Confession time: It absolutely galls me when I’m wrong. And I’m not saying I’m never wrong, but my paradigm prefers to remain firmly where I’ve planted it. This rather pigheaded way of thinking was never more on display than the day I hesitatingly, grudgingly and uncheerfully agreed that glassware makes a difference in how we enjoy our wine.
I have always adhered to the idea that the people outside a wine glass are far more important than any liquid inside. Given the choice, I’d take a non-descript white Bordeaux in a Dixie cup with friends every time over a 1947 Cheval Blanc in fine crystal with a bunch of fools. I still feel that way.
But whining about glasses sounds so pretentious that I’m reluctant to lend any credibility to the importance of proper glassware and wine. Yet, appropriate glassware is the 500-pound gorilla riding a white elephant that we often choose to ignore.
About 15 years ago—when I clung to my it’s-just-as-good-in-a-jelly-jar mentality—I stood in front of a smiling representative of the Riedel Glass Company of Austria. Riedel was then, as it is now, the preeminent glass manufacturer in the world. He was pouring a chardonnay into two fairly similar glasses and I was asked to pick which wine I preferred. Surprise. I chose the Riedel glass.
“Luck!” I accused. We tried the same exercise again with a different wine. And then again, with the same result both times. “This is bull-generated fertilizer,” said a frustrated me. This incident occurred at a one-table booth at a public event and the line behind me got longer and louder as I continued the defense of my indefensible position. The rep, no longer smiling, suggested I move along.
Wrong! Me! Ugh!
Since that day, I’ve come to accept that perceiving the multiple facets of a wine has a lot to do with its smell and, to a lesser extent, how it is delivered onto your tongue. A glass can open a fire hose of aromas that can make a cabernet sauvignon appear overly alcoholic or it can allow delicate aromas to escape unnoticed and make your pinot noir smell like, well, nothing.
Like corrective eyewear, appropriate stemware merely puts a wine in focus so you can experience all its wonders that are right under your nose.
I was reminded of this recently when I ordered a Rioja red wine from Spain at an Atlanta restaurant. The wine, which I was familiar with, was accompanied by stubby, thick-walled, straight-sided glasses. The wine, which I was familiar with, simply did not live up to its potential. I silently blamed the glass.
Do you have own every glass made to enjoy wine? No. A well-made, tulip-shaped-glass with no lip that can hold at least 20 ounces may be all you need. Do you have to spend a mint on glassware? You absolutely can, but I don’t recommend it. Decent glasses, however, are not cheap.
I run with six different kinds of glasses, which is a lot, but consider what I do for a living. I have an all-purpose Spiegelau white glass (used for crisp, aromatic whites and some dessert wines), an all-purpose Spiegelau red glass (used for just about everything else, including some chardonnays), a Spiegelau Bordeaux glass (used for big cabernets and older wines, including some pinot noirs), a Spiegelau pinot noir glass (used for young pinot noirs, light-bodied reds and when I just need another red glass) and a Spiegelau sparkling wine glass.
I also have about 100 restaurant-grade, all-purpose Riedel red glasses, which closely resemble the all-purpose Spiegelau red glasses except they have short stems that allow them to fit easily in the dishwasher (22 at a time when I have to). I use these for my wine classes and everyday use.
I paid on average about $6 a piece for the above-list glasses. And I replace broken glasses at about $6 a piece, but with identical glasses. That’s the beauty of choosing lines that don’t go out of production. You should count on paying somewhere around this price. Interestingly, the more expensive the glass, the less durable it is. Expensive glasses too delicate for the dishwasher hold no charm over me.
Wine glasses aren’t cheap, but neither is a decent bottle of wine. If you want to get the most out of that $20 Rioja you just put in your shopping cart, then—like it or not—a small investment in corrective glassware is the price you must pay.
Gil Kulers is a certified wine educator and a consultant for a metro-Atlanta wine shop. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from Thumbs Down, One Thumb Mostly Up, One Thumb Up, Two Thumbs Up, Two Thumbs Way Up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.
— Gil Kulers, AJC Drink blog