The Riedel wineglass: sucker bait or essential drinking tool?

Aug. 14 2002 11:16 AM

Glass Sipper

Does a 50-buck wineglass buy you better-tasting wine?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

I used to ridicule the Riedel fetishists. Then I became one. Riedel, for those not in the know, is the world's trendiest brand of wineglass—the Manolo Blahniks of stemware. Wine geeks tote their Riedels to restaurants, dinner parties, and pretty much any place else where quality bottles might be uncorked.

Michael Steinberger  Michael Steinberger 

Michael Steinberger is a free-lance journalist.

I contracted the Riedel bug several years ago. A local wine shop was offering tastes of the 1988 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Romanee St. Vivant (which is French for "Dream on, peasant"). The only hitch: The store used plastic cups, and Romanee-Conti deserves better than Dixie. So on my way out of the house, I grabbed one of the Riedel Burgundy glasses that my wife had recently bought. To say that I was self-conscious carrying the glass into the store would be putting it mildly—I looked like I was on a perp walk—but the guy pouring was kind enough not to snicker until after I had turned my back. The Romanee-Conti didn't make much of an impression—it's difficult to form one based on an eyedropper-sized sample. However, the glass, with its tulip-shaped bowl, long hour-glass stem, and thick, solid base, cut a distinguished figure. It felt good—its lip perfectly sized, its weight flawlessly distributed. I was sold—to a point.

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Riedel is one of the great marketing stories of our age. The company, based in the Tyrolean Alps, was founded in the late 1940s by Claus Josef Riedel, a ninth-generation glass-maker who invented the expansive oval-shaped bowl that is now the industry prototype. However, it is his son and successor, Georg, who has given Riedel its global renown and aura of indispensability. He has done this by custom-designing glasses for nearly every major grape variety and persuading legions of oenophiles that specialized stemware is essential to wine appreciation.

According to Riedel, the shape of a glass can either enhance or impede a wine's aromas and flavors, and the configuration that brings out the best in a California cabernet is not necessarily the right one for an Australian shiraz. Different parts of the tongue are sensitive to different taste sensations, and Riedel claims that, after years of trial and error, he has figured out how best to guide specific wines across the palate. For instance, because red Burgundies tend to be acidic and acidity can sometimes overwhelm the fruit, Riedel has crafted a glass that supposedly steers the wine away from the sides of the tongue, where acidity is detected, and directs it toward the middle, where the wine can better strut its stuff.

The Sommeliers glass, cream of the Riedel crop
The Sommeliers glass, cream of the Riedel crop

Call it genius, call it a crock, but Riedel's spiel has worked sales magic. The firm now has six lines of glasses, from a basic series up to the hand-blown Sommeliers lead crystal stems. Within each category are a number of glasses. The Vinum line, one class down from Sommeliers, includes glasses for syrah, Brunello di Montalcino, Riesling, tempranillo, and Chianti classico, among other varieties and blends. In short, you can now spend almost as much time and money collecting glasses as you do collecting wines—and that is exactly what many wine drinkers are doing.

I've managed to keep my Riedelism under control. In part, that's because the glasses are a nightmare to clean. They are too fragile for the dishwasher, and detergent can leave a residue that detracts from both the smell and taste of a wine. So can dishwashing soap, which is why many of the cognoscenti counsel against that, too. I've heeded their advice, using just scalding hot water, but it isn't a very effective method, judging by the lip stains that perpetually adorn the rims. The bottoms of the bowls are so deep that I've resorted to impaling a piece of paper towel on the end of a knife in order to reach them.

I've also found, pace Georg Riedel, that the Bordeaux Vinum glass works just as well for most other styles; I've continued to use the Burgundy glass for pinot noir and the champagne flute for bubbly, but everything else—Châteauneuf-du-Papes, Barolos, white Burgundies—goes into the Bordeaux. A few weeks ago, however, I was given reason to reconsider even its necessity. I was out for dinner with friends at a New York-area restaurant with a jaw-dropping list of older wines that were seriously underpriced. We ordered a renowned 1991 Northern Rhone offered at an especially deep discount.

The only problem: The waiter failed to break out the Riedels. I thought about playing the wine asshole but decided to let the faux pas slide. Did it matter? Not that I could tell. If the plebeian glass stifled the emergence of an aroma or two, I was still able to note a half-dozen others. If the wine's point of impact was an eighth of an inch from my tongue's G spot, it was still orgasmic. Could my Riedel Bordeaux really have heightened the pleasure?

To answer that question, I decided to put Riedel to the test. One night last week, I pulled out a bottle of the 1999 Château d'Armailhac, a very respectable classified growth from the Pauillac appellation in Bordeaux, and put it on the kitchen table alongside six glasses: a plastic water cup; a water glass; a generic wineglass; a Spiegelau Bordeaux glass ($8); my Riedel Bordeaux Vinum ($18); and the Riedel Sommeliers Bordeaux glass ($55). I chose the d'Armailhac in part because of its youth: I figured its bouquet would be somewhat reticent, making it easier to separate the workhorses from the dogs.

The plastic cup was predictably useless; the d'Armailhac might as well have been fermented Welch's grape juice. Let me amend my earlier comment: No wine—not even Beringer white zinfandel—deserves Dixie.

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