A Glass Act: Georg Riedel Shatters My Wine Stemware Illusions

White and red wine splashing

He’s handsome, tanned and trim, with courtly manners and a soft Austrian accent. His eyes, the azure of Alpine skies, gaze into mine over the restaurant table and several glasses of wine.

I know that he will change my life forever, bring me years of domestic bliss. We barely touch our food since we’re both quivering with anticipation.

But alas, he’s no Captain von Trapp, I’m not Maria and this isn’t really a romantic dinner. It’s a gathering of wine enthusiasts to meet Georg Riedel, who represents the tenth generation of his family to make crystal stemware.

The Tyrolean mountains of Austria may be alive with the sound of music, but the Riedel Glass factory in Kufstein is abuzz with the noise of production. The company now makes some 5 million lead-crystal wine glasses every year.

Riedel is in town to convince any skeptics that the shape and size of a glass profoundly affect the smell and taste of the wine it holds.

“Now this,” Riedel says, picking up a puny glass, “is the enemy of wine.” His disdain is so palpable that we all glare at the vessel like a village outcast. It looks like something from the sorry little collection of chipped and unmatched specimens I had as a student years ago. Riedel calls such an object a “joker”: it’s here tonight for contrast.

wine glassware

In front of us are four gleaming Riedel glasses, all containing a little of their namesake wines: sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon. Both the chardonnay and pinot noir glasses have more rounded bowls than the sauvignon blanc and bordeaux glasses, which are more tulip-shaped. These tall glasses, with their elegant lines, look like lithe supermodels beside the joker glass, which sits empty like a parched troll.

I’m dreading a stemware slip up such as confusing the chardonnay and cabernet glasses, and then being branded a Dixie Cup Chick. Perhaps my feelings come partly from Herr Riedel himself: one senses he has patrician sensibilities that it would be easy to offend. He’s famously fastidious; he has even planned the wines to be served at his own funeral. At 54, he looks just like the debonair actor you’d imagine in an ad for Riedel stemware. He wears a crisp navy suit (made from Italian fabric by a Viennese tailor) and has the svelte figure of a marathon runner.

He asks us to first taste some chardonnay from the joker glass and then again from the proper wine glass—which he calls his “precision tool.” He talks animatedly about the “velocity of wine entering the mouth,” and how it makes love to the palate, caressing it. He gazes shyly at his own precision tool as we taste. I want to throw the glass over my shoulder and declare, “Let’s just get away from here!” But I’m distracted by the genuine difference in the smell and taste. The wine we drink from the small glass is as predictably bad as the “other brand” in a Tide commercial: it tastes sharp and alcoholic.

“Now we will go to the repair shop, to heal the palate of the bad experience,” Riedel says, as we pour the wine back into his glass.

And it’s true: the difference is immediate. As I bring the glass up to my nose (my “smelling instrument”), I’m enveloped in an aroma cloud of ripe pear, peaches, nutmeg and a kiss of oak. Damn. I had wanted to hate this glass, if only to preserve my preconceived notion that fancy glassware is more about marketing than about true function. But I just can’t; the wine really does smell and taste remarkably better. I’m reluctantly coming around to the view many enophiles share: a good glass makes good wine taste even better, accentuating its character. But it can’t actually make bad wine taste good. “I can’t work miracles,” Riedel says humbly.

wine glass x

Expanding on this theory, Riedel explains that the air just above the glass not only contains suspended molecules, but that they’re layered like a cake. At the top are the lightest floral aromas, then the fruity ones, then the mineral and earthy notes; and finally, at the bottom the heaviest aroma elements, wood and alcohol. Good stemware, he says, minimizes the congestion of these elements by eddying the aromas. Okay, if you say so. I’m ambivalent about swallowing Georg’s gospel of glassware. Granted, bad glasses are a delusional form of wine democracy. But doesn’t marketing 103 different glasses make wine more complicated and pretentious? Have we traded wine snobbery for glass snobbery?

Riedel has a specific design for almost every major grape, including different ones for recent and mature vintages of Bordeaux. For the highly aromatic pinot noir, there’s the Grand Cru Burgundy Sommelier glass. It’s almost a foot tall and holds 37 ounces—leaving room to spare even after pouring in an entire bottle. Wine lovers do actually imbibe from this glass, but with a rim circumference of twelve inches, it’s also suitable for steam facials after you finish drinking.

