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.