Pacific Northwest | May 15, 2005Pacific Northwest MagazineMay 15, home Home delivery

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Glass Houses
To shelter and show off your wine, pick the proper vessel

With no stem or base, these Riedel wine tumblers are designed for pinot noir and nebbiolo. In the foreground is a ruby-red foil cutter by Zyliss.
With no stem or base, these Riedel wine tumblers are designed for pinot noir and nebbiolo. In the foreground is a ruby-red foil cutter by Zyliss.

SOME YEARS AGO I visited the home of a wine-drinking friend and proposed a simple demonstration. I would bring a couple of bottles of wine — one white, one red — and pour each into a succession of different glasses. I think I had about six glasses for each wine: a tumbler, a thick-lipped bowl, a special "varietal" wine glass and so on.

Into the mix I threw one of her wine glasses. Though not cheap, it was part of a set that had clearly been purchased for design rather than wine-friendliness. This was my secret purpose: To persuade her to get rid of the wretched things and get something that worked for wine.

This is an experiment you can do at home, and I promise you it will amaze your friends. Because even a modestly decent wine will taste different in every glass. This almost defies belief. But it is true. And it means that even after you have spent the big bucks, jumped every storage hurdle, dodged the bad-cork bullet and made it to the finish line with a terrific bottle of wine, you are not out of the woods!

The wine glass can kill your wine.

That's right. When you pour a great wine into a not-so-great glass, it turns into a very ordinary wine. This happens most frequently in restaurants too cheap to put decent stemware on the table. (Solution: Don't order expensive wine in restaurants that don't have good glasses.) But I've also encountered dismal stemware at wineries, at trade tastings and at dinner parties in some mighty fine homes. Here comes a terrific bottle of wine, and it's served in a glass that is too small, too thick, colored blue, stained or smelling of detergent. Goodbye wine!

Insisting on a good glass is not snobbery. If you want to get all the flavor out of the wine you are pouring, whether it cost you $10 or $100, invest in good stemware. Which, by the way, does not have to be terribly expensive.

Some years ago I met Georg Riedel, the soft-spoken heir to an Austrian glass-making business, who gently insisted that drinking good wine in bad glasses is like listening to beautiful music through bad speakers. At the time, he was marketing a new line of Riedel (pronounced REE-del) stemware with the preposterous claim that every different type of wine required a different type of glass.

No one believed him, of course — until they tasted their chardonnay or cabernet or riesling in different glasses and found, to their astonishment, that the Riedel glass designated for each grape did indeed improve the wine's flavor.

Heads were scratched. China cabinets were enlarged. And in recognition of Georg Riedel's tireless campaigning, Decanter magazine named him "Man of the Year," noting that "all too few businessmen increase the sum of human happiness as he does."

Do you need a different glass for every wine to increase your happiness? Unless you're in the wine trade or hopelessly geeked out, you most certainly do not. But you should have a few well-chosen glasses that match your wine-buying, drinking and entertaining preferences.

How much entertaining do you do? This will give you an idea of the number of glasses to keep on hand. What quality wines do you serve? The glassware should be comparable. If you are happy drinking simple wines from current vintages, you can do just fine with a few dozen clear-glass tumblers, which can be purchased for $6 or $8 a dozen.

For better wines and more intimate dinner parties, have a selection of stemware to suit the wines you like to pour. If you can afford it, I would choose one glass for sparkling wines, one for white wines and a third for reds. Finally, if you have a cellar full of rare old reds, you really need to invest in some high-end stemware. Yes, it's expensive, but so is that fancy old wine you're guzzling.

No wine column would be complete without some rules:

No colored glass. You want to be able to actually see the wine.

No detergent. If you use a dishwasher, run the glasses thru hot water only.

No thick-lipped, rolled rims, even for cheap wine. Use tumblers instead.

Size matters. Make sure the glass is large enough to hold three or four ounces without being more than one third full. You need the airspace to properly display the wine's aroma. Aroma = flavor.

A final question: stem or no stem? New, stemless wine glasses have become quite fashionable. They are dishwasher safe, look great on a table, and besides, they're something different. Traditionalists point out problems: Your hand on the bowl warms the wine, hides the wine and leaves fingerprints. You make the call.

From those in the know, some recommendations

I use a wide variety of wine glasses in my daily tastings, but if I had to pick one all-purpose glass it would be Riedel's Vinum Series 'Gourmetglas' (No. 416/21; about $10). Stubby and short-stemmed, it's all bowl, but works equally well with both white and red wines. Not the prettiest glass, but extremely practical.

I checked with area wine-shop owners to see which all-purpose wine glass they use. Here are their suggestions.

Partners Jay Schiering and Dan McCarthy (McCarthy & Schiering Wine Merchants) parted company. Schiering's favorite: the Riedel Vinum Series Zinfandel glass (No. 416/15; about $19). McCarthy's choice: the Riedel Ouverture Series Red Wine glass (No. 408/00; about $10). "Fits in a dishwasher, is all glass no crystal, and you don't cry when you drop one," he explains. Pike and Western Wine Shop's Michael Teer also likes this one.

Spiegelau is another good brand (now owned by Riedel) offering an extensive line of affordably priced stemware. Dave Woods (Seattle Cellars), Ric and Dianne Jacobson (Corky Cellars) and Jeff Cox (PCC) all recommend Spiegelau's Bordeaux glass (about $10), which is non-leaded and dishwasher safe.

Paul Gregutt writes the Wednesday wine column for The Seattle Times and teaches wine-tasting seminars. He can be reached at Barry Wong is a Seattle-based freelance photographer. He can be reached at