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Glass Houses

One oenophile throws stones at wine snobs who drink only from the "right" glassware

Long before I learned how to recognize a good wine, I knew how to identify a good wineglass. Thanks to my father, who spent more than 30 years designing and selling glassware on behalf of just about every glass company in America and several abroad, my sister and I were probably the only 10- and 12-year-olds who were able to use the word stemware in a sentence or, for that matter, who were subjected to the occasional slide show on how glass is made. Our cabinets at home looked like what I imagined those in the United Nations' dining room must,spilling over with stemware from every glassmaking country in the world. We had cut-glass goblets from Germany and Ireland, bumpy glasses from Finland and squat ones from Sweden. There were glasses from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Canada and Mexico--and, of course, from across the United States. When I graduated from college and moved to New York, my father's first question wasn't the hoped-for "Do you need money?" but instead "What glasses do you want to take with you?"

All of this took place long before it became fashionable for wine drinkers to care deeply about glassware. Now it's almost impossible to find an oenophile who doesn't have an opinion on the subject. This particular development is by and large thanks to glassmaker Georg Riedel, a clever marketer who decreed that every grape deserves its very own specially de-signed wineglass. According to Riedel, "If you don't have the right glass, the wine is wasted." His company offers glasses not only for grapes like Char-donnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir but also for wines from such specific regions as Montrachet, Hermitage and Chianti Classico. For example, according to his company's marketing materials, Riedel's glasses for young Bordeaux wines with more than 12 percent alcohol are shaped to "direct the flow of wine to the tongue's tip/sweet zone," thereby deemphasizing the bitter tannins. Don't ever consider calling any of them glassware. They are "precision tools" to Mr. Riedel. And his precision doesn't come cheap. The Riedel "Hermitage" can cost as much as $75, the "Montrachet" around $57.

But there are plenty of people willing to pay--and to play. A wine collector I know has become so obsessed with his"tools" that when he makes a restaurant reservation he asks if he can bring not just a bottle or two but his own stemware as well. (I know that he pays a corkage fee for the wine; I'm not sure if he's levied a dishwasher's tax on his glasses.) Restaurants like Greens in San Francisco have gotten into the game, reserving certain glasses for customers who drink their most expensive wines. I guess that means a 1982 Mouton Rothschild might rate a Riedel, but a 1997 Pinot Grigio might merit a Fred Flintstone glass.

Now you may think that with a background like mine, I would be happy about all the attention glassware has been getting, but, the fact is, I'm not. Indeed, I think that the creation of these specialty glasses is confusing and puts even more pressure on American wine drinkers, many of whom may already feel intimidated enough about choosing the right wine. Because of Riedel they'll have to consider if their choice in stemware will make them seem foolish or, worse, will perhaps compromise the character of their wine. What might the consequences be of serving Cabernet in a glass meant for Chianti or, heaven forbid, sipping Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc out of one intended for Syrah?

And those two other glass-obsessive practices--carrying a suitcase of stem-ware to a restaurant or being told what glass you deserve to drink from--seem awfully pretentious. What could be next? A restaurant that limits its Limoges to those diners ordering filet mignon and that relegates its chicken eaters to service on Chinet?

Most of all, though, I'm uncomfortable with the idea that a wineglass should function as an instrument of analytic assistance. Instead of buying a glass because it has a lip shaped to "direct the flow of wine to the sides of the tongue/acid zone," aren't we better off basing our choice on its beauty--what it looks like in your hand or on your table? But then, tome,glassware is ultimately about art, not science.

This is not to say that all wine glasses need to be beautiful (though it helps) or that some are more satisfying to drink from than others because of the way they look or feel. My father says, "A great wineglass is both a visual and a tactile pleasure." They're criteria that my favorite wine glasses easily meet. There are few glasses I love looking at more than Waterford's, with their glittering diamond-like facets, nor any I like holding more than Baccarat's, with their ballerina-thin ballasts. No one would ever think to call them tools or, for that matter, be able to say which of the two wine glasses does more for a California Chardonnay. I just know that I am happy drinking from either.

But then when the wine is good, I'm pretty happy using most any wineglass. My dining room cabinet at home is a testament to that. Although it's no match for my father's collection, it does contain some beautiful crystal, antique and otherwise, a dozen Riedel instruments (a wedding gift from wine-collecting friends), as well as some stemware with the likely provenance of Pottery Barn. (Did I mention that my father was a champion of the "practical" glass too?) Some of these glasses are definitely more treasured than others, and some are unquestionably more pleasurable to drink from. But it has never occurred to me to pack any of them into my purse when going out to dinner. I also have to admit that I don't know if any glass suits one wine better than another. I do, however, know that the last time my husband and I had a 1982 Mouton at our house, we served it in Pottery Barn glasses. (We'd recently moved, and they were all that we had unpacked.) Sorry, Mr. Riedel, but of the many words I might use to describe the experience, waste just isn't one that comes to mind.

Published December 1999
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