Thursday, October 29, 2009

Drinking the Kool-Aid Out of German Lead Crystal: Reidel Glasses

So, Maximilian Reidel, 33 year old CEO of Reidel Crystal of America, was in town recently with the Reidel Travelling Medicine Show to sell a few wares and preach the gospel of wine glasses. For those who have never heard of Reidel glasses, let me respectfully suggest that you come out from under your rock and try some wine. Reidel is pretty much the gold standard for wine glasses these days. Seriously, if you haven't heard of Reidel glasses, there is a serious question of how much and what types of wine you've been drinking. Sincerely.

Anyway, Max himself, 11th generation of the Reidel family, was in town for a Reidel glass tasting event at Callaway's this last week. If you've never been to one of these events, you must go. The event was entertaining, educational, and you walked out with four spectacular wine glasses. This is the second Reidel event that has occurred in the last few years here in Sioux Falls. If I am not mistaken, the last event featured Max's dad, Georg.

For those who haven't perviously been formally inducted into the Cult of Reidel, let me explain the format for the event. The event started with a reception featuring champagne served in the very cool Reidel "O" champagne glasses. (The "O" series is stemless. Very cool champagne/sparkling glasses.) There were also a few non-descript finger foods. One then adjourns to the next room where tables are laid out in a classroom sort of arrangement. At each place is a glass for water and a place mat set with four big, beautiful, lead crystal glasses, each holding a respectable tasting quantity of wine. In this case, we are talking about the new Reidel Vinum XL glasses and the set consisted of a glass for Riesling, Montrachet/Chadonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir (specifically Oregon pinot.) Also at the place setting is a standard issue wine glass typical of those found at almost any large-attendance event. Not those goofy "tulip" glasses like one would expect at a wedding dance at any particular Ramkota, but still, a standard, who-cares-if-you-break-it glass.

Max then introduces himself and starts the magic show. The program consists of starting with one of the pre-poured wines, usually the "lightest" in this case the Riesling. You take a big sniff out of the Reidel glass and listen to Max explain his impressions, It goes something like this:

"Ahhh, smell zat! Pear! Pineapple! Granny Smiss Appul! (Max is German) Honey! Sunlight!" Then you taste and get more of the same impressions. Then comes the trick. Max instructs the group to pour the wine out of the Reidel glass and into the standard-issue "Joker" glass. "Vhat do you smell? Nothink! Vhat happened? It's gone!"

Okay, at this point, I'd really like to ridicule Max about this alleged alchemy, but he's right. The shape of the Joker glass can't contain the beautiful aromas and subtleties of the wine. The same drill ensues when the crowd is invited to drink out of the "Joker." Sure enough, the first taste of the exact same wine you just drank tastes nothing like it did moments ago. To drive the point home, Max then has the crowd pour the wine into an ordinary plastic cup, to demonstrate that the same wine has less aroma and less taste now.

This process continues through the other glasses at the table and varies only with invitations to pour a varietal into a glass designed for an entirely different varietal. Think a big Oregon Pinot Noir in a glass specifically designed for Chardonnay. Despite the quality of the glass, the right wine in the wrong glass doesn't work.

Okay, so what the fork? Can a glass really make a difference? And, if so, why?

Well, turns out you don't need to be a German engineer to figure this one out. Engineering has nothing to do with it. These glasses are the work of artisans who have worked on glasses specifically designed to showcase the colors, aromas and tastes of specific wines. During part of the demonstration, Max invites everyone to tip the glass forward as one might do to examine the color of the wine. He directs your attention to the shape the wine is making in the glass. This is important. You should notice that the differently-shaped glasses shape and direct the wine in different ways. For instance, a Cabernet glass directs the wine to a relatively sharp point, while the Chardonnay glass allows the wine to flow more widely. You place the thin, cut rim to your mouth et voila, the glass directs the wine to different parts of your tongue. What this does is allow the wine to make it's first contact with critical points of your mouth's tasting apparati.

Reidel makes several series of glasses covering various tiers of prices. These lines cover everything from the hand-blown Sommelier series to the stemless "O" series. Irrespective of what series of glasses you have, chances are there is one that is specifically designed for a particular varietal. In the higher-end lines (Sommelier and Vinum, for instance) there are a LOT of varietal-specific glasses. There are glasses specifically designed for Spanish Tempranillio, Chianti, Port, and Burgundy, as well as glasses for single-malt Scotches or sake. The glasses we tried were part of the new Vinum XL series and, like t-shirts, the XL is for extra large. These suckers are big. The Caberet glass has a capacity of something like 22 ounces. As Max explained, the glasses are bigger these days for the simple reason that wines are bigger these days. Today's winemakers are producing wines that are bold and flavorful. Bigger wines, bigger glass. Works for me. I like a bigger glass for wines because it facilitates swirling the wine and shoving your whole nose and half your face into the glass. (I think you can tell infintely more about a wine by smelling it that you can tasting it.)

This isn't alchemy, though. The glass cannot change what is in it. That's still the same wine in there, the glass just presents it to your nose and your palate in such a way that the first encounter with it is amplified. Just to prove that point, I tried my own little experiment, which, in a way, debunked a little of the mystery. I took a drink from the Reidel glass and then made a point to work the wine aggressively into every corner of my mouth. This is what highly-proficient tasters do. Literally chew the wine and be sure to open your mouth a little and work in some air. I then did the same think with a drink of the same wine from the plastic cup. Turns out working the wine aggressively around your mouth is the great equalizer. Nevertheless, the Reidel glass did showcase the wine from the moment it hits the lips and tongue. The other glasses did not do so.

So, is an investment in glasses like these worth it. If you are serious student of wine or are hoping to increase your knowledge, the answer is an unqualified yes. If you care more about what is in the bottle than how cool the label looks and are willing to spend more than 5 bucks on a bottle, you should invest in some decent glassware. If you are going to paint, you need good brushes. If you are going to ski, you need good skis and boots that fit your ability and style. Basically, you need the right tools for the job and these glasses will compliment and accentuate your wine experience.

One last thing. If you treat these glasses properly, they will last a long, long, time. For such thin glass, they are amazingly strong and durable. A little care while washing and some attention will keep these glasses working for you long into the future.

Go buy the glasses, but clear out some cupboard or bar space for them, a full set of these puppies is going to take up more space than all those hurricane glasses you have brought back from New Orleans over the years. And, if you still have some space, pick up a decanter. You should see the Eve decanter that Max designed! But that's a whole other story for another day.

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