Fragile PleasuresMay 01, 2022 09:00AM ● By Terence Lane
Wine glasses have been an integral part of my life and career for the better portion of a decade. I’ve worked with them in restaurants, wineries, and tony Manhattan wine bars. I’ve spent hours uncountable pulling warm stems, still patched with steam, from industrial dishwashers and polishing them spotless in the highfalutin theaters of haute cuisine. A wine glass is more than a single object. It consists of three main parts: petal, stem, and bowl. You can buy a box of four from T.J. Maxx for $12.99, or you can own a Zalto Burgundy balloon for $75. They are stemmed. They are stemless. Is one better than the other? What makes a wine glass a good glass? Does it matter?
At the Fire and Vine exhibit in the Corning Museum of Glass, a lineage of wine appreciation is presented in the chalices passed down through the ages. It is impressive to note the great leaps in craftsmanship over time, with plenty of emphasis on colorful and florid designs. The stemware runs the gamut from crude to ornate. Various shapes and styles speak volumes about what was valued by the consumers of the day. The Roman goblet from 400–500 A.D., with its cropped stem and lily rim, indicates a preference for function over form—a mode by which to convey a lot of alcohol to the bloodstream quickly and without swirling. In fairness, the wine of the Roman Empire was nothing like what it is today, and there’s probably a very good reason why those early vessels were built for speed.
In stark contrast are the Tiffany coupes of the 1920s, with their Listerine stems and wide, rosy bowls. Probably not glasses for everyday drinking but glasses used to impress, to make a statement of class, something Gatsby might have wielded around his mansion, toasting his dubious friends or staring solemnly across the sound at what can never be owned.
The main problem with elaborate, colorful glassware is that it hinders the ability to see what you’re drinking. While aesthetically pleasing, the Tiffany coupes lose points because you can’t really see what’s inside, which I liken to eating a delicious meal in a poorly lit room—something is lost.
In the twenty-first century, wine dazzles in clear crystal stems, more like what you see in the Riedel collection. This was the first collection featuring shapes designed specifically for wine enjoyment. Sommeliers will tell you that the first step of wine evaluation is simply to observe the wine in the glass. Don’t swirl. Don’t sniff. Just look. Is it purple and opaque, consistent with malbec or saperavi, or is it star-bright and garnet, more indicative of pinot noir or cabernet franc? Is the wine viscous, does it cling to the glass, does it stain, does it tear? A white wine beginning to darken can suggest a good deal of age or a flaw like premature oxidation, the damaging of a wine caused by oxygen leaking through the cork (it smells like poached apples). In red wines, age manifests as a fading of the pigment, or a distinctive browning of the meniscus. The color of the wine gives clues as to its condition, variety, and age. These are details to be appreciated. Wine is something for the eyes to drink before the judgment of the palate.
Today’s sleek stems are made to showcase the full range of the wine’s resplendence, from color to aroma to taste. Their subtle curvature is designed to entrap the wine’s bouquet. Spacious bowls allow for the wine to aerate and open as it is gently swirled by the stem. But what about stemless glasses? In many homes and restaurants, the continuing evolution of the wine glass has led some to prefer this abbreviated model.
Master sommelier and owner of F.L.X. Hospitality and Element Winery, Christopher Bates, weighed in with his preference on stemmed versus stemless.
“Stemmed,” he says. “Always stemmed. Always. The stem does three important things: keeps you from warming the wine with your hands, avoids smudging the glass with greasy fingerprints, and allows you to properly swirl.”
Years ago, while on a date at an Asian-fusion restaurant, I ordered a simple bottle of Bourgogne blanc from one of the big negociants (wine merchants)—I think it was Louis Jadot or Olivier Leflaive. We made a toast. My date had blonde hair with some green highlights feathered in, something I was pretty into. The tempura came out. The little shumai dumplings. On my second sip of wine, she started to giggle.
“What?” I asked.
She nodded at my glass. “You hold it funny.”
“By the middle part,” she said.
“That’s where you’re supposed to hold it,” I said.
“It’s fancy,” she said, giggling.
That exchange still lives vividly inside me, consistent with a societal disinclination to use the stem. It still holds water. Or wine. I haven’t shared that anecdote with many people, but this felt like the right time to let it breathe.
