San Rafael, Calif.
The "Old Grapes New Ferment" display tells the story of Zinfandel and highlights the stuck fermentation at Sutter Home that spawned the white Zinfandel wine craze.
—Most Americans in the 1950s probably couldn’t imagine microwaving their lunch or hitting up the corner Vietnamese restaurant for a bánh mì sandwich.
They also likely couldn’t envision someone drinking an Oregon Tempranillo or spending more than $300 for one bottle of Napa Valley wine.
Today the Smithsonian Institution opened “Food, Transforming the American Table,” a 3,800-square-foot exhibit that traces the rapid evolution of American food during the second half of the 20th century. One important element of that evolution is how Americans came to embrace wine and how the domestic wine industry responded to that growing demand. “This is about food and change,” said Paula Johnson, a curator at the National Museum of American History.
Speaking to Wines & Vines
on Nov. 16, Johnson said staff at the museum “just finished hanging the last panel and cleaning all the glass” of the exhibit displays.
Force of change for food and wine
Johnson said the exhibit begins with a visit to Julia Child’s actual home kitchen. Child was a “force of change for many people in what they cooked and how they approached food and wine.”
The food exhibits cover several of the major food trends that include the advent of mass-produced foods, the emergence of convenience and fast food, how the United States became a nation of snackers and the injection of immigrant cuisine into the national diet.
On Monday, several of California’s notable winemakers attended a private dinner to commemorate the opening of the exhibit. Vintner Warren Winiarksi , whose Cabernet Sauvignon bested the French in the pivotal 1976 Judgment of Paris, spoke to the audience about his belief that winemaking needs to regain a sense of balance and proportion. “Great wine requires an unwavering commitment to aesthetic proportion, and that is something I continue to stress today as consultant and mentor to the new generation of winemakers,” Winiarksi said, according to a statement released by a press agency. “The history of the American wine industry is part of our history and key element of the future.”
Other notable wine figures attending the event included Margrit Mondavi, Ravenswood
founder Joel Peterson, Violet Grgich and Robert Biale.
Johnson said the exhibit “Wine for the Table” highlights how the American wine industry revived itself after Prohibition and then focused on improving quality and the public’s wine appreciation to fuel a growing market for domestic wine. “American wine and winemaking really came into its own during this period,” Johnson said.
She said the museum put together a small display to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1976 Judgment of Paris, called “Red, White and American,” which included a bottle of the famous 1973 Chateau Montelena
Chardonnay and a broad overview of the history of American wine.
Research for that display contributed to the new exhibit.
Artifacts and stories from wine’s past
Starting with the years after Prohibition, the exhibit first focuses on the effort to improve wine quality by researchers at the University of California, Davis
. The display also includes marketing booklets like “Wine Tasting Party” and “Magic in Your Glass” published by the Wine Advisory Board in the 1960 as well as a photo from a 1939 issue of Wines & Vines
of a group of men tasting wines for the California State Fair
A display entitled “Old Grapes New Ferment” tells the story of Zinfandel by highlighting the stuck fermentation at Sutter Home in Napa Valley that spawned the white Zinfandel wine that made the Trinchero family’s fortune. A 1975 bottle of white Zinfandel is included in the display that also recounts UC Davis researcher Carole Meredith’s conclusion that Zinfandel is the same variety as the Croatian grape Crljenak Kastelanski. An old T-shirt from Ravenswood in Sonoma reading “Who is Crljenak Kastelanski?” is part of the display. It plays on the same question about the fictional “Keyser Söze” character from the 1995 movie “The Usual Suspects.”
Other historical items include tools from Napa Valley winemakers: a colorimeter and lab timer used by enologist Andre Tchelistcheff, a picking knife that had been used by Stags Leap District grapegrowing pioneer Nathan Fay, an ebullioscope and beret owned by vintner Mike Grgich
and a wood grape box and wood punch-down tool on loan from the Biale
The exhibit notes how Thomas Jefferson tried, but failed, to grow winegrapes in Virginia, but the state’s fast-growing wine business is reflective of the overall success of American wine in general. A picking basket and knife used at Chrysalis Vineyards
in Middleburg, Va., is part of the exhibit.
Johnson said the exhibit would run for at least two years, but that food and wine is “a topic of continued interest” of the institution.