Crystal Made Clear

The quest for the perfect wineglass has become the oenophile's holy grail. Martin Filler searches out the best of today's top-of-the-line stemware.

When Claus Josef Riedel died last March, the 79-year-old Austrian merited a five-column-long article in The New York Times obituary section, complete with a photograph. Nobel Prize winner? No. Wagnerian Heldentenor? Nein.

Herr Riedel's lasting contribution to humanity was to revolutionize the wineglass, transforming it from an earmark of social status and aesthetic discernment to a serious tool for the dedicated wine connoisseur. Starting in the fifties, Riedel, a ninth-generation glassmaker, began rethinking and reinventing the shapes of the stemware crafted by his family's venerable firm, a project grounded in his conviction that every wine's individual characteristics demand a specially designed vessel.

This was hardly a new idea. For centuries claret has been served in a certain kind of glass, hock in a different one, and Champagne in yet another. But the lengths to which Riedel went in order to define those distinctions knew no limits. (Not for nothing is one of his lines named Vinum Extreme.) By the time of Riedel's death, the company was making 40 precisely engineered glasses for all kinds of wines and spirits in its flagship handblown Sommeliers range. The collection encompasses Burgundy and Brunello, and Tempranillo and tequila, with minutely discrete vessels for vintage port and tawny port, Champagne and vintage Champagne, and Cognac V.S.O.P. and Cognac XO.

Paralleling Riedel's innovation, a savvy German manufacturer, Spiegelau, adopted a similar formula, though with fewer shapes. Now the two firms bestride the burgeoning wineglass market, just as Coke and Pepsi dominate the cola wars. Each Kristallglasfabrik possesses its ardent partisans, and sommeliers in leading restaurants worldwide swear by one or the other. In truth, either brand of wineglass would be an unimpeachable choice, informed only by those finicky preferences that make one person favor Mercedes and another BMW.

Chuck Simeone, corporate beverage director of Jean-Georges Vongerichten's restaurant empire, approaches the choice pragmatically. "They're both quality products," he says, "but we decided to go with Spiegelau's midrange line [Vino Grande] because I think it's more durable. At Jean Georges we also have the higher-end Grand Palais line for special Burgundies, Bordeaux, and California cult Cabernets. At home I use Vino Grande, too. I used to have Riedel's high-end line, but whenever my fiancée and I had a bottle of wine, the next day we'd have only one glass left."

Kathleen Talbert, who heads her own New York public relations firm and represents several top-tier vintners, thinks otherwise. "My first choice is always Riedel," Talbert says, "as the quality of the stemware and the designated glasses for different varietals truly enhance the appreciation of any wine—not just an expensive one. Using proper stemware is as important to the wine experience as serving the wine at the proper temperature." Talbert goes to great lengths to make sure she has the perfect glasses when she entertains winemakers and journalists. "I always query the restaurant as to the brand of wineglass it has," she explains. "If I'm not satisfied with the quality, I ask if I can bring in my own glassware. Some are taken aback, but no one has ever turned me down. Once you have a great glass, it's equally important not to overpour the wine—something restaurants unfortunately tend to do in a rush to make you finish the bottle."

Other long-established luxury-level manufacturers have risen to the Riedel/Spiegelau challenge, developing competitive new glass and crystal lines to deal with this unexpected onslaught. Suddenly, such snob-appeal benchmarks as intricate engraving, gilding, and resounding-ping lead content mattered much less than the glasses' form and feel, especially among the new generation of wine aficionados.

And justly so. If a wineglass is above all an alcohol-delivery system, it ought to perform its function notably better than a Dixie cup. A recent debunking article in Gourmet magazine challenged Riedel's assertion that its glasses actually deepen the taste of wine thanks to their shapes. Scientists proclaimed the notion as nonsense, but at the end of the piece, one neurophysiologist conceded that heightened expectations—the act of drinking from a beautifully shaped glass—do play a psychological role in how people perceive wine.

Central to the Riedel/Spiegelau phenomenon is the slosh factor. You need to swirl wine in your glass with sufficient abandon to aerate it beyond the limited exposure it receives while in transit from bottle to glass (unless it is decanted) without having it spill. My strategy before the revolution was to use high-stemmed water goblets for red wines, as conventional Bordeaux and Burgundy glasses seemed so punily proportioned.

Neither Riedel nor Spiegelau stints on size; indeed, some of their glasses can appear excessively large. Riedel's Vinum Burgundy is plausible at 24 3/4 ounces, but its Sommeliers Burgundy Grand Cru jumps the shark at 37 ounces. One fastidious friend of ours, a regular at New York's Chanterelle restaurant, asks for his Bordeaux to be repoured into a smaller Spiegelau glass.

