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Birth of a Wine Culture in America

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The French have it, the Italians have it, but does America really have a wine culture all its own? You bet we do. It took awhile for this to develop, but in 2010, for the first time ever, we Americans drank more wine than the French. Quite an accomplishment.

How did we get here? How has wine become a part of our culture? That's the focus of How Wine Became Modern: Design + Wine 1976 to Now, a current exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

The premise is our wine culture was born in 1976. That's when what's now called the Judgment of Paris took place, and two American wines, a Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena and a Cabernet Sauvignon from Stag's Leap Wine Cellars bested the best of French wines. It was the shot heard round the world so to speak, and literally put California, and ultimately American wine country on the map.

While the Paris tasting did wonders for our wine culture, I believe America's wine culture started in 1966, when Robert Mondavi opened his namesake winery in Napa Valley. Mondavi's mission was to prove to the world that Americans could make wines as good as, even better than the classic French wines. Without Mondavi paving the way, I wonder if the founders of Stag's Leap and Chateau Montelena would have reached for the stars.

He also built a winery in the California Mission architectural style, and was one of the first to invite visitors to come and taste his wines. They hosted events with chefs, outdoor music concerts, and filled the winery and its grounds with art. I think Mondavi led the way in how we see art and architecture, music and culture blending so naturally with wine.

As you walk through How Wine Became Modern, you see how wine is such an integral part of how we live. There's a wall displaying paint colors that either use the word wine or are wine-inspired colors. One of the cooler installations is a wall of wine, showing a wide range of label art. You'll certainly recognize some labels, like Fat Bastard, which pick up on current culture and use it to sell wine. You choose wines by the labels don't you?

The exhibit covers winery architecture, wine glass design, including some that are totally impractical, and all sorts of publications on wine -- magazines, comics, books and TV shows (they did not include In Wine Country, or Gary Vee's Wine Library TV). There is a clip from the famous 60 Minutes report that red wine is good for your heart. Boy did that cause a mad rush on red wine and help push us into a stronger wine culture.

Then there's the the smell wall, where you can sniff a few wines that have a distinct aroma. It's not actually wine in the glass globes, but liquid mixtures that deliver the scent when you put your nose in the funnel and squeeze the rubber ball. Cat pee in wine? Oh yes, that's a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Fresh strawberries? Has to be White Zinfandel -- which has arguably played a big roll in our wine culture by getting many people to try this slightly sweet and easy to quaff wine.

How Wine Became Modern closes on April 17, so you still have time to make plans to see it. It will change the way you think about and view wine in your day to day life.

The smell wall at How Wine Became Modern exhibit
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