Modernity and Wine

As an enthusiast and collector of wine, it was a great pleasure to finally see the SFMOMA exhibition “How Wine Became Modern: Design + Wine 1976 to Now”, conceived by curator, historian, and critic, Henry Urbach and with the exhibition design and curatorial collaboration of Diller/Scofidio, and Renfro. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen so many people spending so much time in a design and art exhibition, and that speaks to the seriousness of this exhibition. Before moving on to more heady material, let me just say that you should run to see this show; it’s only open a little longer and is one of the most provocative design exhibitions I’ve seen in a very long time.

“How Wine Became Modern” explores, in a series of large rooms, the design of modern wine as a historical, geographical, genealogical, spatial, and linguistic form. “Design” in the context of the exhibition does not necessarily describe the objects in the exhibition, as there are many works of art, but the mentality that rebuilds the ancient practice of making and drinking wine into a more modern activity.

The show begins with a very bold statement about the modernity of wine itself, via a room of art and objects exploring the history of the Paris Tasting of 1976. During the tasting, a panel of wine critics awarded two California wines (A Napa Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon) over and above their French varietal equals (Chablis, Merseualt, and Bordeaux). The Paris Tasting supported some features of wine-making that were already in process: the ability of non-European wine makers to develop a robust economy around their wines; the questioning of wine’s excellence being determined by geography; wine critics’ new power in determining the significance of specific wines; and wine becoming a media sensation. It still is, as the movie Sideways and Bottle Shock made clear. For Urbach, the Paris Tasting, and its time, marks the moment when wine achieves its modernity. The event and its historical moment are inter-related.

So begins our journey into this transformation of wine, but the concept of what makes something or someone modern is a topic of endless fascination for all types of thinkers. And it’s not an easy topic to pin down. In recent years, historians have described modernity as a system of individuation (the emergence of the self and the sense of alienation), rationalization (the extension of science into everyday life), urbanization (the growth of cities), and industrialization (serialization and the proletarianization of populations). Ultimately, Modernity is a form of rupture with the self, past, land, and labor. An automobile is modern because it is a serial, mass-produced consumer object, made by laborers whose identity will never be known.

If we think of wine becoming modern, we might argue that this begins in the early 1930s with the French codification of wine into the appellation system (“a.o.c”). This is a modern response to the threats of industrial wine-making. Maybe it was 100 years earlier with Napoleon, who ended traditional relations between estates and vineyards. There are endless ways to skin this modern grape. I would argue that the SFMOMA exhibition is really about how wine became “late-modern” or even post-modern (but that makes a lousy title!).

The exhibition at times, touches on modern subjects like rationalization, labor, and industrialization, but it mostly emphasizes the globalization and, in particular, the mediation of wine. The Paris Tasting is the perfect support for this vision of modernity. As wine became globalized and mediated, it became free from geographical specificity (ie. French, Italian and Spanish winemaking) and the cultures that move through these places and activities. As wine becomes late-modern it becomes a free floating signifier; it can be made to mean anything and everything – way beyond geographical concepts. And it is in this relativist context that wine is “designed” to mean things both traditional and new.

This particular aspect of the power of modern society and thought is well illustrated in displays on the immense variety and clever design of wine glasses, carafes, wine labeling, and the additives that are placed into wine. Through these designs, wine emerges as something embodied with luxuriousness, danger, family virtues, and aristocratic vices. Discussions in the exhibition of language and criticism also engage with the underlying subtext of the show. Qualities that are repulsive in one context become desirable in wine through the power of criticism and critics. Wine is completely overwhelmed by semiology and language; it is not possible to have “wine” without words.

The photographs of Mitch Epstein, which are located throughout the galleries, examine the juxtapositions and imagery of global wine culture in a more spatial context. In one, a young blond women emerges from a large SUV in front of a California winery whose architecture evokes Persepolis. In another, nearby winery, the landscape is rendered more like an English Castle, and yet is filled with Tuscan verdure. Among such intense commentary on wine’s spatial imagery, the experiential, affectual architecture of Frank Gehry and Herzog and DeMeuron appears mute, perhaps intentionally so. But the models, nonetheless remind us of the monumentalization of wine through architecture.

Ultimately it was the display of a grafted American and French rootstock/grapevine, which looms over one gallery, that’s a signifier for all of the above, and it articulates the sense of wine being a hybrid thing, unmoored from its traditional foundations. Many vineyards in both the old-world and new have grafted vines like this. The American “root stock” which sits in the soil is disease resistant; the French grafted top, which holds the grapes reflects hundreds of years of fruit development. If this is what every vine is, then wine has become a kind of Frankenstein in its contemporary context. But lest you shed a tear for wine’s lost history (its former wholeness and purity) there’s no sentimentality in this exhibition. For the curator and designers, I get the sense that we’re on board the modern train, and full steam ahead.

All of the above things and images expanded on the exhibition’s curatorial framework, but I sensed some tension in the room on “terroir”. One might argue the show is haunted by this idea and the “return to terroir” among the most avant-garde of contemporary wine-makers. Terroir is a quality that wine has when grape varietals are grown to tie them to a particular geographical site. We experience terroir by tasting something in a wine (generally the soils’ content) that can only be tasted by a particular grape being grown in a particular location. 99% of the wines we Americans tend to drink lack this feature.

For terroir to be true to itself it cannot be a part of the larger discursive process that the exhibition examines. Thus, the efforts of Diller/Scofidio & Renfro to illustrate terroir with numerical data (of temperature, altitude, climate) speaks more to the designers’ efforts to link terroir to modernity than the actual underlying practices that surround terroir-driven wineries. I almost wish this room came at the end, as a form of commentary on how wine makers are struggling with wine in its current late- and post-modern moment. We can’t go back to a pre-modern society; we can’t go back to the earth itself, and yet there is a pronounced turn to ground wine in specific sites. But this is simply another symptom of looking for connections where no natural or communal ones are present. But because we’re modern, any fixity in the world has to be designed too; just like the things and images in this exhibition.


  1. I have a friend who really appreciate wines and he collect it in different countries. I myself always fascinated by the taste and years that the wine was made. 😀

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