The Sommelier Journal February 2009 Catherine Fallis, MS
In the past, sommeliers basically had two options for stemware—a durable budget choice, such as the popular Schott Zwiesel Mondial, or the blue-chip standard, Riedel. Considering the wide disparity in cost, many sommeliers had to dole out the nice stemware only to the guests who ordered high-ticket wines, often to the dismay of those at neighboring tables.
Today’s sommelier has options galore at all price points. As interest in wine and fine dining has continued to soar, developments in technology and design have provided a plethora of brilliant, resilient, and stylish non-lead-crystal choices. And as customers have grown to expect better stemware, even in more casual environments, the market for small, chunky, top-heavy glasses has all but disappeared. For about the same price, options such as the much-imitated, stemless “O” line from Riedel—a great design for home use that fits easily into the dishwasher, small cabinet, or minibar—or even the shatterproof, thermoplastic, polymer-resin govino stemless wine cup are now being used at tony, catered receptions and in high-end winery tasting rooms.
Gimmicks are popping up, too, such as the Eisch Breathable Glass, which is a decent glass, but not for fine dining (what sommeliers would boast that they use special glassware to get their wines into the drinkability window?), or the somewhat sterile, lyre-shaped Impitoyable, which is loved by the owner of a well-known neighborhood wine bar in San Francisco, but not by all his patrons. Fortunately, the market is loaded with stylish, durable, and budget-friendly stemware in both classic and innovative designs.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Sommeliers need to consider several important factors when purchasing glassware:
Choose a style and quality of stemware that blend seamlessly with the theme of your establishment.
Select glasses that can not only accommodate the wines on your list, but meet the unique demands of your customer base.
Establish, agree upon, and work within your initial purchasing budget, and continue to budget to maintain your stemware.
Ensure that your glasses fit into your racks, if they were not custom-ordered from the glassware vendor, and that any racks you purchase fit into the dishwasher.
Allocate sufficient storage space for stemware near or in the dining room, along with plenty of back-of-the-house buffing space. For buffing, have your linen delivery company send you one bundle of 100% cotton linen with each order (polyester blends are not effective), and factor this into your budget as well.
Here are the glassware vendors and stems I recommend for selection, value, and service—although the latter will vary, depending on your local distributor. See the accompanying box for current list prices.
An American company and one of the largest glassware producers in the world, Libbey has long been known for durability and value, but now offers products for upscale customers as well. Libbey’s imported Luigi Bormioli collection is made from hand-blown crystal using SON.nyx technology, giving it the resonance and transparency of lead crystal with more resistance to breakage. Within this collection, the sleek, diamond-shaped Atelier line has the look and feel of much more expensive stemware; the Pinot Noir and Cabernet/Merlot glasses in particular are excellent options. The Luigi Bormiolo Accademia del Vino Bordeaux Grand Cru and Accademia del Vino Chardonnay are more classic and conservative, but also perform like pricier stems.
Another of Libbey’s high-end lines, the Wine Master, is produced with Sheer Rim/D.T.E. technology using a beadless edge, which is cracked off before polishing to create a thin and durable rim. The Wine Master Aficionado 18-ounce Balloon would work nicely as a Burgundy glass, and the Aficionado 18-ounce Wine for Bordeaux. A nifty little 9-ounce decanter that pivots on its bottom point, the Wine Master Rock-n-Roll Decanter, along with an 8½-ounce Quartino in two conservative designs, will add panache to your by-the-glass program.
The U.S. branch of Stölzle (pronounced STO-zul) is owned by the Bavarian parent company. Stölzle uses silicon dioxide in place of lead to add elasticity and thus improve breakage resistance in its stemware. Its melted-crystal glasses are produced with pulled-stem technology: a machine blows the molten glass into the mold, and the stem is pulled from the bowl in one solid piece, which reduces the likelihood of the bowl snapping off the stem. The foot plate is then attached and fire-melted to provide the overall impression of a single piece of mouth-blown glass.
