Maximilian Riedel never had to think much about a career: For legions of oenophiles, his last name is synonymous with appreciating the world’s finest wines. Carrying on the family business 11 generations after it was founded, especially as the only son of the company’s current present, might feel a bit burdensome to some. But Maximilian plays the role of Riedel’s crown prince and American ambassador with ease (and well-tailored suits). He committed to a career in the company at age 18 and, after stints in Dubai and Paris, took the helm of Riedel Crystal USA at the age of 27. His designs for glassware and decanters have been acquired by the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, among other prestigious museums.
Now 35, in recent years Riedel has kept a busy annual schedule of close to 100 wine glassware “tasting seminars.” I spoke to him in late November, a few minutes before he took the stage at City Winery in Chicago’s West Loop to make his pitch to wine enthusiasts intrigued by his company’s global reputation.
Q: In terms of glassware, is there a big difference between European and American wine culture?
A: In terms of history, of course. In Europe, with all the royal families in the past, people were exposed to this kind of fine wine and dining experience much earlier. But Americans caught up in the last 200 years. The glass awareness and the wine awareness overall in America, being such a young dynamic culture, is much more advanced. Nowhere in the world are people as much aware of the right grape variety in the right glass.
So for us, the United States has become our single most important market in the last 10 years. It’s a very young market for us, compared to Europe, where we’ve been selling our glasses since the very beginning. But the Americans have caught up quickly. When I say “Americans,” I also refer to our friends in Canada, and lately I’m also focusing on Latin America. Colombia has developed a wonderful food culture, and we’re right there. And I always mention Chile and Argentina. Chile and Peru—the greatest seafood in the world comes from there, and people really celebrate it. And Chile makes some of the finest wines.
Q: The great majority of people have a limited budget, and most settle for generic white and red glasses. What are the essentials from where you stand?
A: First, we suggest that what you spend on a bottle of wine, on average, is what you should spend on one glass. Second, go with what you drink the most. If you’re a cabernet drinker, invest in cabernet glasses. If your spouse drinks pinot noir, than you have to have a pinot noir glass. Those are the two glasses with which you should start your collection. Then you can venture off. There is not a generic red and a generic white glass.
Q: How has the company weathered the recession and the very slow U.S. recovery?
A: We have the recession in Europe right now, in most of the countries there. I think we’re through with it in America. Since we’re a global company, we can shift our focus from one market to the other. In the United States, maybe up until 2008 we had consistent double-digit growth. Since then it’s been more single-digit growth. We’re growing, simply because the wine consumption in this country is growing. Now there’s a focus on beer and microbreweries, so we’re focusing on that with our second brand, Spiegelau.
But we’re part of the wine industry. When wine is booming, we go along—because without wine, our glasses would simply be dust catchers.
Q: Would you be disappointed if your son or daughter doesn’t go into the family business?
A: I would be disappointed not in them but in myself, because I had not been able to convince them this is the most fun industry to be active in because you surround yourself with what you love—which is wine and food. So if my children, one day, do not have a palette for wine and food, but they instead become mad scientists, I am fine with that.
But of course my goal is to have a continuation in the family tradition. It is my job to make it attractive for the next generation. If I’m not able to do that, then I’m the last, and this would be a devastating situation for me as a person and a family member. I love kids, although I don’t have any yet, and I love what I do. I hope I can convey my message and my passion.