Varietal stemware: genius or hucksterism?

Georg Riedel, 10th generation Austrian glass-blower, invented the delicate crystal glass designed for each grape variety.

Many wine lovers around the world have cabinets stuffed with complete sets by each varietal. But Riedel continues unabated, subdividing grapes with his just released Oregon pinot noir glass–mere grape no longer suffices as now terroir is overlaid on grape. The logically possible amount of stemware just increased exponentially.

Daniel Zwerdling burst into the wine world like a bull in a decanter shop. His story, “Shattered Myths,” in Gourmet (August 2004 and very, very unfortunately not available online), asserted that Georg was pulling the wool over discerning drinkers eyes: the reason wine in Riedel stems tastes better is not because of a tongue map–it simply tastes better because we believe it should.

So, as we contemplate adding more crystal to our collections and to give as gifts this holiday season, have your say in the latest poll!

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30 Responses to “Varietal stemware: genius or hucksterism?”

  1. Well, they are aesthetically pleasing, and large bowls do allow for greater aeration and hence a more intense nose. But the claim that each varietal and region requires its own shape of glass (and the allied claim that it is the same glass for everyone, and Riedel can tell which!) is silly. It also helps move more product, of course …

    The problem with this sort of marketing scheme is that eventually it becomes a self-parody.

  2. I voted for the “meh” response, though I actually have a cabinet full of stemware. I attended a Riedel tasting seminar (didn’t pay, it was a trade event) and was given a take-home bag filled with various shaped glasses, including the controversial Oregon Pinot glasses.

    The cheap IKEA glasses are great for parties but not for really getting the fullest enjoyment of wine. Usually they are just too small…and while shape may not matter, enough size to swirl and release aromatics, etc., kind of does enhance the experience.

    I just don’t quite buy into the shape enhancing the flow of the wine so that it hits your tongue at a particular point, etc. It’s all just marketing. These people are determined to put our landfills at capacity as fast as possible…

  3. […] has been a topic we’ve broached a couple of times. Go over to Dr. Vino and participate in his poll over whether varietal-shaped glasses really enhance the wine drinking experience. Then come back […]

  4. flow over the tongue is the huskster part of the show, on the other hand, being in the right frame of mind is most important and a nice glass can create this. Also I am a firm believer that you should taste(if professional) out of the same type of glass everytime. It does give you a nice level playing ground.

    All that said, my glass shelf is a mix of styles and shapes but absolutely no color!

  5. I think the varietal glasses may take it a step to far but maybe not. I know sensory studies have been done at Ohio State University on “proper” wine glasses and aroma perception but that was only dealing with shape. In those studies the bordeaux style thin rimmed glasses won over goblet shaped thick rimmed glasses. Gary V of Wine Library TV did an episode a while ago looking at all the varietal glasses and said he could tell a difference. The only pure test I have done is at the Inniskillin winery I tasted one of thier icewines out of a regular Riedel white wine glass and then a special icewine Riedel glass – I could definitely tell a difference.

    Just my 2 cents.

  6. I had a nice set of Riedel glasses, which were great, but now I’m down to a single glass. Man, those things break easily! From there I switched to the lower-rent Riedel “white wine” glass, which is a lot more durable. I also have some “O” glasses, which hold up well. I’ve done the Riedel demo, as well as the Eisch demo for its “breathable” stemware (that’s a whole other story), and the glasses really do show the wines in a better light. But who the hell can (or wants to ) buy a different glass for each varietal from each wine region? That’s just crazy-talk.

  7. Hucksterism, Genius…. same thing! it completely depends on your point of view. Anyone ever hear the one about the guy who can sell ice to eskimos. sounds to me like a masterful stroke and one more indication that we are all simply begging to have someone relieve us of those oh so heavy dollars. Great going Georg, Ron Popiel would be proud.

  8. I attended a Riedel seminar where we tested this theory by pouring the wines into different shaped glasses. I did notice the difference. it was pretty astounding. I’m a believer!

  9. I think there is a difference between the shapes when they are very dissimilar. For example, tasting something in the giant grand cru Burgundy sommelier stem is going to be a difference experience than using a riesling stem – not only due to the volume but also that the flare on the Burgundy stem does affect the initial impression of the wine when you taste it. But overall it gets ridiculous trying to be so precise since wines range so much in character even within the same varietal/region so what’s the point?

