless Hussy, Cat's Phee on a Gooseberry Bush and Marilyn Merlot.


Several noteworthy projects by significant architects are pictured, including Herzog and De Meuron's Dominus Estate in Napa, the Frank Gehry designed Hotel Marqués de Riscal in Rioja, Spain, and Zaha Hadid's wine tasting pavilion, R. R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia.

 "There is now great interest in going back to an aristocratic past," Diller noted.


For those who believe the old adage that it's not a party until someone spills some wine, check out Dennis Adams' film "Spill," which features the artist walking through Bordeaux splashing red wine down his white suit.

 -- Liesl Bradner

Images: Top, Etienne Meneau, Carafe No. 5, 2008, fabricated 2009. Right, Frank O. Gehry, Hotel Marqués de Riscal, 2006; image courtesy Hotel Marqués de Riscal. Bottom left, Dennis Adams, SPILL, 2009; production still; single channel video; Courtesy the artist, Kent Gallery New York and Galerie Gabrielle Maubrie Paris; photo: David Hurst