Liquids: Specialty Wineglasses

This past Christmas, practically every wine-drinking friend I know was given a gift of a set of stemless Riedel O glasses. But not me. My peeps knew that Mr. Fancypants didn’t buy the whole glassware “r-evolution.” I thought it was just a fad. Apparently, I was the only one who thought so, because Riedel sold about 4 million O glasses last year.

This came as a surprise even to Maximilian Riedel, the now famous glassmaker who invented the O line after he broke the umpteenth stem off of one of his pricey wineglasses in the dishwasher. In his wildest dreams, he had hoped to sell only 300,000.

In case you’re not familiar with the name, Riedel is synonymous with fine, feather-light crystal wineglasses. Max is in the 11th generation of Riedel glassmakers, so he keeps 250 years of family tradition in mind at all times. But he also knows that dynamism is what has propelled each successive generation forward. Grandfather Claus introduced his minimalist, Bauhaus-inspired, mouth-blown series (now called Sommelier) in the 1950s; father Georg created Vinum, a series of machine-made glasses that has led company sales for decades. Until Max introduced O.

As someone who breaks glasses in the dishwasher all the time, I liked the idea. But there were the fingerprints. And the warming up of the glass—and the wine with it. That’s what a stem is for!

I’m not the only one who’s pro-stem. Kim Lambrechts, general manager at Spire, hates that “as soon as you touch the stemless glass, your fingerprints show everywhere. It’s embarrassing when you’re at a formal dinner and trying to impress someone with your grace and elegance.” And Excelsior wine director Eric Buxton is downright dismissive. The design, carps Buxton, “comes across as too gimmicky.”

Still, the people who bought those 4 million glasses put us in the minority. So I did what any self-respecting journalist would do when faced with facts he didn’t like: I called up Max and told him to convince me the way his father had. Yes, I was a skeptic almost two decades earlier when Georg first introduced his different-shaped stemmed glasses for different grapes. (Since then, he’s expanded the Vinum line to include practically every grape variety and region on the planet. He’s also designed glasses for spirits, beer, even water.)

The theory goes like this: The rim, shape, and thinness of the glass send wine to a specific part of your palate, depending on the grape or region. For example, if you take a sip from the Riedel Sommelier Bordeaux glass (around $70 apiece), its conical shape first sends the wine to the tip of your tongue, where you taste sweetness, which enhances the fruit, before it spreads to the back of your palate, where you detect acid and tannin.

I didn’t believe this until I sat down with Georg 14 years ago and let him trick me into believing I was tasting a dozen wines, when it was actually only one bottle prepoured into all the different glasses. It was amazing. He duped an entire group of journalists, just as he has thousands of tasters around the world. And the same trick still works: Paul Lang, formerly of No. 9 Park, who owns a wine-tasting service called A Casa, recently held a tasting with Riedel stemware. “There were constant oohs and aahs coming from the crowd—they couldn’t believe how much switching glasses affected the wine,” he says.

Max pulled no stunts at our tasting. He simply poured several rounds of wine into all three generations of glassware (Sommelier, Vinum, and O), plus a Cristal d’Arques ringer that was modeled on a Waterford clunker. The non-Riedel was easiest to dismiss: Its thickness and blunt rim sent all the wines to the tip of my tongue, rendering them unnecessarily sweet. The Sommelier and Vinum performed exactly as I expected. But the O was harder to sell. Max described it as a Vinum without a stem. But for me, it just didn’t feel right.

The Riedel distributors had the same reaction when Max unveiled O at a conference two summers ago. Their initial responses ranged from stunned silence to outcries of blasphemy. “I told them we’d discuss it after lunch,” says Max. “Then, after lunch, I asked for a show of hands of those who’d finished the wine in their O glasses. The majority had, even though the same wine had been poured into all three glasses. They unconsciously reached for the O because it was least intimidating.”

Max has a point. So I bought a pair of shiraz glasses (the largest in the O line), and my wife and I gave them a workout. Little by little, I began to like them. They are perfect for apéritifs, especially since toddlers can’t swat them off the coffee table. (In fact, they have a Weeble’s ability to right themselves when knocked over.) And, like Max, I didn’t worry about putting them in the dishwasher. In the end, I like them as weekday casual glasses—not for dinner parties or for expensive wine.

Special occasions still deserve a stem. So my advice is to consider what you drink most. I like Riedel’s Vinum best, but I’ve also been impressed with Wine Enthusiast’s knockoff, Symphony stemware, which comes etched with the grape name on the base. In the end, you get what you pay for. And if that means paying more for a stem, I’m all for it.