Fifty years ago, Maximilian Riedel could have been a standout example of that archetypal staple of the American Retail frontier, the Traveling Salesman.
I marvel at the amount of miles this Guru of Glassware logs in pursuit of his evangelical mission to spread the gospel of the glass; everywhere I turn within the admittedly finite country-of-the-mind that is the world of wine, I see Maximilian. He’s at this tasting, he’s at that restaurant, he’s profiled in this magazine, he’s on that television program. He’s everywhere.
And everywhere he goes, he leaves a trail of questions in his wake. This constantly replenished pool of incredulity could probably best be summed up with one querulous word, “Really?” Meaning, does glassware really make as much of a difference as Mr. Riedel would have us believe?
This is a question we field with startling regularity in the tasting room; for whatever reason, this topic seems to be of great interest to a great number of wine-drinking people. To what extent this is due to our Sultan of Stemware’s world-wide missionary endeavors I can’t say; it may in fact be due to the ever-increasing interest in wine in general in this country; it may have to do with the recession (in that, if people are staying in and eating at home more often, they’re going to need to up their serving chops as to the hows, whys, whens, and wheres of presenting wine with a meal); it may have to do the “manufactured need monster” that can often be capitalism (meaning, we might not actually need the glasses, but the market needs us to need them!); or it might simply be one of those cultural zeitgeist moments where, for whatever reason, a topic just captures the public imagination. Regardless, I personally find it quite an interesting topic, and accordingly, I enjoy discussing it.
My/our stance here at RIDGE is definitely a stance in favor of the notion that glassware shape/size has an important effect on one’s ability to fully appreciate what a wine has on offer, and I generally present two key reasons for this:
1) Controlled Aeration: In the same way that a decanter theoretically affords a wine a controlled environment in which to interact with oxygen, and develop accordingly as far as “opening up”, I believe a wine glass bowl does the very same thing (on an admittedly smaller scale), and that different shapes/sizes of glassware achieve this in varying ways, with different environments being theoretically more or less suited to the particular requirements imposed by any given wine.
2) Deployment of Wine across the Palate: Assuming that different areas of our mouths/palates do indeed experience flavor/taste differently (salty, sweet, bitter, sour, umami, etc.) then in theory, it should make sense that the order in which these different areas experience a wine will have an effect on our perception of the wine itself. As a weird example, if you eat a piece of peanut butter toast peanut-butter-side up, you’ll experience its flavor very differently than if you bite into it in the rather more unorthodox fashion of peanut-butter-side down. In the same way, if you drink a cab from a champagne flute (and by the way, I loathe champagne flutes, vastly preferring the Coupe Glass instead, which is a whole other story), all the wine goes straight to the middle of your tongue first, before it gets swirled around throughout the full range of one’s palate; alternatively, if you sip said cab from a big huge goblet, it will send the wine spilling into your cheeks, across the sides of your tongue, and between your lips and teeth all at once, thereby in theory giving you a very different picture of the wine.
In the end, I think the issue at hand can best be understood as one of trying to eke out as much complexity, and accordingly potential enjoyment, from the experience of drinking a glass of wine. One of course begins with the wine itself; the more the wine has on offer, the greater the potential for oenophilic satiation. And there are of course the somewhat more obtuse tertiary factors that one can group under the umbrella of “environmental factors”: time of day, time of year, alone vs. with company, solo vs. with food, etc. Anyhow, glassware, looked at in this fashion, becomes yet one more way in which the taster can expand the potential of the taste, and if in fact glassware can potentially eke even a little bit more satisfaction from the wine experience (or, conversely, sabotage it), then I think one owes it to oneself to take at least a little advantage of what “proper” glassware can bring to the table. Does one need a completely different glass for every single different type of wine? Probably not. But having even a few different options on hand can make a big difference.
If anyone is interested in some more thoughts on this matter, my post above originated with a contribution I originally made to a very interesting thread on westcoastwine.net about the influence of stemware.
In addition, should you be so curious, there is, on the Riedel website, a “Wine & Glass Guide,” whose purported purpose is to help one select the proper glass for any given wine and/or wine occasion. You can find it here.
And yes, full disclosure, the glasses we use in the Monte Bello Tasting Room are Riedels!