Simplification of form, if not function, remains a bedrock principle of modernism. Although Riedel glassware is uncompromisingly minimalist (thus represented in the Museum of Modern Art's permanent design collection), its proliferation of shapes reinstates the mad specialization of the Victorian tabletop. In contrast, the preceding Georgian era's grandees contented themselves with a small number of essential utensils: a couple of knives and forks, soup spoon, and dessert spoon. Wineglasses, one per guest.

In the mid-19th century, place settings of the Industrial Revolution's nouveaux riches sprawled to obscene proportions, with a dizzying array of particularized flatware, including marrow scoops, asparagus tongs, and grape scissors. Wineglasses, too, multiplied apace. The flood of superfluous items attested to a thirst for ostentatious display among arrivistes, and to this day the English aristocracy disdains fish knives and napkin rings as irredeemably naff. It's hard not to think the same of anyone who believes he or she needs 40 different wineglasses in quantities of a dozen or more each.

For me the most important quality in a glass is that there be sufficient room to swirl the wine. I find the capacity, height, and balance of Riedel's shapes ideal for that. Under this criterion, I've managed to restrict myself to five wineglass shapes that adequately cover the entire spectrum: two reds (Bordeaux and Burgundy), two whites (Montrachet and Chablis), and one dessert (port). Those of you who drink mostly reds could probably get by with just the Bordeaux and Burgundy, with a single all-purpose white, and vice versa for the Chardonnay and Chablis crowd.

Clearly I have no qualms about flouting the recommendations in Riedel's minutely detailed Sommeliers Guide. I serve Bordeaux and other big reds (like Priorato and Amarone) in the Bordeaux glasses and lighter reds (Beaujolais and Côtes-du-Rhône) in the Burgundy. The wide-mouthed Montrachet glass seems most suitable for the big whites I favor—Condrieu and Tokay Pinot Gris. I use the narrower Chablis shape for all others, including my beloved Riesling. And quite frankly, by the time I pour eiswein, port, or Madeira, who cares if one size fits all?

My dirty little secret: For Champagne flutes I stock up at Crate & Barrel, as I find this shape the most prone to breakage. Since I use the budget flutes mainly for serving aperitifs, I find the quality contrast between these glasses and our better table crystal a nonissue.

In terms of durability versus price point, I've arrived at a happy medium with the glasses of Riedel's midpriced Vinum line, which are machine-made instead of handblown like the four-times-as-expensive Sommeliers series, about $25 a stem as opposed to $100. The contrast in quality seems negligible in terms of the price differential, especially given my tendency to smash glasses during woozy postparty cleanups. The Vinums are also safe in the dishwasher, a must if you're hosting a multiple-wine dinner.

In the end it all comes down to a matter of informed personal taste. With a wider-than-ever range of well-designed wineglasses to choose from, the answer lies, most reassuringly, in your own hands. Here, in alphabetical order, are the top present-day stemwaremakers worthy of consideration by those who believe that functional logic, not outmoded social conventions, ought to dictate how wine is served. For the sake of brevity, I have focused on Bordeaux (or when Bordeaux were unavailable, red wine) glasses, which I find to be the best baseline of a line's success, as they tend not to vary as much as Champagne flutes, brandy snifters, and some other stem types.

Chartered by Louis XV in the town of Baccarat, this venerable French firm has been synonymous with the highest-quality crystal for 240 years. The best known of its oenological patterns is Perfection, introduced in 1933. Although the form remains largely unaltered, the current edition ($110) is slightly larger than the circa-1978 version we have at home. Both the Perfection line and the Grand Bordeaux Tasting Glass ($190 for two) are beautifully proportioned, but one recent innovation was a mistake: The firm's name is now engraved on the base of each glass, an in-your-face branding that trumpets your purchase.

The Vinéa series is this French tabletop giant's entry into the oenological-glass sweepstakes. The shape of the Bordeaux ($105 for two) doesn't taper as much as some other makers' because, as the company's Web site misinforms us, "Bordeaux is a wine that does not need to be aerated when it is served." Mais oui? Nonetheless, this is a handsome glass that proudly stands on its own obvious merits without resorting to showy logos like its Gallic rival, Baccarat.

First Riedel charted new terrain for specialist wineglasses and then devised five price points to cover the marketplace, from its premier, mouth-blown, lead-crystal Sommeliers line to its entry-level, machine-made, nonleaded Ouverture series. The 30 3/8-ounce Sommeliers Bordeaux Grand Cru ($95), designed in 1961, is a cult classic, though the 21 1/2-ounce Vinum Bordeaux ($25) suits me just fine. I'd forget Riedel's new O Wine Tumbler, though. This stemless glass ($12) might appeal to youngsters, but the logic behind the stem—to keep hands from warming the wine, which should never be served at higher than 60 degrees—is lost.

