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Urbach on How Wine Became Modern

This weekend, the much anticipated new show How Wine Became Modern opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Before the final finishes were added, we had the chance to take a tour with Henry Urbach, the SFMOMA's curator of architecture and design and exhibit's creator. Here we find out what went into putting the show together, what the hoopla is all about, and what it really means that wine has become modern.

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What prompted you to create this exhibit?
Two years ago I was wondering why there was so much new activity with wine. There were new wineries designed by architects, a new interest in wine labels. Why wine? What was it about it that provoked all this interest?
What did you find?
Wine is something we need. It stands for rootedness, a real experience, a safe pleasure.

Riedel's Burgundy Grand Cru glass is one of 16 pieces by the Austrian glass and stemware company on display in the exhibit.
Riedel's Burgundy Grand Cru glass is one of 16 pieces by the Austrian glass and stemware company on display in the exhibit.
What does it mean that wine is now modern?
Wine became modern when it became self-conscious and self-aware, when it determined its own representation in culture. It became modern when it moved beyond viticulture and agriculture and became part of culture.
There’s been a lot of talk about how this show is a big departure from typical museum exhibits, since it’s not just paintings or just sculptures or just architecture.
You’re going to see things that have not been on the checklist of what you’ve seen here before. The question was, How do you exhibit wine in a museum, especially in a museum where people come to see art. We also wanted to know how to do it in Northern California without it becoming a local exhibit. I didn’t want it to be Ra! Ra! California!.
Did you have a reference or precedent for how to stage this?
We worked on the show with Diller Scofidio + Renfro; it is an unusual architecture firm—they've done projects like the High Line—and has an interesting exhibition practice. In 1997, they did an exhibit at the Canadian Center for Architecture called The American Lawn: Surface of Everyday Life. The show took something as old and ubiquitous as a lawn and made it interesting. Wine, which is as ordinary as a fermented grape, has become this whole bigger thing.
You included several pieces by French artist Nicolas Boulard, one of which is titled Shades of Wood and comprises 12 bottles of chardonnay, each with blocks of oak in them increasing in number according to the Fibonacci sequence in which each subsequent number is the sum of the two prior. This piece seems to get at the heart of what you were trying to achieve in the exhibition.
I was always trying to walk this edge of art and wine, thinking of wine as an allegory for art. The work navigates between painting and wine, between sculpture and wine.
What was the most difficult part of putting this exhibition together?
Taking a subject that’s popular and not doing a dumbed-down approach. A dumbed-down approach would have been only celebratory. This is more ambivalent; it’s critical and celebratory. It's not just, This is the best winery and the best stemware, or Here’s 500 years of corkscrews. The actual instillations were also challenging: How do you prepare a grapevine for display at a gallery? How do you get soil from around the world into the country to talk about terroir?
You devote quite a large section of the exhibition space to wineries designed by prominent architects. Why was this?
We wanted to address the phenomenon of the designer winery. It’s become a thing, something you do. But why are these architects doing wineries and not dairy farms? It's because the clients are interesting, the budgets are generous, and the landscapes are beautiful.
What was your favorite winery that you visited while researching the exhibit?
Bodegas Baigorri by Iñaki Aspiazu Iza Architecture Studio. It’s not very well known, but it was really, really beautiful. It sinks into the earth and disappears into the landscape.
The Bodegas Baigorri winery in Samaniego, Spain, designed by Iñaki Aspiazu Iza Architecture Studio.
The Bodegas Baigorri winery in Samaniego, Spain, designed by Iñaki Aspiazu Iza Architecture Studio.

How Wine Became Modern is on view now through April 17, 2011. (Watch our slideshow of images from the exhibit here!) Be sure to also take part in the SFMOMA Uncorked! tastings to be scheduled at the museum as well as enjoy complimentary tastings in Sonoma by showing your exhibit ticket. For more, visit sfmoma.org.

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