    That said, I still love Riedel because the glasses look so good. To me that enhances the wine-drinking experience more than trying to find that perfect shape that he keeps trying to sell us. I just love drinking out of an attractive glass!

    I think sampling with various Riedel shapes would make for a good WLTV segment with Gary Vaynerchuk.

  10. I also own a cabinet full of glasses, but chose the “meh” response. I think it’s fun to try the various glass sizes, but don’t think its necessary to invest in a whole collection. Using good crystal has an important aesthetic appeal but can get prohibitively expensive. I did attend one of the Riedel seminars in SF and was largely convinced of the differences, but in retrospect I wonder how much I was being convinced by their marketing pull.

  11. My breakthrough moment in the world of Riedelism came at one of company’s many roadshow tastings a few years back. The Riedelista led us through several wines that went in and out of the Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Burgundy and Bordeaux glasses. And it was all very impressive — the different shapes did indeed taste different.

    At the end, after telling us where we could buy a lot more glassware, she pointed out that, by the way, as of the following Tuesday, what we had been testing as the Sauvignon Blanc glass would henceforth be the Gewurtztraminer glass, and a new Sauvignon model would be issued.

    So much for varietal correctness.

  12. I’ve got a lot of mismatched crystal, consisting of gifts, freebies from tastings, and one-offs I’ve purchased for fun. Lately I’m enjoying big pinot noir glasses for red wine tasting. And nobody aside from me is allowed to touch my Riedel Champagne glass.

    What really gets me is the Riedel water glass line. Seriously, does it make any difference? I’ve been backpacking and had to strain the mosquito eggs out of the water before purifying it with iodine crystals and I then drank the water out of a plastic bowl. At the time it was the most amazing thing I’d ever drunk because I was thirsty and had another ten miles to hike through the Rockies.

    I do appreciate good stemware, for aesthetic and oenological reasons, but I don’t see any need to obsess over it or blow a ton of cash.

  13. I wish more of you could read Zwerdling’s article. Nothing in it says that when you go to a Riedel tasting you won’t find the wines markedly different in different glasses. It’s the reason for the differences that is addressed. It’s obviously not because the glass directs the wine to the proper spot on the tongue (the so-called tongue-map was long ago disproved, though journalists still cite it, much to my irritation). Rather, it is because we are so suggestible. That’s also why when you read a wine review that starts off, “I sat down with the winemaker” you should probably grab some salt grains. There is no SCIENCE that shows that the glass makes a difference, but there have been plenty of experiments that show that perception can make a huge difference, and perception is highly malleable. Putting food coloring in white wine can make even experienced tasters perceive it as red. Does that make them bad tasters? No, it just shows that tasting is done with more organs than the tongue.

  14. I agree with GPL’s comment above – sometimes hucksterism is the same as genius. In fact, you have to be pretty smart to be a good huckster.. that’s why the folks at the Wine Spectator are geniuses with the way they market their Top 100 wine list each year. Like the Riedel glass, looking at point scores also can have the effect of creating a lot of suggestibility among people, I’d say.

  15. I agree this is getting to the point of ridiculous with such specific glasses. I have to imagine that the container just being glass with a pleasant thin lip and narrowing at the top is a plus to allow the consumer to detect the nose of the wine, Anything above this effort is a bit suspect and worth verifying in a blind tasting. I asked my readers this question a week or so ago, so if you’ve tried using the oregon pinot glass, come by and comment.

  16. In the same vein, Seth Goldin’s piece “A good story makes the product better” about Riedel – my May 8, 2005 posting here:

  17. […] Varietal stemware: genius or hucksterism? […]

  18. Different shaped wine glasses can make a huge difference in the way a wine smells in my experience, but having attended the same “roadshow” described by BlindMuscat above, I can say they seem to have a minimal impact on the way wine tastes.

    The “changes where and how the wine hits the tongue” line is total bullshit. When you take a sip of wine it almost instantly floods your entire mouth cavity because that is the way your physiology evolved to take liquid into the mouth — in such a way that it is exposed to the majority of your tastebuds as quickly as possible. Presumably this is to help us identify when things taste bad so we can spit them out before we swallow them and they kill us.

