Not so long ago I was at a dinner with a handful of food writers--I was there merely as a food taster--and the fancy stemware from the Austrian firm Riedel came up. One woman extolled the famed Riedel wine tasting experience, a kind of demonstration where one tastes wine out of a variety of Riedel glasses (chardonnay from a special chardonnay glass, cabernet sauvignon from a cab cup, and so on), it tastes and smells much better than usual, and you're forced to realize that you've been drinking your fine pinots out of the wrong glasses for your whole life. I was skeptical, but she told me it was enlightening. Last night at SFMOMA, Riedel honcho, and 11th generation family glass man Georg Riedel hosted just this kind of tasting, and I wasn't going to miss it.
I sat down with Georg, a 40 year veteran of the family concern, before the tasting, and though he was reticent on what precisely makes a certain Riedel glass right for a certain varietal of wine--"We'll talk after the tasting," he kept repeating--he did offer a bit of insight into what he calls Riedel's "instruments to highlight the quality of wine."
He made a distinction between the "private senses"--touch, taste, and smell--and the "official senses"--sight and hearing--arguing that insofar as there is no such thing as 20/20 tasting, and that no official medical test can be administered to find out how well we smell, the private senses we use to judge wine are more a matter of perception than of some benchmarked ability.
He then told me about how his father, Claus Riedel was the first to make the discovery that particularly shaped glasses serve particular varietals. From the late 1950s onward the company dedicated itself to "wine friendly" glasses with scant attention paid to aesthetics. Riedel was not entirely forthcoming in how his father, and subsequent Riedel glassmakers arrive at a particular shape for a particular varietal, and instead told me that "you must taste it. It is convincing once you have it on your palette. It's the same beverage you're tasting, the only change is the vessel and how that vessel changes your perception of the wine."
I took my seat in a large room just off the atrium along with maybe 100 others. We each had a placemat in front of us with three glasses from Riedel's luxe Sommeliers series of glasses, as well as a cheap wine glass and a plastic cup. My first thought was, this is clearly stacking the deck if the high-tech, high-pricetag Austrian stuff is going up against a plastic cup and a glass straight out of a spaghetti-and-red-sauce style joint.
Riedel took the podium and commenced a show he must have put on hundreds of times. The jokes were polished as nicely as the $500 decanter in front of him, and he led the tasting with precision and humor. Granted with the goal of showing each of us just how anemic our wine-drinking lives had been before Riedel.
The tasting consisted of sipping and sniffing three wines--a chardonnay, pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon from Napa winery Cejas--from the late 1950s designs of the Bordeaux Grand Cru (that's the cab), the Burgunday Grand Cru (a massive glass for the pinot noir that could hold a bottle and a half of wine), and the Montrachet for the chardonnay.
As we inhaled bouquets and tippled a taste, Georg had us pouring the assembled wines into our various cups. He pointed out that the wonderful aromas of the chardonnay in the Montrachet glass evaporated when sniffed from the plastic cup; that the pinot noir in its proper goblet turned bitter and gruff when taken from the cabernet glass; and that the cabernet was a pale imitation of life when sampled from anything but its rightful glass.
All told, it was quite impressive and Riedel's take on how the three wines changed their shape based on the shape of the glass was spot-on. Though I had lingering doubts about what at times felt like a high-brow exercise in group think. Without Georg telling me what I was experiencing, would I have experienced it? I'll grant that the pinot noir was pretty epic in that pinot noir glass, but would the crowd at large have murmured so disdainfully when drinking it out of the cab glass had Georg not set them up to be disappointed.
"Oh that's sad, just sad," exclaimed the doleful woman next to me when Riedel had us sip the robust cab from the chardonnay glass.
Not as good, sure, but sad? And would any of us have so quickly noted where the wine hits our tongues, where the acidity of the pinot resides in our mouths, and just precisely how tannic it seems when drunk from a "wine unfriendly" cup? I certainly don't want to short-shrift old Georg on his expertise in glassmaking and wine drinking. But to what degree was he leading my perceptions, describing them to me in real time so as guide me along his desired sensory path.
I certainly came away thinking highly of the fancy stemware, but couldn't totally shake the feeling that I was drinking right out of Riedel's hand.