When I saw the posters go up for Gift of the Gods, I promised myself that I'd see this exhibit early. The inner procrastinator got the better of me, and I found myself visiting the museum on the last weekend of the show. It was either that Saturday or no visit at all since I had made other plans for the next day, so I braved the strange combination of wind, rain, and snow to hop on OC Transpo Bus 8. I rode the bus over the Ottawa River with mixed feelings. I love wine, but have developed an allergy to it, so I've had to find other ways to appreciate wine. Visiting this show was just one of them.
Gift of the Gods is a variation on an exhibition of the same name at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), with one major difference: this show traces the history and cultural significance of wine from its beginnings through to the development of the Canadian wine industry. As I began my journey through history, I couldn't help but notice the corporate logo of the SAQ, the Quebec Liquor Board, emblazoned about the entrance of the exhibit. I couldn't help but wonder if I were the only one who thought it ironic that the only wine Quebecers could look at was in an exhibit thanks to a long strike by SAQ employees across the province. The disruption in service actually highlighted the importance of wine in modern society, meshing quite nicely with the exhibit.
The plethora of ancient Greek artwork on display keenly highlighted the importance of wine in ancient culture. Images of Dionysus, or Bacchus, the Greek god of wine, graced exquisite statues and everyday items, including impossibly small cameos. My favourite piece was a red terra-cotta face so thin it looked like a mask. A small, but impressive, collection of amphorae and serving vessels were on display. Ranging from the incredibly large to the small, amphorae were not just used to hold wine. They also held the other important ingredient in the enjoyment of wine: water. All civilized people knew that you were supposed to cut your wine with water; you never enjoyed it straight. This social practice required the development of what was likely, if the variety of vessels on display was any indication: millions of uniquely decorated serving vessels in which the wine and water were mixed and then consumed.
The Greeks gave us many gifts, including democracy. Democracy did not just apply to electoral voting, however. The Greeks also democratized wine. Prior to the Greeks, wine was considered a luxury reserved only for the wealthy. The Greeks made wine available to all. When I read this interesting historical tidbit, I thought that it was too bad they did not consider fit to democratize other facets of their society! The wine culture also gave us words like symposium, although its modern meaning is somewhat different. The ancient symposium involved men drinking and carousing to excess around low-legged tables like the reproduction on display. Women were only allowed in to, uh, entertain the men. Somehow, I doubt this is the kind of symposium the dean of the law school had in mind when my club organized an international symposium.
The medieval era shifted the focus on wine from everyday use for pleasure to the celebration of the glory of god. The drinking vessels on display ranged from simple wood bowls to ornately decorated chalices, but the only thing I could think of was how these shared drinking vessels were the perfect medium to spread disease! Religion would prove to be a driving force behind the development of the wine industry in Canada, as the French Catholic Church required a reliable supply of wine for religious purposes. But I get ahead of myself.
The next section of the exhibition illustrated the revival of all things ancient, including the fascination with wine and its pleasurable enjoyment. Unlike the ancients, whose objects were designed to be both beautiful and functional, the post-Renaissance objects were designed with a kitschy flair. Reproductions of classic images are completely overdone, with gaudy colours indicating that the designers thought, "Why not add just a little more embellishment - it can't possibly hurt." Sometimes there is such a thing as too much!
The Venetian glass makers definitely got design right. Functional and elegant, every wine glass is a work of art in its own right. Somehow, when the Venetian glassmakers added embellishment, it looked graceful, not kitschy. The qualities that make this glass so beautiful also make it extremely fragile - many of the pieces from the ROM were too fragile to be shipped from Toronto.
And now, back to the Canadian wine industry. As Europeans settled North America, the powers that be searched for ways to exploit their new colonies. Wine was not exactly one of the products that was high on that list - Canada is known as the Great White North after all! It was, however, necessary for the Catholic Church to acquire wine for religious services. Once again, necessity was the mother of invention.
Not all Canadians saw the benefits of alcohol. I was starkly reminded of this by a Temperance pamphlet on exhibit. Actually, I laughed when I saw it. I completed my undergraduate degree in a prairie city settled by men and women belonging to the Temperance movement. The Temperance movement hoped to rid society of the evil of alcohol. While they did not succeed in reaching their ultimate goal, they did leave a few reminders behind, including a street named Temperance. It is, however, quite ironically located at the heart of the student housing area near campus and plays host to many a student party complete with alcohol. I don't think the students get the irony.
The quirkiest portion of the exhibit included odd offerings from the 1970s with names like Baby Duck, Baby Bear, Tiger Cat, and even one called Zoom, a cola-flavoured wine. The wine industry targeted the youth market with these offerings, but I wondered who would ever drink this stuff. No wonder Canadian wine became the biggest joke in the industry.
Luckily, some Canadians had the vision and determination to improve upon the sad state of Canadian wine. A trip through the interior of a vineyard building illustrated how Canadians adapted the grape to the Canadian climate, how they modified the oak barrel, and how they developed the much coveted ice wine, all an indication of the versatility and adaptability of wine.
The exhibition ended on a positive note with row upon row of award-winning Canadian wines on display. It certainly made me think just how far wine has come since the days of the ancients. Who would have thought that wine would be drunk without water, or that frozen grapes would result in a delectable treat? Wine is truly a remarkable gift of the gods.