National Museum Celebrates Wine Families

California wineries that lasted generations and survived Prohibition donate artifacts

by Jane Firstenfeld
Amy Hoopes (left) and Christine Wente of Wente Family Estates attend a reception at the Smithsonian Institution Building in Washington D.C.
Washington, D.C.—The strong bonds of immigrant families enabled their wineries to outlast Prohibition, grow and thrive after Repeal. These are the roots of a work in progress at the National Museum of American History on the Capitol Mall in Washington, D.C.

The American Wine & Food Exhibit launched in 2012 continues to expand. Paula Johnson is project director and curator of the exhibition “FOOD: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000.”

Prior to the 80th anniversary of Repeal on Dec. 5, scions of some of California’s pioneer wineries attended an invitation-only winemaker dinner at the museum to raise funds for the project.

What is museum-worthy?
Johnson has been collecting artifacts for the food and wine exhibit since 1996, the 20th anniversary of the historic “Judgment of Paris” tasting that established California as a producer of world-class wines. The first two artifacts, donated by Warren Winiarski and Jim Barrett, are full bottles of 1973 Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon and 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, the Napa Valley wines that rocked the world.

“We are slowly building our collection,” Johnson told Wines & Vines. “We are focusing on post-Prohibition history: how the wine industry rebuilt after Repeal.” 

“FOOD: Transforming the American Table,” will resonate with baby boomers and foodies of any age. It includes Julia Child’s home kitchen and explores the transformation in the United States that put wine on the family table. “It looks at wine in the context of change,” Johnson said.

“We just keep learning, and pick up on what museum visitors are interested in. They are not as familiar with the wine story as with food production,” Johnson said by way of explaining that she never stops collecting.

What makes a museum-worthy artifact? “We are always looking for the stories and the history” behind donations, Johnson said. The museum opened in 1964 and now receives some 5 million visitors per year.

What wineries contribute
J. Pedroncelli Winery, proffered donations in spring 2013. “Curators came to our winery, and one of our old photos is in the current exhibit,” said Julie Pedroncelli St. John, VP/marketing for the 30,000-case winery founded in Geyserville, Calif., by her grandfather in 1927, while Prohibition was still in full force.

“Our contributions talk about wine and food,” St. John said. “We’re donating the original John Pedroncelli Winery sign, a giant polenta pot, a barrel stencil and a ledger from the 1950s.”

Although these items had been displayed at the winery, the decision to donate to NMAH was simple, St. John said. “Paula Johnson asked: ‘Do you want hundreds of people to see your sign or thousands?’”

St. John attended the winemakers’ dinner in Washington, D.C., along with representatives of Gundlach-Bundschu, E. & J. Gallo, Louis M. Martini and the Wente families.

Christine Wente, one of the fifth generation of winegrowers at Livermore’s Wente Vineyards, is in charge of the family archives. She is anticipating a visit from Johnson next spring to determine which family treasures will be added to the museum’s collection.

Although artwork, awards and photos are displayed all over the winery and its restaurant, there is no formal display. “We’re thinking about creating one,” Wente said, noting that the winery is celebrating its 130th anniversary this year, and a century of Chardonnay growing.

Wente is not certain exactly what will stir interest from Johnson and her museum colleagues. “Visual appeal and significance, I think—the bottles, especially,” she surmised. “We were the first to label Chardonnay as a varietal and also first with varietal Sauvignon Blanc.”

Among the items Wente has submitted are full bottles of Valle de Oro Livermore Valley Chablis from just past Prohibition, and 1942 Wente Bros. Livermore Valley Chardonnay, “from just after we started labeling the varietal as Chardonnay,” Wente said.

Photos of founder C.H Wente, his family and winery are included, along with financial ledgers, grape purchase and production records from 1891 through 1974; marketing materials, medals, menus and C.H. Wente’s traveling trunk and cane.

Curator Johnson said she especially enjoys talking with the fifth-, sixth- and seventh-generation people who continue to work in their family wineries.

“So many of these (wineries) are still in the same place. There’s a strong relationship to the land and to the place. Being able to work with these people is special. I have many moments when I’m kind of speechless.”

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