This is one of the main reasons why, according to regional director John Kukulica, customers are switching from Schott Zwiesel’s Pure Collection to the similarly designed Stölzle Experience. The Experience line sports a fresh, clean, stylish look; I particularly like the Bordeaux stem. The Exquisit has a modern feel as well, with a voluptuous, curvy shape that may or may not be to your taste. According to Kukulica, most sommeliers use either the Grandezza or Fire collections, while most restaurants use the Classic, Event, or Weinland glasses. Fire, a mouth-blown line produced at the Stölzle factory in Vienna, includes two especially noteworthy items. The striking, clean-lined Fire Decanter has a volcano-shaped punt. Then there is the most breathtakingly beautiful wine glass I have ever seen, the Fire Burgundy. Sexy to look at, hold, and drink from, this glass should win awards—although not for its ease of buffing. The only other glass on the market that comes close is the Riedel Sommeliers Bourgogne Grand Cru/Pinot Noir, which is in a league of its own, but is a much larger goblet. Using the entire Fire line may be risky, since the glasses are so stylized, but the Burgundy is a slam dunk for any highly perfumed light red of great finesse and nuance.
Madeline Triffon, MS; the Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch in Avon, Colo.; the Four Seasons in Las Vegas; the James Beard House in New York; Waterbar and Campton Place in San Francisco; The Beverly Hills Hotel and Bungalows; Ruth’s Chris Restaurant Group; and the Capital Grille Restaurant Group all use Stölzle's stemware.
With roots dating back to the Middle Ages, this Italian company continues to turn out stylish, durable, and competitively priced stemware. The gently diamond-shaped Restaurant line merges laser cutting for thin, even rims with pulled-stem technology for durability. These small, sleek glasses cost much less than glasses of similar quality and design from other producers, work like a dream for controlling portions, and leave a positive impression with guests. Each premium stem is manufactured as a single piece, with a long, drawn stem and blown bowl. The Restaurant glasses, especially the Premium Barolo and Premium XL stems, are curvy and luxurious in feel; they’re used by two eminent Chicago establishments, David Burke’s Primehouse and the Pump Room.
According to Pete Dukas, national sales manager for food service, Bormioli’s Magnesium goblets are made with FORMA technology, incorporating magnesium in the composition to reduce scratches. These impressive glasses, including the thin-stemmed, big-bowled Barolo and Cabernet, are magnificent to look at, hold, and drink from, even for those with smaller hands. Many other glasses of this size are more top-heavy, awkward, and pricey. At $6 per stem, the Magnesium line is one of the best deals on the market.
Founded in 1935, this large, Wayne, N.J., supplier is known throughout the hospitality industry for its quality and durability. Cardinal recently redesigned its upscale Mikasa Hotel & Restaurant collection of wine and bar stemware, renaming it Chef & Sommelier. Except for the Grand Cru line, which is hand-blown crystal, these stems are all manufactured with Kwarx, a material that produces ultra-thin and ultra-durable glass.
According to marketing director Nicole Vanderhoof, the best-selling Chef & Sommelier line is Open Up, a striking line with upper bowls rounded inward to flatter the young wines dominating restaurant lists these days. The next-best seller, Select, was designed in conjunction with the Union de la Sommellerie Française, incorporating Georg Riedel’s principles of directing wines to specific parts of the palate. The stylish Select 6-ounce flute accommodates 4-4½ ounces of sparkling wine, which not only helps the bottom line, but pleases traditionalists who, like the Champenoise, serve frequent small pours to keep their sparkling wines fresh and fizzy. The 9⅝-ounce Riedel Sommeliers Vintage Champagne glass is lovely and decadent, but by the time you get halfway through the glass, the Champagne is warm and not so sparkling.
Oenologist Dany Rolland, wife of flying winemaker Michel Rolland, created what is now the Chef & Sommelier Oenologue Expert line in 1991. Initially made of crystal, these glasses now use Kwarx material as well. The designs are sophisticated, luxurious, and, as one would expect, flattering to the wines for which they are intended.
Chef & Sommelier offers two decanters of note. The Open Up is an impressive, modern decanter with an easy-to-grip base, a long, beveled neck for drip control, and a stopper. Although it’s a bit pricey, it’s a practical option at the top end of the market. The Freshness, designed for young whites and rosés, also comes with a stopper and is shaped like a wine bottle, so it is not only easy to handle, but easy to place in an ice bucket as well. Decanting a rosé would certainly draw attention.
When I arrived at the San Francisco showroom of distributor Frank Maxwell, Gary Danko was just leaving. Fortessa, a company known more for fine tableware, is the importer for Schott Zwiesel stemware. The company’s Tritan collection is handmade in Germany, with bases of titanium and zirconium—no substance is harder other than diamond, according to Maxwell. Platinum is used instead of lead to strengthen each glass at the weak points: the lip, the foot, and the bowl where it meets the stem. Within the Tritan collection, the Forté line is classically round, while the Pure is distinctly angular with its trendy inverted-pentagon design. Michael Mina uses the Forté All Purpose glass; two other San Francisco hot spots, Epic Roasthouse and Conduit, use Pure. The stylized Fine, with a short, wide base topped by a long, narrowing chimney, is the newest Tritan line, but is gaining popularity.
