I was invited on a tour of the How Wine Became Modern exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art the other day with, among a few other journalists, Georg Riedel, the eminent owner of Riedel Glassware. I was told to look for Henry Urbach, the Henry Hilton Raiser curator of architecture and design, upon entering the building. However, I mistook Riedel, who was holding a tasting at the museum later in the day, for my tour guide.
Luckily, the story gets better from here.
Afterward, I saw Riedel sitting quietly reading on his computer, so I asked if he had a minute for some questions. The minute turned into 20 and I must say I was not expecting to hear some of the things he had to say.
First, he kept repeating that they are essentially toolmakers. This sounded suspiciously humble coming from the world’s most-renowned maker of wine glasses, but as he continued to talk, there was no doubt he had a genuine belief that he was making a product that prides itself on function above all else.
Every year, Riedel makes 50 million pieces of glassware, including decanters. I’ve always been a little bit skeptical of the need to have a different type of glass for practically every single grape and, to some extent, Riedel shares this sentiment. Unequivocally, he (and I) believes that glassware makes a difference and the design affects experience. However, when it comes down to it, Riedel believes you only need five types of glasses, two white and three red.
One wine glass is needed for aromatic white grapes like viognier, sauvignon blanc and riesling. He also thinks that these narrow-shaped vessels are great for sparkling wines because it provides more air space than a Champagne flute. Chardonnay and oak-aged wines are best in glasses that have a more rounded bowl. When it comes to red wines, a Burgundy glass should be used for all pinot noir, a Bordeaux glass is perfect for wines made from cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc but for nearly everything else, the shiraz glass is ideal.
Similar in shape to the Bordeaux, the shiraz glass is a little bit taller. Riedel feels that this glass allows myriad grapes, not only are the Rhone varietals — syrah, grenache, mourvedre — but also carmenere, malbec, pinotage, tempranillo and a number of others to jump out of the glass with optimum expression.
When asked if there is a difference between tasting wine from the various levels of glassware, i.e. price categories, his response was, “only an emotional one.” Dude, I thought you were in the business of selling your glassware!
Riedel also has a range of beautiful decanters, but he admits that what is important is oxygenating the wine, and this can also be done by pouring from one bottle into another.
No doubt, Georg Riedel is very proud of his family’s achievements, and he strongly believes in its products. Riedel has led the way and nearly every other wine-glass company has emulated its efforts. But in an age of gadgets and an industry that is rife with slick salesmanship, it was a breath of fresh air to hear some honesty and humility, especially coming from its king.
Pamela S. Busch is the owner of Skrewcap.com, founder of CAV Wine Bar and a Bay Area wine consultant. Please submit your questions to Pamela@Skrewcap.com.