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A half-century look at American wine

The wine section of the new exhibit at the National Museum of American History includes a small wine press. No steel vat, though. (Jaclyn Nash/PHOTO BY JACLYN NASH)

On a wall behind Julia Child’s Kitchen in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, there’s a photo of the cooking icon taken at the conclusion of one of her early cooking shows. She’s pouring a glass of wine to enjoy with the meal she just taught us to cook.

The kitchen and that photo are the introduction to the museum’s new exhibit, “Food: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000,” which opens Tuesday. 

Dave McIntyre is the wine columnist for The Washington Post. He also blogs at View Archive

“Julia’s kitchen is the opening to all the changes in the way we eat that occurred over those 50 years,” says Paula Johnson, project manager of the exhibit. “This is where [visitors get their] first reference to wine. Julia was encouraging her viewers to enjoy wine as part of a fine meal.”

Johnson is one of five historians and folklorists in the Smithsonian’s Food and Wine History Project, formed in 1996 to chronicle the changing ways Americans eat and drink. Their exhibit covers a half-century in which the backyard cookout became a social event and “drive-thru” fast-food joints turned our car seats into dinner tables. It was also a time when the U.S. wine industry finally shrugged off the doldrums of Prohibition and shocked the world with its quality.

Johnson and colleagues Nanci Edwards, Rayna Green, Cory Bernat and Steve Velasquez showed me around the exhibit last week as they were putting on the final touches. I was particularly interested in the section called “Fifty States of Wine.” In 1950, there were 758 wineries in 24 states; by the turn of the century, 2,904 were spread across all 50 states. There are more than 6,000 today.

A close up of the award winning 1973 Stags Leap Cabernet Sauvignon. (National Museum of American History/SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION)

The “Wine for the Table” exhibit shows how immigrants cultivated American wine, including familiar Italian families such as Mondavi, Gallo and Pedroncelli and anonymous Mexican guest workers who tilled California’s fields and vineyards. Luminaries of California wine history appear in photographs and mementoes: Warren Winiarski, Mike Grgich, Andre Tchelistcheff, Joel Peterson. The University of California at Davis transforms from a dusty old wine cellar in a 1966 Ansel Adams photograph to its gleaming new high-technology winery. A 30-minute video includes excerpts from the dozens of interviews the team members conducted as part of their oral history project on American wine.

Technology’s impact on winemaking is displayed through handmade tools and hand-scrawled lab notes from the 1970s to computerized fermentation vessels that allow winemakers to check the temperature of their wines on iPads. This part of the exhibit might not have the scale its organizers sought, however.

“We really wanted to get a big old stainless-steel vat in here,” Johnson said wistfully.

Old advertisements illustrate how the wine industry clamored for acceptance. A 1960s poster paired wines with various foods, including TV dinners. Then, as now, Americans needed to be convinced that wine could be a daily drink, not just for special occasions. 

Acceptance came after the 1976 Paris tasting, in which Winiarski’s cabernet sauvignon from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Grgich’s chardonnay from Chateau Montelena beat France’s best wines and proved that California ranked among the world’s best wine regions.

The recent spread of wine throughout the country is captured in a display titled “Return to Virginia,” featuring Jennifer McCloud’s efforts to promote Norton as Virginia’s native grape. From Thomas Jefferson’s efforts to grow wine grapes at Monticello to today’s 220 wineries, the Old Dominion features prominently in any history of American wine.

Winiarski helped inspire the history project’s creation and is a financial sponsor of the new exhibit. “The pleasure of eating for humans is not just replenishment of our animal needs but community and sharing,” he said in a phone interview from his office at Arcadia Vineyards in Yountville, Calif. “Wine should be part of that. I hope this exhibit displays that wine is part of American life, because we can make wines that are beautiful.”

When the Food and Wine History Project began, “We had two wine presses and a George Washington wine coaster,” Edwards recalled. Since then they’ve brought Julia Child’s Kitchen to the Smithsonian, and now they’ve created an exhibit that anyone who eats or drinks will want to see.

Thanksgiving wine recommendations

“Food: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000,” a permanent exhibit, opens at the National Museum of American History on Tuesday. 1400 Constitution Ave. NW. McIntyre blogs at Follow him on Twitter: @dmwine.



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