In fact, Riedel is always coming up with new designs. As new styles of wine emerge, he creates a glass for them. He generally tries at least twenty different shapes, enlisting the help of a panel of experts to taste wine from them all before settling on one. He used that process to develop a new style of tasting glass. It has a hollow stem to hold exactly five eighths of an ounce so that a bottle can be precisely divided into thirty-five tasting samples. (By contrast, the sauvignon blanc glass holds 12 3/8 ounces.) The design allows it to be rolled onto its side (without spilling the wine) to coat the glass with wine and maximize the aromas. The latest model is opaque black to use at “blind” tastings where participants don’t know the identity of the wine.

The Sommelier Series is Riedel’s top line: hand-blown, made with 24 percent lead crystal and selling for as much as $95 apiece. The Ouverture line is cheaper and made from glass rather than crystal. Three of its glasses have shorter stems and so fit into the dishwasher.

Riedel now has glasses for other kinds of liquor: tequila, cognac, single-malt scotch and even water. (However, he doesn’t yet differentiate between sparkling and still waters, or mineral and spring: evidently there’s a vast untapped business.) The Sommelier water glass sells for $60, proving that even glass makers have a sense of humor. But such is Riedel’s cachet that he could design a glass for Kool-Aid and charge big bucks for it.

“My father was interested in glasses, but I am interested in the wine,” Riedel says. In 1973, Georg’s father, Josef, designed “history’s first wine-specific glassware,” according to the company’s web site. Georg says that his father was a genius, a “glass professor” who spent sixteen years studying the physics of delivering wine to the mouth. Riedel senior believed in the Bauhaus aesthetic that form follows function, which led him to deduce that content commands shape. (But anyone who has ever bought a bra already knows that.)

Glass itself has an interesting history. Although some form of it has been made for 4,000 years, the lead crystal for which Riedel is famous dates back only a few centuries. It was invented in the late seventeenth century in England, then quickly spread to other glass-making regions, such as northern Italy and the Bohemian region of what’s now the Czech Republic. Both glass and crystal contain sand or silica; but true crystal also has a small quantity of lead in the mix, which gives it clarity, strength, brilliance and weight. The brilliance not only adds sparkle to the tablescape, it also allows drinkers to see the color of wine without distortion, as there is in cut or colored glass. The weight of these glasses gives them a luxurious feeling while holding and swirling them. Crystal has a slightly rougher surface, which supposedly allows the swirled wine to release more aromas.

Lead-crystal manufacturing is much more demanding and expensive than for glass. The furnaces have to reach temperatures of up to 2,732°F, compared to 2,300°F for glass. The product is fragile: for every hundred glasses made, thirty are rejected for imperfections and ten are broken. It used to be a manual process, but few glasses are hand-blown today—most are made by machine. The entire industry turns out more than 50 million glasses a year, but Riedel’s products are still acknowledged as the best—the Pradas of stemware. They’re the only glasses on display in the permanent collection of New York City’s Museum of Modern Art.

Riedel believes that the best way to convince drinkers to buy good stemware is to show them what a difference it can make. Hence his series of taste-offs for those in the wine trade as well as for consumers. His strategy seems to be working. Several years ago, Riedel pitched his wares to some top winemakers who were also consumate marketers. Robert Mondavi, after tasting his product from a Riedel glass, said, “I never dreamed that my wines were this good.” Riedel got a similar reaction from Angelo Gaja of Italy. Now Riedel has been on tour longer than the Rolling Stones.

Riedel’s main message is one echoed by wine lovers everywhere: the glasses in most common use, in restaurants and at home, are terrible for tasting wine. Those golf-ball-sized cups are just too small to concentrate the wine’s aromas, let alone to allow you to swirl the liquid without sloshing it on your shirt. You’d be better off drinking from a jam jar. Such glasses are like seats too close to the orchestra: all you hear are isolated sounds from the instruments, rather than the harmony that comes together farther back.

“Good stemware changes our perception of wine due to physics, not chemistry,” Riedel explains. I dropped both subjects in high school, so I’m easily impressed. What he means is simple enough though: the glass doesn’t change the wine itself, but rather the way we smell and taste it. Riedel glasses are like loudspeakers: their shape, volume and rim diameter amplify a wine’s inherent qualities. Pinot noir benefits from a large bowl to capture its aromas, for example, whereas champagne flutes are long and narrow to preserve the bubbles. The shape of the rim is important too. Thick ones act like speed bumps in front of the mouth, and don’t deliver the wine to the tongue evenly. Thin ones spread the liquid evenly across a broad section of the palate, like a smooth highway on-ramp.

