Seeing the World Through Muscatel-Colored Glasses

From labels to wineries to Chardonnay-toned house paint, an exhibition considers the visual culture of wine.

Dennis Adams gets wine-soaked in his video Spill, 2009.

Dennis Adams gets wine-soaked in his video Spill, 2009.


When Yellow Tail was introduced, in 2001, it was just another cheap Australian wine with no innovative flavors, celebrity spokesperson, or following among oenophiles. What it had was a (then) unusual kind of label, ­featuring bold colors and composition, sparse sans-serif text, and a playful sketch of a yellow-footed rock wallaby. Two years later, it was the best-selling imported wine in the United States.

Just a few decades earlier, such a phenomenon in the staid world of wine would have been unthinkable. However, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art architecture and design curator Henry Urbach says the design culture of wine has grown increasingly sophisticated since 1976, when a blind tasting in Paris by prominent critics pronounced California’s top wines superior to France’s. The results ignited a new era of global competition that turned the wine business into a spectator sport. “How Wine Became Modern: Design + Wine 1976 to Now,” Urbach’s exhibition at SFMoMA from November 20 to April 17, will explore the “visual culture of wine”: the labels, bottles, glasses, carafes, openers, and winery buildings that have helped define buying habits and perceptions of wine over the last 35 years.

In the mid-’70s, consumers developed a new culture of appreciation and one-upmanship, and winemakers began innovating, with new wines and new packaging. The standard label, still in use, employs a cursive font, little color, and sometimes a small etching, say of the vineyard’s château. Its anachronism carries the patina of tradition. New labels borrow their style from a range of art movements—Art Deco, outsider art, 1950s modernism, Impressionism, and social realism—hoping to create a certain “brand feeling.” Some labels go for humor, with cartoonish drawings of a drunken winemaker or a frog relieving itself into a stream and names such as “Vin de Merde,” “Fat Bastard,” “Mad Housewife,” “Goats do Roam,” and “Blasted Church.” In the exhibition, designed by New York’s Diller Scofidio + Renfro, a wall chart classifies label styles (“Cheeky,” “Fuzzy Animals,” “Instructive,” “Meteorological”), price points, and market segments.

Wine paraphernalia also flowered into an array of shapes and sizes. One carafe in the exhibition, designed by Claudio Colucci, reveals itself when emptied to contain a wine glass inside. Such whimsy reflects the field’s growing desire to shed its reputation for solemnity and pretension. Manufacturers have also adopted the trappings of science, making decanters and carafes that profess to help oxygen­ate wine. There are also “glasses that tilt to facilitate smelling and ‘breathable’ glasses that are porous to oxygen,” the wall text explains. But do all these things actually make wine taste better?

The visual culture of wine employs a fair amount of hype, which the exhibition tries to separate from reality. “What we’re doing is a kind of deconstruction of cultural fantasies around wine,” Urbach says. To help with this task, Urbach enlisted several artists. In one commissioned video, the artist Dennis Adams strolls through the city of Bordeaux in a pristine, well-tailored white suit, carrying a large glass brimming with red wine. Many connoisseurs say a good wine succeeds because it embodies the terroir of the place that ­produced it. Mocking such thinking, as Adams walks, he recounts the notorious side of the city’s history—its collaboration with slave traders and, more recently, the Nazis—all the while spilling the wine and staining his suit.

Urbach also turned to Sissel Tolaas, best known for an installation she once made from the odors of “nine angry men.” Here, she presents the scent of a half bottle of wine on someone’s breath, a visceral reminder that the romancing of wine requires suppressing its less savory aspects—bad breath, drunk driving, alcoholism—behaviors that are ignored and excused by oenophiles caught up in the supposed nobility of their pursuit. Another commission, a video by Marco Brambilla, collages movie clips of glasses clinking, drawing attention to the social rituals that encourage or even enforce wine drinking.

The arts affect the way we perceive wine, and the reverse is also true. Wine influences the way we see color, as the artist Peter Wegner demonstrates. His commission, a large wall work, incorporates the more than 200 contemporary house-paint colors that have wine-related names: Vintage Claret, Grappa, Sweet Chardonnay, Golden Chalice, Muscatel, Blanc de Blancs, Oak Notes, Wine Barrel, Toasted Barrel, Bacchus, Rare Wine, Full Wine, Abundant Wine, Fine Wine, and even Wine Stain. Wegner makes it clear that we all fetishize wine and its accoutrements.

The exhibition doesn’t include a catalogue, but if it did, it could have noted that today even philosophers argue that great wines are works of art on par with the New World Symphony or the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Philosophers have considered wine an essential aid to thinking since antiquity, but they have also called it too subjective, simple, utilitarian, and fleeting to constitute a true esthetic experience. Now that we discuss wine as we do other arts, there are philosophers who argue that it can be elevated to the status of art.

For a striking visual proof of our decadent infatuation with wine, look no further than the hotel and spa that Frank Gehry recently erected for the Spanish winery Vinos Herederos del Marqués de Riscal. As seen in models and photographs on view in the exhibition, Riscal got the full Bilbao treatment—extravagantly curved planes of multichromatic titanium and mirror-finish steel swirl about a glittering sandstone foundation. Inside, for the price of €270, visitors can soak in a bath spiked with grapes and vine extracts.

Jon Lackman writes on politics, science, and the arts for Harper’s, The New Yorker, and Slate.

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