Wine glassware company Riedel says the right glass can make or break your wine. Maybe so, but perfection isn’t cheap.
Maximilian Riedel’s princely name befits his family’s world-renowned legacy: More than 50 years ago, a few centuries after the Riedels began producing glass goods, his grandfather Claus began custom designing glasses for specific types of wine. Today, Austria-based Riedel (rhymes with needle) is the world’s dominant wine glassware company. Its products are seen by many oenophiles as necessary to enjoy quality wines, and by luxe lovers as a byword for the good life.
So I couldn’t resist the opportunity to attend a “wine tasting seminar” put on by Riedel at City Winery, part of Chicago’s West Loop “restaurant row” on Randolph Street, in late November. Would the company’s carefully designed crystal tools, its well-tuned instruments—to borrow a few metaphors deployed by Maximilian during his presentation—work their magic on my palate? Or would my relative ignorance (my drink of choice is craft beer) leave me immune to what legendary wine critic Robert M. Parker, Jr., has called “the finest glasses for both technical and hedonistic purposes”?
The company includes a copy of Parker’s 1991 Wine Advocate article in its marketing materials. His effusive assertion that “the effect of these glasses on fine wine is profound” is mostly based on the debunked notion that different parts of the tongue are more sensitive to certain flavors. But just like his father Georg, who runs the company’s Europe and Asia divisions, Riedel Crystal USA CEO Maximilian asserted at City Winery that his glasses perfectly guide certain grape varietals to the right place in your mouth.
“I like to compare it to the game of golf. You cannot play 18 holes with one club, and you cannot enjoy wine with one glass,” he told me a few minutes before beginning the hour-long guided tasting. “People who come to this class realize this. Of course in one way it complicates their life because then they have to make an investment in more glasses. But in the end they benefit from it because it just unlocks the sensations from each grape variety.”
Slowly quaffing Domaine Drouhin Oregon Pinot Noir (2010), it was hard to argue with Maximilian’s pronouncement that, in Riedel’s Vinum XL Pinot Noir glass, it was well-balanced and “elegant” while the exact same wine tasted inferior in Vinum XL Syrah and Vinum XL Cabernet Sauvignon glasses. The audience of about 75 people murmured in agreement. I did too—the Drouhin really did taste fruitier and have a rich aftertaste in the pinot glass, but was simplified and a bit bitter in the cabernet glass.
The trouble is that scientists reject the idea of a “tongue map,” and laboratory studies have shown that in an absolutely controlled environment, people generally can’t tell the difference between wines served in different glasses—at least not in ways that flatter Riedel products. (If you’re a Riedel devotee or just curious, Google “Gourmet magazine” and “shattered myths” to learn more.) Yet Riedel repeatedly wrapped his glasses in an aura of science during his presentation: “The DNA of the grape determines the shape of the glass.” “The physics of the wine changed” due to contact with a glass.
But science aside, I can’t argue with my senses: I noticed substantial differences in the “nose” and taste of not just the pinot, but the Justin Winery Syrah (2010) and Faust Cabernet Sauvignon (2009) that we sampled in each of the three glasses. (It was a “New World” evening of reds; Riedel told me that “in particular with red wine, the glass really can make a difference.”) I didn’t always swallow my guide’s detailed descriptions of differences, but I’m sure he wasn’t just putting us on. And I wasn’t the only one persuaded.
“The shape of the glass really makes a huge difference,” said Anita Sheridan, a nurse who lives in the suburb of Lisle and made the trip into the city for the event. “I thought this was just a marketing thing for Riedel, a way for them to sell glasses, but he really proved his point. You can take great wine and put it in the wrong glass.”
Mark Ryan, beverage director at Davanti Enoteca, a restaurant in Chicago’s Little Italy neighborhood, agreed. “It’s an experiential thing. Glassware matters. It’s pretentious to just talk about. You have to see it for yourself,” Ryan said. “If it’s $25 a glass, it’s worth it over a lifetime. It’s an investment.”
Riedel, who co-owns the business with his father, probably helped the family land a few more exclusive glassware contracts with restaurants and bars at City Winery, which is housed in a beautifully repurposed and redesigned brick warehouse. For me, though, being persuaded that glassware can accentuate wine characteristics isn’t the same thing as opening up my wallet to pay $69 for a pair of glasses from Riedel’s Vinum Collection. (Its mouth-blown “Sommellier” stemware series, is even more expensive.) I guess I haven’t reached the 1% quite yet.
But if you’re serious about wine and have money and a few hours to burn, I’d recommend attending a Riedel “seminar.” Just keep in mind that you’ll be in the presence of a master glassmaker and a master salesman. It might be difficult to remember the latter as you sample top-shelf vintages surrounded by wine lovers.
It’s hard not to like that—and perhaps even harder to separate what you’re hearing from what you’re seeing, smelling and tasting.