If you’ve ever tried to swirl wine by the bowl or in a stemless glass, you understand the difficulty. For starters, it’s incredibly awkward. It looks like begging for change or trying to collect rain drops on a cloudless day. Aeration’s almost impossible, and because of the limited control, wine will inevitably slosh out on the carpet. Alfresco drinking may be the best time to go stemless. “If I’m outdoors doing yardwork, sure,” says Christopher, “throw some Muscadet in an insulated cup and get at it.”
If stemmed glasses are the preferred way to go, which ones should you buy and should you spend a lot of money on them? Christopher’s feeling is that you don’t need to go overboard but it’s worth spending something. He elaborates.
“Remember, these are not single-use (hopefully), so you can amortize the cost of that glass over the cost of the wine it will deliver to happy noses and mouths in its life span. You will realize a good glass is worth the expense. When I say a good glass, I mean clear, thin, and stemmed, with an ability to hold twelve ounces or more. Riedel, Spiegelau, and Schott Zwiesel all make great glasses, and if they are in your budget, Zaltos are a delight to use.”
As an owner of Zalto glass, I should attach a disclaimer: Don’t buy them unless you’re an exceedingly cautious person. From 2017 to 2020, I worked at a wine bar that used nothing but Austrian Zaltos. They’re so beautifully crafted and delicate that first-timers will often stop talking when they touch them. Some people feel a squeeze-the-kitty impulse to flick them as hard as they can. One time a woman actually took a bite out of her glass of Beaujolais and shyly handed me the piece. It’s true that Zaltos are second to none (I’ve had to ask guests to please take them out of their purses), but I don’t often recommend them to people. I tend to suggest Stölzle Lausitz glasses for elegance, strength, and value.
Some glasses are sold in shapes that reflect the wines of a given region, i.e., Burgundy and Bordeaux. You might not be familiar with those wines, so how do you pick the right shape of glass?
Matthew Smith, vineyard specialist at Hillick & Hobbs and former sommelier at Michelin-starred Rebelle in New York City, shed light on the utility of various styles.
“My intro to proper glassware was at Rebelle. We always served in the appropriate glasses: APs [all-purpose] for by-the-glass and white. For red, we used three different kinds: Rhone, Burgundy, and Bordeaux. There’s something to be said about dropping the right stem with the right bottle, something classy about that. There’s a sense of history there. Someone thought a certain shape better expressed the wines they were making. That’s something to honor. When you have options, you’re going to pick what’s preferential.”
Certified sommelier and proprietor of the 1897 Beekman House in Dundee, Greg DeForest-Campbell believes style is crucial.
“Wine is an experience for all your senses, and proper glassware will enhance this experience across the board. If you put an aromatic red like a Barolo in an AP, you’re not going to get the full aroma, taste, and, yes, visual flare that you would get if you used a Burgundy glass. I would say that anyone who is really into wine and would like to experience its full expression should have APs for whites and rosés, Burgundies for full whites and aromatic reds, and Bordeauxs for full, muscular reds. Those three styles will get the job done.”
Burgundy glasses, often referred to as balloons, are exactly how they sound—voluminous globes designed for building oxygen and coaxing out the wine’s myriad aromas. Bordeaux glasses are also on the larger side, but less round, and with a significantly wider rim than a Burgundy’s. When in doubt, a standard AP glass is never a bad way to go.
Now that you have your glasses and your wine, all there is left to do is pour. In my experience, the average person will pour a quarter of the bottle or more into their glass at a time, something like six to seven ounces. Now, that’s a heck of a glass of wine, what we industry creatures call a “Mom pour.” Matt believes the wine should have plenty of room to move around and advocates for a shorter pour. Admittedly, that can be a tough sell.
“My whole family hates me about this, they call mine ‘Matt pours,’” says Matt. “The thing is, when you overfill a glass, you actually smell it less. It can be a detriment to the tasting experience. Then again, if my mom wants a bigger pour and I don’t deliver it, that’s also a detriment to the experience.”
“The more room the wine has to interact with air, the better,” explains Greg. “It’s easier to see, smell, and taste from a less-filled glass.”
Unless the kids are home from college and you have to get it while you can, try pouring three ounces at a time. This allows the wine to put its best leg forward. You’ll be able to see the true intensity of color and get a nice swirl going. You’ll also get many more pours.
Decanting is another excellent way to get your wine loosened up and ready to go. There’s a lot of misinformation out there when it comes to “opening” wine. I’ve been to dinner parties where the host has considerately opened the wine, as in removed the cork, so that it might have time to breathe before dinner. Many, many people are under the impression that the bottle will somehow start sucking in air like a lung, and while poetic, it just doesn’t work that way. In order to really open a bottle of wine, you have to pour it out into a separate container. When you decant, the wine is flushed full of oxygen. Tannic red wines and older reds are also decanted to take the wine off of any sediment that may have dropped out over time. What wines should you decant? Barring an ancient red Burgundy, you can decant anything, and you should.
