To Georg Riedel, the issue is crystal clear: Better wine glasses mean better-tasting wine.
The Austrian glassmaker can prove it. He's done it dozens of times in comparative tastings. He proved it all over again last month in Baltimore.
Three glasses were placed in front of one of the many skeptical wine writers Mr. Riedel has met over the years. One was a prestigious downtown hotel's standard-issue goblet; the second was a Riedel glass made especially for Bordeaux-style wines; the third was the Riedel Sommelier's Burgundy Grand Cru glass, crafted to magnify the charms of wines made from the pinot noir grape.
Into each glass was poured a portion of Robert Mondavi's 1989 pinot noir reserve. The writer proceeded to taste and rate each wine, hijacking for this purpose the 50-100 point scale devised by Robert M. Parker Jr.
In the hotel goblet, the wine showed admirable quality, though the aromas were a bit muted and the wine seemed a bit blunt, tannic and sharp. Overall, the writer decided, the wine merited a quite respectable 87.
In the Riedel Bordeaux glass, the aromas of the wine were more fully developed, and the black cherry nuances of the fruit came into focus. The wine was a little hot on the finish, however. Still, the wine rated a rousing 90-point score.
In the Riedel pinot noir glass, however, the wine took on a broader, more Burgundian aspect. The texture was softer and more silky. There were no rough edges, only the total charm of a magnificent red wine. The score: 92.
That was only one of the comparisons Mr. Riedel presented, though it was the one with the most dramatic differences. But through the course of an evening of tasting, Mr. Riedel was able to show a consistent 2- to 3-point increase in quality when the right wine was poured into the proper Riedel glass.
Match wine with glass
The 236-year-old Riedel company, founded in what is now Czechoslovakia but relocated to Austria after World War II, is very serious about matching wines with the proper glassware.
The company has devised dozens of wine glasses in different shapes, each sculpted to bring out the best qualities of a different type of wine. In one Riedel series alone, called Vinum, there are glasses for red Bordeaux, for red Burgundy, for Riesling, for chardonnay -- even a specialized glass for Beaujolais nouveau, which Mr. Riedel does not recommend for the more serious Beaujolais growths (use the Burgundy glass).
The different shapes are the brainchild of Claus-Josef Riedel, Georg's father, who painstakingly designed each glass to channel a certain type of wine to the proper "taste zone" on the tongue.
The Riedel Riesling glass, for instance, guides the naturally high-acid wine to the tip of the tongue, emphasizing the sweetness. The chardonnay glass directs the wine toward the center of the tongue, where its often-deficient acidity is magnified.
Unlike one other specially designed set of glassware, called "Les Impitoyables" (the Merciless), the Riedel glasses are designed for hedonistic rather than critical purposes.
"We believe wine drinking is pleasure," said Georg Riedel. "It has nothing to do with work or with pain."
The Riedel glasses, designed after extensive testing by professional tasters, are designed to appeal to all five senses, Mr. Riedel said. Besides enhancing taste and aroma, the glasses appeal to the eye with brilliant crystal and classic lines, to the sense of touch with excellent balance in the hand -- and even to
the ear with their deep, reverberating "ping."
Worth the expense?
But while few would quibble that Riedel makes anything but lovely glasses, many might legitimately question whether they are worth all the fuss and the expense.
For the vast majority of wine drinkers, they aren't. Most of us just don't want to be bothered with keeping a half-dozen different sets of wine glasses. A tall, rounded glass for whites, a bowl-shaped glass for reds and a tall, straight flute for champagne will suffice for 80 percent of the wine-drinking public.
Then the remaining 20 percent will have to deal with cost. Riedel glasses, not surprisingly, are not cheap. The Vinum crystal series runs $100 to $120 for a set of six -- about the cost of the ravishing 1989 Chateau Haut-Brion.
But that's only the mid-priced model. Riedel's handblown crystal Sommelier's series will set you back $40 to $70 for each glass, and it does seem tacky to buy one and let your guests drink out of machine-made crystal. One good rule of thumb: Don't buy any glassware that's so expensive you'll break into tears if a guest drops one.
For those of us on middle-class budgets, it might be the better part of valor to forget Riedel and buy a good, sensible all-purpose tasting glass such as the INAO glass, which is used by professionals all around the world for wine evaluation. Even Mr. Riedel praises it as a "great standard tasting glass," and it costs about $40 for a dozen. (A good wine shop will order a set for you.)
Still, the 8-ounce INAO glass is a far cry from the Riedel glasses, especially when it comes to showcasing the complex aromas of a fine red wine. And while you might be too frugal to run out and spend $120 for a set of Riedel Burgundy glasses, you could always clip this column and leave it lying around in a strategic place before your next birthday.
Riedel glasses are available through such catalog suppliers as the Wine Enthusiast, phone (800) 231-0100, and International Wine Accessories, (800) 527-4072.
There's something sensual about the process of extracting a cork from a wine bottle. Any other stopper would seem prosaic by comparison.
But if you've ever had the infuriating experience of opening amuch-anticipated bottle of expensive wine and finding the contents smelled like sweaty gym socks and tasted not much better, you know that cork has distinct limitations.
As the world demand for corks has outstripped the supply in recent years, quality has deteriorated, wine industry sources agree. According to some estimates, as many as 5 percent of corks develop a contaminating infection that leave the wines "corked." In my experience the percentage is lower than that, but even if it's 1 in 100 that's too many.
In fact, screw tops or plastic stoppers will likely do just as good a job of holding wines in the bottle while letting them mature. It's just that no classy winery has wanted to be the first to jettison corks, a 200-year-old technology that made the fine wine trade possible.
But now Stags' Leap Winery in Napa Valley (not to be confused with its neighbor, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars) has decided to make the jump -- decreeing that none of its wines will be stopped with corks after this year's bottling.
"There seems to be no debate that the fact that a screw cap is an outstanding seal and isn't going to let any air in," said Bill Piersol, Stags' Leap's director of sale and marketing.
It's a gutsy move. The market might just tell the folks at Stags' Leap to take a hike. But it's a long-overdue experiment that deserves encouragement from discerning wine enthusiasts who are tired of pouring rancid bottles of $20 wine down the sink.
Ca'del Solo "Il Pescatore" American White Table Wine ($15). Here's another delight from the Italian alter ego of Bonny Doon Vineyards. Randall Graham has concocted an innovative blend of grapes from Oregon and California -- notably pinot noir, chardonnay and marsanne -- to create this crisp, complex, intense dry white wine to accomany seafood. It's an immensely satisfying wine, with hints of peach, herbs and even cherry. Distributed by DOPS Inc.