Does Your Wineglass Shape Up?

April 15, 2009|By ROB KASPER | ROB KASPER,rob.kasper@baltsun.com

Halfway through a recent wine tasting at the Gramercy Carriage House on Greenspring Valley Road, the crowd of 80 well-dressed sippers was getting loud and silly. Georg J. Riedel quickly restored order.

Riedel, the 60-year-old Austrian who comes from 10 generations of glassmakers, put the drinkers through a series of exercises designed to show that wines can taste drastically different when they are served in differently shaped wineglasses.

"I am here to complicate your wine drinking," said Riedel, who heads the Austrian wineglass company that bears his name.

He wowed the crowd by having folks sniff and taste a 2007 Mount Nelson Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. When served in a plastic cup, the white wine had little aroma and not much flavor. But when the wine was poured in a $35 Vitis Riedel glass, its grapefruit aromas bloomed, and its tangy, tropical fruit flavors soared. He would put his audience through similar maneuvers with a 2006 Ponzi Pinot Noir in a pinot noir glass, a 2005 Silverado Cabernet Sauvignon in a cabernet glass and 2006 Clos Pegase Chardonnay in a Montrachet glass.

Riedel ran a tight ship, correcting those who mistakenly poured a wine into the wrong glass, chiding those who sipped before the appointed time and, in a chilling moment, threatening to leave the room if a raucous group did not shape up and get with the tasting program. The misbehavers complied. The fare for the wine tasting and dinner was $125 per person plus giving Riedel undivided attention.

Riedel, I learned, can be disarmingly blunt. In a brief interview, he told me he did not really care for the stemless tumblers called the O line that his company sells. "For me not to hold a wine glass by the stem is almost unbearable," he said. The stemless glasses, which can be popped in a dishwasher, are the creation of his son, Maximilian, he said.

He also is not fond of beer, even though Riedel sells a set of beer glasses. "Beer is a very common drink, something served in stadiums in paper cups," he said.

Yet his wineglasses, with their thin, curved rims, handblown bowls and long stems, can, he contends, make wines blossom. "A right glass for the wine puts the wine in a good mood and starts the conversation with the senses," he said.

When asked why in tight economic times people would pay a lot of money for a wineglass, Riedel replied that the glasses can make even inexpensive boxed wines come to full flower. He said that in a blind tasting last February in Helsinki, Finland, boxed wines served in Riedel glasses got better marks from tasters than expensive bottled wines served in mass-produced glassware.

He dismissed the complaint that fragile, large wineglasses are difficult to store.

"You have three cars in your garage and you can't find a place in a cupboard for wineglasses?" he asked, tongue in cheek.

This issue of how much the shape of a wineglass matters has often been discussed. For example, an online exchange among readers of Food & Wine magazine surmised that there is some substance to the claim that better glasses yield a better wine-drinking experience. But the brand of glassware chosen and the amount of money spent on it - finer glasses range from $10 to $100, depending on the quality of the craftsmanship - are a matter of personal taste, the magazine readers said.

Chef Jerry Edwards told me that he is a believer in the tenet that good wine deserves good glasses. "I was dubious at first, but I started researching it about seven years ago," Edwards said. He concluded that there is something "about how a wine falls into your mouth" that matters to discriminating diners. Edwards uses Riedel glasses, like the ones featured in Riedel's demonstration, at the monthly wine dinners that his Chef's Expressions catering firm puts on at Gramercy Mansion. A business affiliated with Chef's Expressions sells Riedel glassware.

Carol Cohen told me that she had to persuade her husband, Bernie, an automobile tool salesman, to accompany her to the Riedel seminar and dinner. "I had been telling Bernie for years that the shape of the glass mattered," she said. Until Georg Riedel had put him through the maneuvers, her husband "did not believe me," she said.

At the end of the night, the Cohens packed up their sets of four fancy glasses, provided as part of the evening, and took them back to their Howard County home.

"Now we use them all the time," Cohen told me. She acknowledged that they are "too tall for the kitchen cabinet" and tricky to wash. But, she added, "they are worth the extra effort."

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