“Red, white, rosé, sweet, and sparkling can all benefit from decanting,” explains Christopher. “It’s all about building some oxygen into it, taking it off its sediment, and letting it rest. You can use anything to decant, as long as it’s clean and inert. Pitchers, vases, quart containers, or even an empty bottle from the night before can all be used.”
Clean coffee pots are another great decanting hack. Feel free to double-decant that Sonoma Coast syrah by pouring it once into a pitcher and then funneling it back into the bottle. This can be accomplished quickly before the company arrives or in front of the company for a bit of festive recreation; it’s totally up to you.
When it comes to sparkling wines, decanting is about preference and ties back into glassware. Classic examples of champagne stems are the flute and the coupe, also called a Marie Antoinette, after whose breast it was modeled. The two shapes could be considered opposites—one narrow, one wide—and yet both are used for the same wine. These days many sparkling drinkers even prefer to sip their suds out of red wine glasses. What’s going on here?
“Flutes retain bubbles and deliver a carbonated feel to the drinker,” Christopher explains. “Using a white or red glass will diminish the impression of the bubbles, turning your sparkling wine into more of a white wine drinking experience but allowing for a greater appreciation of the wine’s aroma. It depends on what you like, bubbles or aroma.”
Matt lends a more pointed opinion. “I don’t think anyone should have a champagne flute,” he says with a chuckle. “I don’t think you can smell wine in a flute. Put it this way, the wine is diminished when you put it in a flute. Drink your champagne out of a white wine glass. With all these excellent grower champagnes [artisanal champagne] it should be considered the same way we consider any fine wine because it’s on the same playing field as the greatest wines in the world.”
Greg is passionate that champagne should have the same right to air as any other wine. “Champagne is my favorite style of wine—well, that and Finger Lakes sparkling wine—and I am completely opposed to the use of flutes. I get the thinking behind them, that they concentrate the bubbles, and champagne is a party and all that, but they are beyond useless to anyone who actually wants to taste the wine. champagne is acidic, structured, and textured, it really has it all. You absolutely cannot taste it if you are sipping from a flute. Young champagne should be served in APs, and old champagne in Burgundies.”
I’m still haunted by the phrasing of legendary Wine Bible author, Karen MacNeil, who once likened champagne to a “sword wrapped in whipped cream,” referring to its precision and textural weight. It has been said many times but bears repeating: champagne needs no occasion, champagne is the occasion.
A great wine glass also needs no occasion and will undoubtedly enhance the enjoyment of whatever you happen to be pouring.
“Anyone talking about how the angle of this rim hits the palate in a different way can go kick rocks,” says Matt. “Anyone who knows that much about the mechanics is minimal. At the end of the day, wine is something to be enjoyed, not worried about. Use whatever makes you happy.”
And what glass makes a sommelier happy?
“I have a Schott Zwiesel glass that’s pretty old. It was a sample I got at a restaurant,” says Matt. “It’s an all-purpose glass and only holds about four ounces, but it’s a really good tasting glass. Any Riedel glass is good. Some of the bigger ones may be a bit clunky. If we were all lucky, we’d have Zaltos, but they’re just a little too fragile and can keep you on edge. No one likes to be the person who broke the Zalto.” (Matt may have broken one of my Zalto APs at a party last year, but that’s between us.)
Greg cites an old go-to. “Honestly, Riedels. They’re what I used when I worked at Corkbuzz; they’re what I used at The Standard. They are good quality glasses that get the job done, and they’re not so delicate that I feel like I will shatter them if I look at them the wrong way. I wouldn’t go so far as to call them affordable, but they aren’t so expensive that breaking one puts me into a state of financial panic. Riedel all the way.”
Despite all the fuss and polishing, my happy glasses are Zaltos, symbolic of victory and mistakes. They remind me of the fragile pleasures of another life, of the unicorn wines I’ll never taste again and the sommeliers who tasted them with me, keeping our cool in a barn-burner of a Thursday night service in Midtown, when the tax attorneys came out to drink Ramonet and Chateau Rayas and we provided that experience. But not until we provided it for ourselves first, uncorking, swirling, breathing the wine’s aroma with eyes closed before the taste, giving it our blessing.