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Visual Palate

Wine-label art goes to college

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MESSAGE ON A BOTTLE This label by Chester Arnold depicts Glen Ellen’s Imagery Estate Winery from above.
  • MESSAGE ON A BOTTLE This label by Chester Arnold depicts Glen Ellen’s Imagery Estate Winery from above.

Ever wonder who creates the art that you see on wine bottles? In the case of Glen Ellen's Imagery Estate Winery, the label art adorning each limited vintage wine for the past 35 years has come from an array of renowned American artists.

This past December, Imagery Estate donated more than 440 of these original pieces to the University Art Gallery at Sonoma State University, many of which are on display through July in the gallery's current exhibit, "Palate to Palette: The Imagery Collection at SSU."

Imagery's collection has been curated for the last three decades by former Sonoma State faculty member, department chair and university gallery director Bob Nugent, who created the Imagery label idea with winemaker Joe Benziger.

"The connection between Imagery and SSU has been a long time in the making," says University Gallery director Michael Schwager. "My understanding was that when the winery sold [to the Wine Group in 2015], the Benziger family wanted to keep the collection together and cared for. SSU was the logical place. We have a gallery, a professional staff and a place to store and exhibit the work. It was a perfect match."

"Palate to Palette" features 67 labels, a modest selection of the 440 pieces donated to the university. "It was a really challenging process to go through all the works and select just enough to fit in the gallery," Schwager says.

All the pieces share a depiction of the "Parthenon" structure on the Imagery Estate grounds similar to that of the ancient Greek architectural wonder.

The largest painting in the exhibition is by Sonoma-based artist Chester Arnold, an aerial view of the Imagery Estate done in a colorfully realist style on an oddly shaped canvas (pictured). Other standout artists include Berkeley artist Mildred Howard, whose mixed-media assemblages make references to historical figures and events. Also from the East Bay, Chinese-American artist Hung Liu produces portraits of Chinese figures based on historical photographs and propaganda art, overlaid with running colors like a wet painting left in the rain.

Schwager has utilized the collection for a museum studies program, part of the art history curriculum, to instruct students on the fundamentals of museum-collection management. Students can learn how to handle, examine, store and catalogue artwork, as well as learn how to curate a show based on a large selection such as the Imagery collection.

"I like to think that [Sonoma State has] built this fantastic Green Music Center," Schwager says, "and that the art gallery and the program here is following in those footsteps, in terms of building a great resource for the campus and the community."

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