Schott Zwiesel’s handmade, mouth-blown collection, Zwiesel 1872, includes a beautiful Enoteca line, as well as The First by Enrico Bernardo (the cellarmaster of Le Cinq in Paris).
As an added service, Maxwell offers custom racks at a discount. He showed me several affordable decanters, a sizable portion of the Schott Zwiesel business, including the Classico ($18), Diva ($25), Pollux ($39), and First ($60)—note the discounted direct pricing. The company also sells standard decanter drying stands.
The nec plus ultra in silverware, Christofle offers several handcrafted, lead-crystal stemware and barware lines, as well as custom brands and silver ice buckets. The Malmaison stemware and carafe and the Iriana carafe are standouts. Jeff Fagan of the Christofle Hotel Division warns, however, that “lead crystal cannot be machine-washed—it will deteriorate. It has to be hand-washed and may have to be replaced every six to eight weeks.”
Christofle stems are found in the bar at the renovated Plaza Hotel in Manhattan and at the Mansion at MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The Bellagio in Las Vegas purchased 750 of the new Bernard Yot Decanters, made of silver plate and crystal, for high rollers. Thomas Keller and Adam Tihani have collaborated on an ultra-high-end custom line called K&T, and Christofle also sells wine-service products such as silver-plated wine cradles, Anémone-Belle Époque ice buckets, and exquisite Champagne sabers. As Fagan points out, “A lot of folks make the assumption that Christofle is too pricey; we have a competitive product if the customer is discerning.”
Every sommelier is familiar with Riedel (rhymes with “needle”), the most recognized name in fine wine stemware, based in Kufstein, Austria. In 1973, Claus Riedel collaborated with the Association of Italian Sommeliers to develop the world’s first wine-specific glassware line. His son, Georg, now the face of Riedel, further developed the Sommeliers series, which has become the most coveted collection of stemware in the world. What restaurateur or collector doesn’t drool over the thought of owning even a handful of the hedonistic Bourgogne Grand Cru/Pinot Noir stems? A team of about 25 craftsmen make each glass; the upper parts are blown into a mold, the stem and base handcrafted using methods developed more than 2,000 years ago.
Because Sommeliers glasses contain more than 24% lead crystal, they are both expensive and fragile. I like to tell people, “My last glass snapped when I gave it a dirty look.” On the other hand, the Sommeliers decanters are quite durable, and the ribbing at the necks makes them easy to grip, even for smaller hands. The Sommeliers Magnum Decanter is especially useful for aerating tannic 750-ml bottles. I also like the Amadeo and Cornetto decanters for their fresh, sexy looks and their functionality.
Georg Riedel believes a wine glass is a tool every bit as critical as a corkscrew. “There are three factors in determining glass quality,” he says: “rim diameter, glass size, and glass shape. Wine glasses are like magnifying glasses—they capture the nuance, the complexity. We are transporting messages. We are not changing the wine, but the setup, the physics, how the wine hits the palate, and we want to show aromatics in layers. The design is based on the DNA of the varietal, not the region or terroir.”
Toni Neumeister, director of food and beverage operations for Crystal Cruises, says, “In the specialty restaurants on our ships, we use Riedel glassware and decanters. We need worldwide access, stable, user-friendly glasses, and a look and design to complement the quality of the wine.” Crystal Cruises is consistently recognized for its wine program, arguably the best at sea.
In 1986, Riedel introduced its Vinum series, the first machine-made line based on the characteristics of grape varietals. These widely imitated glasses are both durable and easy to obtain, even for consumers. The new Restaurant and Restaurant Extreme lines offer durability and value, along with the Riedel signature design. David Glancy, MS, CWE, wine department chair of the Professional Culinary Institute, selected the Restaurant Sangiovese for all classroom tastings. “It is a good size and shape as a compromise if you are not going to have separate red and white glasses,” he says. “It is attractive and still dishwasher-safe. The Court of Master Sommeliers also uses the Riedel Restaurant Sangiovese glass for all Advanced and Masters exams.”
In 2004, Georg Riedel bought the German-based companies Nachtmann and Spiegelau, eliminating them as competition. Within the Spiegelau collection, the Siena Decanter, as well as the vinovino and Vino Grande lines, are worth checking out.