Wednesday, November 24, 2010

How Wine Became Modern

I happened to be in San Francisco for the opening of the How Wine Became Modern exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibit focuses on the year 1976 as the beginning of modern winemaking. The photograph above is a section of the piece titled The Judgment of Paris, 1976. It depicts a parody of The Last Supper. A blind tasting of French and Californian wines was conducted with shocking results. Even French experts found New World wines being made of superior quality. This scandalous scene was depicted in the 2008 film, "Bottle Shock." With this as the starting point of modern winemaking, the exhibit displays the diversity of wine stemware and exotic decanters, aroma samples and various fads of descriptors and flavor adjectives, soil samples from different winemaking regions and definitions of terroir, and a collection of different wine labels and marketing appeals.

There were two parts of the exhibit that I most enjoyed. The design of wineries and modern architecture was inspiring in both form and function. Perhaps the most relevant part of an exhibit entitled "How Wine Became Modern," was left strangely understated; the actual techniques and technologies of truly modern winemaking. Paul Draper, the chief winemaker at Ridge Winery, describes the scene. "In California for at least the last ten or fifteen years we have heard that the wines are now made in the vineyard. What is not mentioned is that in most cases they are then remade in the winery."

The technology Mr. Draper refers to includes not only the architectural facilities, with precise controls of temperature, sophisticated pumps and presses, but also the chemistry of winemaking itself. What that means for today's winemaker is more precise control by means of a wide array of additives, from powdered tannins, yeast superfoods and nutrients, to oak chips, advanced fining and filtering agents supplied by companies like Laffort and Lallemand, Gusmer Enterprises and Scott Laboratories. These companies can also provide analytical services to measure your titratable acidity versus volatile acidity, malic acid, pH levels and whatever else you want to know. Today, many great winemakers use additives to some degree, like the often called "Viagra of winemaking," diammonium phosphate. DAP is a nutrient that supplies yeast with the nitrogen it requires get the job done, and one of many common nutrients used to control modern fermentation.

These are the techniques rarely advertised by wineries. It seemed to me as I was leaving the museum that this portion of the exhibit could have run away with the show, but instead was left as secretive as by the industry itself. Perhaps they want to maintain the romance of nature in a bottle, or perhaps they fear the notion of cheating. Whether that means cheating nature or cheating the consumer may be reason enough to let the juice speak for itself. Like any great tool when used properly, it only enhances and not merely imitates, the fundamental work of the artisan. Maybe one day, the public will be ready to know more about the product.

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