    Now, the one grey area here is the fact that we only taste 5 things (salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and Umami) but we perceive many more flavors than that because much of tasting is olfactory. So does the glass affect the aromas that we sense when a wine is tasting like blackberry? I’d argue no because most of those aromas are sensed through the ducts that connect our mouth cavity with our sinuses, which the glass has nothing to do with. But since glasses can clearly change our perception of aromas, there may be something at work here.

  19. If I remember correctly from an article I read about this, Riedel did not originate the Oregon Pinot noir glass. Rather, it was produced at the urging of that state’s wine growers’/makers’ association.

    All that aside, bowl size and profile do quite a lot for aromatic expression but nothing for a wine’s taste.

  20. This is a great post for provoking comment. It seems that from the comments there is a consensus that the glasses do nothing to affect the taste and that the those who have commented do not believe that it is possible to affect the taste of wine or if that is true any liquid by the altering the physical shape of the vessel that you consume it from.
    However I doubt anyone here would want to drink there from a coffee cup.

    Where’s the good Doctor stand on this?

  21. […] Varietal stemware: genius or hucksterism? – Dr. Vino […]

  22. […] this has been the cause of great debate among aficionados as many believe it is hucksterism, while others believe it to be the elite among wine […]

  23. Having done a tasting with Riedel stemware, I was converted. The same wine differed markedly in taste from one glass to another. There was little or no suggestion involved (the person leading the tasting being massively hungover and somewhat monosyllabic) and I was sceptical to start with. I also do not pride myself on my nose but the differences were not subtle – quite the opposite.
    I note most anti comments seem to be from those who haven’t done the tasting.
    Of course, whether it’s tongue mapping or smell is another thing entirely. I respect the opinion of those who discount tongue-mapping. One for more research.
    Having met Georg Riedel, I dispute that he is a huckster. He firmly believes in his product and he brings his own glasses to restaurants. And it is a great, handmade product – 40 per cent of the factory’s lead crystal glasses are rejected at quality control, though I was told: ‘Look long enough at any glass and you’ll see a flaw.’

  24. […] “Varietal stemware: genius or hucksterism?“ Permalink | SHARETHIS.addEntry({ title: “Max Riedel washes his snake in the bathtub”, url: […]

  25. Ive been in the wine business a long time. Long enough at least to sort out the effect of glass wear. Major shape changes do make a difference but it is simply a matter of aromatics. I know one thing for sure. The cheap tasting glasses we use in our wine store don’t cut it at all. I think we could sell a lot more wine with a proper glass. On the other hand, I can not perceive any difference between my Riedel Bordeaux glasses and my Riedel Shiraz glasses. They look the same except the Shiraz are a bit taller. I think 3 glass shapes are optimal. A set of white wine glasses, a set of Bordeaux glasses and a set of Pinot Noir glass are all you need.

  26. I was at my tasting room and some guests were WAY too full of Riedel-Voodoo babble. Although I have the Oregon Pinot Glass at the tasting room, they were cranky that I didn’t have another glass for gris, riesling, etc.

    They prattled on (and I let them). When I gave their designated-driver a soda I loudly apologized to him (so they’d hear). I’m sorry that I only have the Coke glass, not the DIET-coke glass… He laughed and they seethed…

  27. Read the newly avail. Zwierdling article: the way the Riedel rep leads the group into each taste and reaction is worthy of the sham-wow guy.

    She says she gets nothing from the Joker glass; people agree. Were she to say she got the same level of intensity from that glass, can you guess what people would do? Yup, probably agree with her.

    That being said, I do like holding a Riedel (or Spieglau, or the 2.98€ glasses I can get at restaurant supply stores here in Paris) better than the cheap $1 tasting glasses. That’s just aesthetics, though, isn’t it? And has little to do with the wine. Though it helps the whole experience…

  28. Do what you want… but I wholeheartedly want my Kool-Aid in a Riedel stem. I’ve been in the biz for 10 years, I drink wine EVERY SINGLE DAY. Simply-stated… I know when a glass isn’t right. So go ahead and enjoy your Ikea glass or dixie cup…I’ll enjoy a real stem.

  29. wow! this stream of comments started in 11/20/07 and today is 11/25/09. Two Years!

    And still after being studiously scientized, Riedel et alia still pump the propaganda across the pond.

    There still are glasses to sell.

  30. Meh. This subdivision could go on forever until there is litterally one glass for every brand and variety of wine.


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