How Wine Became Modern

Sommelier Christie Dufault Shares Some Insider Secrets as SFMoMA's Innovative Show Opens

The subject of wine and its complexities is capable of inciting fanaticism, snobbery, passion and pride—who can forget Taste, Roald Dahl’s short story about the man who bet his daughter’s hand in marriage on identifying a bottle of wine? In How Wine Became Modern at SFMoMA, curator Henry Urbach ambitiously explores the contemporary culture of wine and the role that architecture, design and media has played in its transformation. The curator also commissioned a "smell wall" allowing visitors to inhale some of the more imaginatively described wine aromas (for example, “petrol” and “hamster cage”) as well as new work, including artist Marco Brambilla's Ritual Composition No. 1 (featured in the still above) which weaves together images from the history of cinema focusing on the clink of wine glasses. Christie Dufault, a San Francisco-based sommelier at RN74 and wine educator who consulted on the new exhibition, spoke to NOWNESS about the show, the best way to drink champagne and one eye-wateringly expensive bottle of Bordeaux. 

What does it mean for a wine to be modern?

Ideas of modernity involve lots of things that people tend to take for granted today––not being flawed with primitive winemaking techniques, [wine] being able to travel the world and remain in pristine condition, the planting of far-flung varieties in places they didn’t originate. In addition, there are stylistic elements that characterize modern wine—polished tannins, exuberant fruit, the flavor of oak. 

What is the most interesting emerging market for wine production?

New Zealand, Argentina, and even Uruguay are making fascinating wines. But then, there are also fresh, exciting projects in European places like Greece, Spain and Italy. 

Do you have a favorite popular culture wine reference?

It’s a sad song about alcoholism, but I love the Handsome Family’s “So Much Wine.” [The 2004 movie] Sideways was also fantastic. But my favorite wine film was Stanley Kramer's The Secret of Santa Vittoria with Anthony Quinn.

What two wineries—one traditional, one modern—would you most like to visit?

Traditional: I’ve been to Chablis, but never tasted at Raveneau—I love those wines. Modern: I’d love to see the chalky soils at Pyramid Valley and Bell Hill in New Zealand. 

Thanksgiving is just around the corner. What wines will you be pairing with your meal?

With Thanksgiving I love champagne to start and carry through the meal. For red wine, give me Cru Beaujolais. And then I’ll switch to Madeira, which goes not only with the savory food but also perfectly with pumpkin pie. 

And what are the best glasses to drink Champagne from at a party this holiday season? 

Forget flutes, forget coupes––drink Champagne out of a moderately sized white wine glass. 

What is the most expensive vintage you have ever drunk, and did it live up to the price tag?

I recently drank a 1945 Château Mouton-Rothschild [Bordeaux] from magnum [approx $28,700]. It was killer. Luckily, I didn’t have to pay for it; the wine was provided by a friend who is a collector. 

What is the first step towards appreciating the complexities of wine?

The first step is training your nose. Smell everything you can and lock those scents down in your mind. When you start recognizing them in wine is when you start making sense of the vinous world. 

What is the best way to get red wine out of a white suit?

Club soda and white wine, believe it or not. But the best answer is: don’t wear a white suit when tasting red wine. 

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