How Wine Seeped Into Modern Life

By Paula Sugarman

Last Friday we put the studio on hold and went to see How Wine Became Modern at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.  The exhibit has had a lot of fanfare because it’s the first comprehensive look at the evolution of wine, design and their influences over the past thirty years. The event held special meaning to my team since our work is displayed among the 200 labels selected for the exhibit.

Paula with Jennifer Hill, who designed CheapSkate

Just being surrounded by SFMOMA’s inspiring architecture and fine arts environment is enough to get designer types amped up. The show begins with a massive photomural of “The Judgment of Paris”, a blind tasting where nine French wine experts unwittingly turned the world topsy-turvy by pronouncing California wines superior to their own.

Next we saw the Stags’ Leap label, which was in keeping with expected wine label design in the 1970s; cream color, lots of white space with a small etched illustration and classic type. It’s interesting that many of our clients are asking to go back to that safe genre during this current recession.

Then came the Terroir gallery. It displays geographic location, soil and climate data from 17 vineyards around the world. Winemakers’ statements reflect the overlap of natural and manmade conditions which create a sense of place. After traveling to many wine regions around the world, it was enlightening to compare these regions all in one place. I LOVED seeing the variety of soil types and caught myself trying to reach through the plexiglass to actually feel it. It was surprising to see pure rock (see green pix above) from Germany’s Mosel region…I mean no soil at all.

As we rounded the corner, a large gallery opened up to a wall with 200 wine bottles in a dozen different design genres. This showed how far label design has come and reiterated the rapid turnover of styles and brands today. Companies used to keep their design for decades. Now it’s sometimes only a year or so. The bottles were displayed in different categories such as Cheeky, Good and Evil, Bold, Sex, Animals, Science, Sport, Understated, and Instructive, to name just a few. Cheapskate Chenin Blanc (see more detailed photo), a label we designed, was in the section called Good Guys, Bad Guys. WineSmith Faux Chablis, another label we worked on, was in the Truth or Consequences section. The room housed an outstanding array of imaginative and elegant designs. We ran from one to the other like kids in a candy shop. By this time one of the guards had earmarked me as a trouble maker for touching the displays (I just couldn’t help myself, some of the embosses were so cool), and standing on another display…well who expected a video wall to be installed in the floor?

Top Photo: Jodi Keer, another Sugarman designer, at the Smell Wall. Bottom Photo: View from the other side of the Smell Wall.

Jodi loved the Smell Wall, a fun and intimate way to experience nose, the part wine aficionados revere (and usually intimidates us a little). Jen and I were into the glass collection since we’re both collectors. Lots of cool and unusual wine glasses and carafes we had never seen. I’ve only scratched the surface of the exhibit’s scope, so here’s a link (SFMOMA Wine Exhibit). Better yet, go see it for yourself if you’re in the area. The installations on the other floors are worth another couple of hours.

Henry Urbach, the museum’s curator of architecture and design, sums it up: “One of the ways that wine became modern was that it became part of everyday life in parts of the world where it wasn’t before”. Advances in technology and media created a fusion of cultures and a revolution in the nature of our storytelling. Wine became modern when it became a part of our social network and linked us not only to the roots of the vine, but also to the stories of the people.


Paula Sugarman is owner and creative director of Sugarman Design Group, a California graphic design studio specializing in brand identity, wine label design and food package design.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>