Glassy-eyed tasters

A big topic of discussion among winos is always stemware. Do fancy glasses really deliver? Are bargain vessels just as good? Lately there has even been talk about clay glasses. And it’s very specific if you troll around on Wine Spectator’s chat site. Does glazing make a difference? Some say definitely yes, that when you drink from an unglazed clay vessel it softens the tannins in your red wine.
I don’t own an unglazed clay vessel which is weird since I grew up in San Antonio, Texas with a Mexican grandmother who always told me to keep water in a clay jar because it stayed cooler and tasted sweeter. Maybe that created some kind of awareness because I’ve always enjoyed my wine in the proper glass. Even in college days I hated those red frat party tumblers. You just can’t smell wine in plastic cups. You smell plastic and I don’t mean that lovely new car bouquet. I mean Barbie doll on a hot day rolling around under the seat of an unairconditioned vehicle. Yuk!
I read with interest a few years ago the article in Gourmet debunking the famous Riedel claims that their glasses are designed to deliver wine to the exact part of the palate for which it was meant and that’s why wine will always taste better in their stemware. Here’s the very quick hit explanation. The flavor characteristics of each varietal are taken into consideration when shaping the glass. With sauv blanc there’s a high amount of acidity in the wine and tartness is tasted most vividly on the sides of the tongue. So the Riedel—rhymes with “needle”—sauv blanc glass is shaped to deliver the wine in a channel straight down the middle of the tongue. The wine eventually gets all over the palate but the first impression is a strong one and it does make a difference when the sides of the tongue are initially avoided.
At the demonstration the Riedel rep will have you pouring wines into and out of the proper glasses and improper glasses, tasting for differences which you will definitely detect. You’ll even pour it into a “joker” glass, a V-shaped plastic tumbler. The aromas of the wine immediately escape. You can’t smell the bouquet at all. And you smell the empty glass which most participants say is neutral, I get that Barbie smell which I think is obnoxious.
The big test happens when you taste at home. The other night my husband and I opened a bottle of Booker White one of my favorite blends of roussane and viognier. It’s luscious and honeyed. We poured it into a Riedel for oaked chardonnay with a big bowl. In that glass the wine was incredibly supple and silky textured, it tasted wonderful. But this wine was unoaked, it’s fermented in a concrete tank. So we also poured it in the Riedel for unoaked chard, that sauv blanc glass. Then it really came alive, dancing on the palate with bright acidity and fruit flavors of citrus and peach, along with honeysuckle and wet stone. Comparatively speaking it was flabby and flat in the first glass.
I interviewed Tammie Ward, a regional sales manager for the company who conducts Riedel demos, wine glass seminars. It’s kind of like teaching kindergarten because you’ve got to control a lively crowd. Most folks are there to party and have fun. Which is great. But it’s a subject Ward takes very seriously and so she is vigilant about not talking like a used car salesman, she’s very straight-forward and I appreciated that. “Will it change a 2 into a 10? No,” she admitted. “But it can make an 8 taste 10-like.”
She showed me the Eve carafe—a sexy, sinewy blown glass vessel—and poured a wonderful Chateau St. Michelle cabernet in, swirled it around and immediately served it. That wine tasted much better than the same bottle that was left to sit in a glass without decanting for an hour and  a half. 
I enjoy the balanced feel of the Riedels and the way they make wine taste. But the best way to ensure you’re drinking delicious wine is not by using fancy glasses but by educating the palate. Ward and I tended to agree on that. “Don’t expect to change two-buck Chuck completely by drinking it from Riedel,” Ward said. She gets a charge out of explaining it all and fearlessly takes tough questions from anyone who will disagree. “I love skeptics,” she says.
But don’t take her word for it, or mine, or anyone else’s. Judge for yourself when a Riedel rep brings the demonstration to Morton’s in Santa Ana on June 9. Make a reservation for the seminar and that price includes hor d’oeuvres, wine, and glasses to take home for your own tasting experiments. Whether you’re convinced or not, the seminar promises to be an eye-opener and a lot of fun.—Anne Valdespino

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