Recently I read an online article about glassware. I learned that during the pandemic last year Americans drank 14% more than the previous year. No surprise given the stress of shelter in place and what with everyone always being home. I also learned that Americans purchased more wine online last year and, not surprisingly, more wine glasses than ever. The article then goes on to quote several industry professionals about their personal glassware choices. One mentioned that they drank wine out of small mason pint jars at home. Another admitted to using old McDonald’s glassware found at a thrift shop when hanging out with friends so as not to be so serious about the whole wine thing.

Several thoughts came to mind. First, I guess everyone gets a gold star for just showing up, aka drinking wine. After all, that seems to be the age in which we currently live. Beyond that, the gist of the article was that nowadays there are no hard and fast rules pertaining to use of wine glasses. In reality, this is ancient news. People have always been more than welcome to enjoy wine using whatever kind of delivery vehicle they so choose.

All snarkiness aside, one’s glassware needs lie somewhere between a Venn diagram and Maslow’s hierarchy of crystal needs. To begin, do you even care—or know enough to care–about wine to use a decent glass? If not, it doesn’t matter and you should feel free to use whatever vessel available when wine is the beverage of choice. However, there’s one thing you should know. Regardless of what you may think, your experience with a plastic tumbler of Merlot is not going to be the same—or as good–as mine, when tasting the same wine using decent stemware. I’m not talking about the “gold star/everyone’s potential enjoyment being equal” kind of a thing. I’m talking about chemistry.

The term “wine tasting” is a complete misnomer. Smell accounts for at least 85% of the sense of taste and the operative phrase should be “wine smelling.” That’s because the aromatics in wine are volatile compounds, with most attached to ethanol, or alcohol. As the wine comes into contact with air the volatiles start to evaporate at different rates, resulting in a range of different aromas. How important is olfactory in tasting wine? Someone with a good deal of tasting experience does most of their work with a wine by smelling–and not tasting–it. To point, by the time you get around to actually tasting the wine you should be confirming what you’ve already smelled and calibrating the structural elements (acidity, alcohol, tannin, etc.).

There’s more. The bit about Klaus Riedel and his experiments with glass shapes and sizes over sixty years ago was groundbreaking then–and it’s still relevant and important now. Quality wine glasses matter a great deal. They’re like audio equipment in that cheap and lousy speakers (or ear buds) make music, however well-recorded, sound shitty. Good speakers/buds deliver sound the way the artist, engineer, and producer intended. Likewise, cheap, ill-shaped glassware alters—even nullifies—aromatics and flavors in wine. The good news is that unlike the above-mentioned speakers, which can get absurdly expensive in cost (as in six figures), the very best crystal—Riedel Sommelier Burgundy and Bordeaux glasses—still runs for less than $150 per stem. But you don’t have to swing for the fences to get quality glassware. Good, all-purpose wine glasses cost a fraction of that. More below.

I have to call an official time-out at this point to bring up a much-needed caveat to my rant: context. As with everything in wine (and life), context is the ultimate trump card. Context meaning the setting, occasion, and the company you share the vino with—but not necessarily the wine itself, much less the glassware.

One of the greatest wine experiences I’ve ever had was many moons ago in a trattoria in Florence, and involved the most delicious Chianti Classico I’ve ever tasted. The wine was served out of a large, heavy glass tumbler that could have easily doubled as a weapon in a bar fight. But the combination of being in Florence for the first time with the woman of my dreams made the meal—and the wine—unforgettable. 

Context aside, the common denominators for quality stemware have never changed. They include the following:

  • Clear glass without markings or etchings
  • Made from crystal
  • Have a stem
  • Egg-shaped with a tapered bowl
  • A capacity of at least 14 ounces—larger is better for red wine
  • Have a thin, cut lip

Glassware Recommendations

If you’re starting out or just want to find a good all-purpose glass, here are several options to consider:

Riedel: The Overture red wine glass is versatile for any number of different wines—both white and red. It’s a good value as well. More on Riedel below.

Stölzel: The Exquisit Shiraz red wine glass is also a good value and works well for both white and red wines.

Spiegelau: The Winelover’s Bordeaux glass is arguably the best value in all-purpose glassware with a set of four retailing for around $30.

Schott Zwiesel: The Tritan Pure Collection Cabernet/All Purpose Red is a favorite all-purpose glass in that it’s made from titanium oxide and zirconium oxide, and supposedly unbreakable (not entirely true) and dishwasher safe.

Zalto: is produced from mouth-blown, non-lead crystal. The Denk’Art Burgundy glass in particular is a favorite of sommeliers and other industry pros. It’s light in hand and beautifully designed. Be aware that it’s also considerably more in cost than all the previously listed glasses.

Personal Favorites

If I had to take just one glass to the proverbial tropical isle it would be the Riedel Vinum Zinfandel/Chianti Classico glass. It’s elegant, attractive, and doesn’t cost a fortune. I also like the Riedel Vinum Extreme Riesling glass and use it often for both white and red wines. Otherwise, at some point you may want to expand the lineup. Here are the four glasses I use at home most often. All are Riedel Vinum: 

Champagne flute: sparkling wines of all kind and Champagne

Zinfandel/Chianti Classico: white wine, rosé, and dessert wines

Pinot Noir: as well as Burgundy, Nebbiolo-based wines, Grenache blends, and more.  

Bordeaux/Cabernet Sauvignon: all Cabernet family grapes/wines
Finally, a wizened bit of advice when it comes to cleaning and polishing glassware. Always wash and polish glasses the next day—when you’re sober. Washing glassware the night of a dinner or party only leads to casualties. Wait until the next morning and then, with coffee or other favorite morning stimulant in hand, rinse the glassware with hot water and polish with a micro-fiber cloth. If you’ve had guests over and the microbiome has been expanded, use a bit of mild detergent and then rinse the glasses thoroughly in very hot water. Polish after.