John JuergensThe Stem vs. the Jelly Jar

It used to be when someone asked me what kind of glass I wanted for my wine, my smart-A response was, "Anything that doesn't leak." To say the least, I was a diehard skeptic when it came to glassware and its impact on the perception of any given wine.

I have a passion for elegant glassware and have several china cabinets full of the stuff from all over the world. There is something magical about swirling a robust, ruby red wine in the bowl of a hand-blown crystal glass that's big enough to hold the entire bottle.

But does the glass really make the wine taste any better? Is there really anything to all the hype about a certain shaped glass for white wines and a different shaped glass for red wine? And what if you don't have any nice stemware and your boyfriend brings over a nice Vintner's Reserve White Zinfandel? Won't a Looney Toons jelly jar do just a well? In a word, yes and no.

Assuming you do not want to drink your Mouton Rothschild straight from the bottle, most any container can be used to get the wine from the bottle to your mouth. However, if you want to maximize the potential of your investment, there are several important variables that determine whether the shape and material of the vessel will make a difference. Let's deal with the easy things first.

Metal. The only reason anybody ever drank wine out of a metal goblet or mug is because they didn't have glass or they were reenacting a medieval dinner party. Do not drink wine out of metal. Period. It will make the wine taste metallic. No brainer.

Wood. Don't even think about it.

Plastic. Sometimes you are forced to drink wine out of plastic tumblers and molded wine and Champagne "glasses." I suppose it's an okay short term expedient, but all plastic has a certain odor to it and some of the polymers in it are easily leached out. These chemicals will really alter the smell and taste of the wine.

Glass. The ideal since it is inert for all practical purposes. What about the type of glass? Is hand blown better than machine made? I can't imagine why this would make the slightest bit of difference since the glass is inert. How about lead crystal vs. regular glass? Same concept. It's just a matter of esthetics. This, then, brings us to shape.

As I mentioned above, until just a few years ago I was a passionate non-believer in the notion that anything other than the most basic shape could have a significant influence on the perception of wine. All this stuff about white wine glass and red wine glasses was just a lot of wine snobbery. Of course, I rejected early on those silly "classical" Champagne glasses that are shaped liked a Rumanian gymnast's breast. All they are good for is spilling a lot of wine and making it go flat before you reach the bottom of the glass.

It was my belief that as long as a glass had a bowl that was sufficiently large to swirl the wine, provided a large surface area for the wine to release its aroms, and a mouth that was smaller than bowl, it would perform just fine. I also knew from experience that the worst kind of wine glass is one that has almost vertical sides, no matter how big the bowl is. You see these a lot in discount stores and they look nice, but for some reason they kill the aromas and flavors in most any type of wine.

But then came along the man promoting Riedel glassware from Austria with no less than nineteen different shaped glasses, one for each different type of wine. He had a glass for Chardonnay, Cabernet, Shiraz, Chianti, Sauvignon Blanc, and on and on. To me this was just a reincarnation of the Fuller Brush man who had a different brush for each color hair.

To make a long story short, I was proven wrong. Not once, but several times, and now I am a believer. Shape does make a difference, more so for some wines than others. Extensive research has been conducted to figure out what shapes best liberate and convey the aromas and flavors of each type of wine to the palate, and the effect can be dramatic. But the bad news is that it would cost a small fortune to stock a set of 6 or 8 glasses for each of your favorite wines.

These now legendary glasses come in several levels of quality in terms of glass, not function. The hand-blown crystal are really expensive and about as fragile as an egg shell. They feel like the stem could snap just by swirling the wine. They also have machine made crystal and regular glass that cost less, but you still feel like you have lost a family member when one of them breaks.

Although I love elegant crystal, I have always felt that the glass should serve as a tool to transfer the wine from bottle to mouth, and that it should not interfere with the enjoyment of the wine. If you are so worried about breaking your glass, how can you enjoy the wine?

Given the huge success of the Riedel line of glassware, lots of competitors have emerged. However, one company has finally shown up with some of the same shapes as Riedel, but the glasses are durable enough that you can bang them on the counter top without breaking them. Produced by the ancient Spiegelau company the glasses have the look and feel of the expensive crystal, but without the worry, and they cost about half the price of Riedel. In addition, they have reduced the number of glasses so that you need only one glass for most white wines, and maybe two for the reds. I have done a side-by-side comparison of the Spiegelau and Riedel glasses, and there is no difference. You can now tote your fine glassware on a picnic and enjoy all the wonders of your wine without feeling like you are packing nitroglycerin. Now that's my kind of glass.

So, what about the humble jelly jar? Hey, you do what you have to do. White Zin looks great in a Daffy Duck glass and it's kind of quaint. But if I'm headed out to dinner and I know I will be drinking a nice wine, I make sure there is glassware that at least has the right general shape. It really does make a difference.

Oct. 13, 2000

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