The Emperor Has Underwear. . . and Maybe a Pair of Socks

What you drink from matters. No question.

Good coffee will be ruined by a Styrofoam, waxed, or plastic vessel (and here, I include all those plastiform travel mugs distributed by SA). Water leaches toxins from petroleum-based bottles. Anything out of an aluminum can tastes like. . . .aluminum can. Chunky little Chinese bowl cups somehow make tea taste better. Wide cappuccino mugs with plenty of room for foam are a must. And decent wine glasses do improve the wine drinking experience.

To a point.

Take it from me, a woman who sat through most of a demonstration staged last night at Solera, by the legendary stemware producer Georg Riedel (pronounced REE-dle, rhymes with needle). I left early — truth — because I had a conference for one of my kids. But I was glad to go. For 45 minutes, we’d been swirling, pouring, sniffing, and experimenting with three nice wines and five different "glasses" (explanation of quotes below) and I was rather tired of the process. It was a little Montessori and, frankly, sucked every ounce of enjoyment from the experience of simply drinking the wine.

Georg is the 10th generation principal of his family’s Austrian glass-blowing business. They actually started, back in the mid-1700’s, making windows. But after World War 2, the Riedel family was forced out of their native Bohemia (now the Czech Republic). And in 1957, Georg’s father, Claus, had an opportunity to buy a business that made high-quality stemware. But rather than just carry on in the tradition of the company — making glasses that were aesthetically pleasing or in keeping with current decor — Claus came up with a whole new paradigm.

He developed what his son — Georg — calls "the concept." Simply put: that the size and shape of a glass matter when it comes to drinking wine.

I don’t know about Claus, but Georg is a born salesman. And by this I mean, he can make it seem imperative that you have what he sells. He’s canny. Self deprecating. He talks about how he "complicates" the lives of the people he meets by alerting them to their need for better wine glasses. How clever is that? He cops to the fact that he is adding a layer of cost and effort onto what is for most of us a simple, pleasant pursuit. And yet, he manages to make this sound like a gift!

During yesterday’s presentation, Riedel the 10th was suave in a very European high-buttoned coat. He warned us charmingly (he nearly won me over with this) about the volume of wine we were about to drink and cautioned drivers against over-indulging. He talked about the rising alcohol content of wines and the unfortunate practice of chaptalizing (adding sugar during fermentation) that has become standard because modern drinkers seem to want ever bolder and bigger wines.

He told us that the word "flavor" actually means the combination of smell and taste. This is only marginally accurate. It is one definition (third on the list in most dictionaries). But I’m willing to give him credit, given that the sensory experiences (smell and taste) certainly are connected where wine is concerned. And I, for instance, am a person more reliant upon the former than the latter.

"In every handmade glass is the breath of a human being," Georg said. And I have to admit, I swooned.

But then, we were led through a complicated dance that involved tasting white wine from a Riedel Chardonnay glass, then from a plastic cup, and then from a cheap, wide-mouthed glass. And this is where Georg lost me.

Of course, the wine tasted awful from the plastic cup. There were, to my mind, many reasons. Plastic has an odor, even a distinct taste. It’s flimsy and unsatisfying to hold. I associate it with keg parties and hospital water jugs. However, Georg Riedel insisted the only problem with the plastic cup was that its mouth was too narrow to allow for proper aromatics.

Once we’d poured the wine into the wide-mouthed glass, we were instructed to sip again. And here, he told us there was just too MUCH aroma escaping, it wasn’t being funneled to the nose properly. This, too, he said, ruined the wine. All around me, I saw heads nodding.

But I was thinking, Balderdash. (Actually, I was thinking something else, but this is a word more in keeping with the refinement of Riedel.)

After the white wine had been swirled, poured, and disposed of, we started in on the red. This was served in a Riedel Burgundy glass — a beautiful, bulbous thing (in the middle above) that Georg told us is large enough to hold a bottle and a half. Now, put aside the risks inherent in giving people glasses so large that a moderate serving of wine looks like a pathetic dribble. The fact is, we drank a lovely French pinot noir from the Burgundy glass and it was very nice.

Then, we were told to pour our Burgundy into the Chardonnay glass — which Georg told us is similar to many other manufacturers’ red wine glasses — and take a sip. "Do you taste that? It’s too acidic!" Georg cried out, and the people around me were nearly weeping with gratitude as if someone had finally confirmed what they always knew. Stemware really does matter! Hallelujah!!

I, on the other hand, drank my Burgundy from the wrong glass and I thought it was just fine. . . .except for the little bit of white wine residue.

There are many things I love about Riedel stemware. It is lovely and stately and makes a thrilling sound when you clink in toast. I’ve no doubt it improves wine marginally (marginally!) to be able to stick one’s entire nose in the glass. It’s on sale at Target, for God’s sake, where you can get two bottom-of-the-line glasses for $25-30, which is not, actually a bad deal. But I do not believe, nor have I seen any evidence, that the average wine drinker must buy a different shaped glass for every varietal he or she may drink.

As I said, a master salesman is someone who comes up with a product and convinces you that you absolutely must have it. He is the emperor who convinces you he is well dressed when he appears stark naked. Or, in the case of Georg Riedel — who has some very good points to make among all the flim-flam and twirling fire — a pair of boxers and maybe a couple woolen socks.