In the seventies Irish-born Simon Pearce created a new audience for informal high-quality crystal, in tune with those changing times. Pearce migrated to a quaint mill in Quechee, Vermont, in 1981, and though his business has expanded to industrial proportions, Pearce retains the aura of an old-country craftsman. His broad-based, low-slung, undecorated stemware is not your grandmother's Waterford. This is the ultimate crossover tabletop design, bridging both traditional and contemporary settings. The 14-ounce Stratton Red Wine ($90) is held aloft by a distinctive air-twist stem, although those who equate thinness with elegance may find this one a bit too chunky.

Since 1521, the heyday of Martin Luther, this renowned furnace in the Bavarian town of Spiegelau has been producing fine crystal, but its reputation has never been better than it is today. The firm's handblown Grand Palais Bordeaux glass ($42) is a marvel of lightness and balance, and it's just as dishwasher safe as the more affordable machine-made Vino Grande ($10). Though offering fewer shapes than archrival Riedel, Spiegelau is directly comparable in quality and attentiveness to the demands of wine, not fashion.

As America's finest crystalmaker, Steuben has embraced modernism, albeit of a somewhat conventional sort. Best known for its decorative and serving pieces (how many brides have received Steuben's 1939 olive dish as a wedding present?), the Corning, New York, firm also offers a new line of oenological stemware, Century, which was introduced for its 100th anniversary last year. Designer Joel Smith's German-made Century Bordeaux glass ($95) displays all the clarity for which Steuben is celebrated. Faultlessly proportioned, it is quite an achievement given the limited latitude one has in rethinking something this simple.

I always associate Val Saint-Lambert, set up in an abandoned Belgian monastery in 1826, with its clear-crystal candlesticks, a perennially chic way to illuminate a dinner table. But its stemware, which is not as common in the United States as that of its closest equivalent, Baccarat, deserves more attention. Val, too, has had to respond to the inroads made by Riedel and Spiegelau, thus its comparable line, Académie du vin ($55). Actually I find its shapes less successful than the Excellence pattern, in which the water goblet ($55) is better for Bordeaux than the smaller red wineglass.

Ireland's legendary crystal manufacturer has outsourced to Austria for its moderately priced but stylish Marquis by Waterford Vintage Tasting Collection. The 19 1/2-ounce Deep Red Wineglass ($50 for a set of four) is hard to beat in terms of value (except for Spiegelau's Vino Grande). It's a nicely worked shape, just slightly smaller than Riedel's Vinum Bordeaux, and about half the price. Paradoxically, the glass makes a much better case for serious wine drinking than Waterford's classic cut-crystal patterns, most of which strike me now as too heavy and small.

The newest of the high-end manufacturers is also the most traditional. Founded in 1995 by London designer William Yeoward and Timothy Jenkins, scion of an old glassmaking family, this firm aspires to revive the golden age of British and Irish crystal (during the Georgian era). Yeoward's intricately engraved glasses are now joined by the wine-specific Olympia pattern. The 10 1/2-inch-high Bordeaux ($53) is just a fraction shorter than Riedel's Sommeliers Bordeaux Grand Cru, but the top doesn't taper as much to concentrate the wine's bouquet. The high-lead-content crystal rings as loudly as Big Ben.


Shrewdly playing into America's mania for supersizing absolutely everything, Riedel makes the largest high-end wine-tasting glass, the BURGUNDY GRAND CRU MAXI ($295). This handblown 14 5/8-inch-high lead-crystal glass can hold two and a half bottles of wine—if you were foolish enough to pour them. It is a monster that falls into the dubious category of conversation piece, and it reminds me of a New York shop that used to sell overscaled versions of everyday objects, from five-foot-high pencils to a humongous martini glass, of which the Burgundy Grand Cru Maxi is the very expensive equivalent.


The obsessive wine geek has uncovered an ideal status symbol in RIEDEL'S SOMMELIERS "BLIND BLIND" TASTING GLASS ($60). This opaque black 13 3/8-ounce novelty item, introduced last year, makes it impossible to see whether the wine within is red or white, adding another level of mystery to guessing its identity. My prediction is that this Darth Vader of stemware will find its niche not among wine mavens (color is crucial in judging a cuvée's character) but as a water goblet for hyperfashionistas who deem black as the to-die-for color, even on the dinner table.