Riedel’s stemware science is his tongue map, which he brings out to show us the five basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami, a Japanese word for the savory character in food and drink. Until the 1990s, it was believed that the tip of our tongue detects sweetness, the sides of our mouth sense acidity, the inside of the mouth and gums pick up the dryness of tannin, the back of the mouth gets any bitterness there may be on the finish and umami was detected all over as a total sensation. So Riedel designed his glasses to deliver the wine to the area of the mouth that would best appreciate it. For instance, the glass for the acidic sauvignon blanc directed the wine toward the middle of the tongue, away from the acid-sensitive sides of the mouth. However, several studies have since proved the “geography of the palate” a myth, as all of our taste buds can detect all five tastes to varying degrees. But no one here seems to be debating the scientific theories—we just want to drink. Maybe there’s something wrong with my technique, though: within three nanoseconds of “initiating flow,” the wine covers all of my mouth.

On the pretense of scientific thoroughness, I ask for more wine in all of my glasses. I’m convinced that a $95 stem can beat a tin mug when it comes to nuances, but how about his competitors’ top stemware? I ask Riedel about this since all he’s brought for comparison is the joker glass.

“They walk behind our tractor as we plow the field,” he says cryptically. “But there’s still a lot of unplowed field out there.”

In fact, the competition in the upscale stemware market is stiff and includes companies such as Baccarat, Schott Zwiesel and Waterford. One of my favorites is the German manufacturer Spiegelau. The brand is a great value for those who still want to send their kids to college after buying stemware: its Vino Grande series is a lower-priced knock-off of Riedel’s Vinum line. (Riedel bought the company in 2004.)

Riedel’s advice on choosing stemware reminds me of those diamond commercials that advise you to spend two months’ pay on the engagement ring, if you really love her. He says that drinkers should spend as much money on one glass as they would on an average bottle of wine—the more expensive the wine, the more important the glass. He also recommends choosing the glass style for the wines you like best.

My problem with that: if I owned a different glass for every type of wine I like, I’d have to build an extra room onto my house and then hire staff just to clean them all. And really, some of the larger glasses are not just impractical to store and wash, but cumbersome to hold as well. By all means, move beyond a golf ball on a stick, but not to a fishbowl on a mast.

“Aesthetics and excellence are my criteria, not mere convenience,” Josef Riedel said when he created his stemware back in 1973. For purists who also say convenience be damned, washing glasses requires as much attention as buying them. We know that the dishwasher, the housekeeper’s best friend, is the worst enemy of good stemware: its soap will etch a fragile surface after repeated washings, so crystal glasses should always be washed by hand. Allow cold glasses to come to room temperature before washing them, as extreme changes in temperature can weaken crystal. Most wine lovers prefer not to use any soap at all, because even the slightest residue can affect the wine. Rinse glasses thoroughly under warm water. The most finicky people use distilled water, as the chlorine in some city water can also leave a taste on the glass.

Hold the bowl rather than the delicate stem or the base, which can make them snap. For an extra clean gleam, do what Riedel himself does: hold the glass over a kettle of just-boiled distilled water, so that the steam from the spout cleans the bowl. Then wipe it dry with a lint-free cloth (though not one that’s been washed with fabric conditioner since that too can leave a film on the glass).

As my evening with Georg Riedel winds down, the gentle clinking of the glasses reminds me of children’s voices and the soft strains of “so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, good night.” He may not have sold me on the virtues of his brand above all others, but he has convinced me that the glass makes a difference. As he puts it, “Life is too short to drink good wine out of bad glasses.”

Although glasses do influence our experience of wine, what matters more to me are people and places. Some of my most memorable wines were sipped from plain tumblers, sitting on a sun-drenched terrace overlooking the sparkling Mediterranean. Wine may lend itself to technical analysis, but tastings aren’t just for serious connoisseurs. So I’m going to host my own wine tasting with friends, and instead of comparing stemware, we’ll compare our favorite wines. I also think it’s more fun to get together to drink than to buy Tupperware—unless, of course, you’re drinking from the Tupperware. An in-home tasting is also a lot less intimidating than a formal event. You don’t have to dress up, look serious (always difficult after several glasses) or listen to someone droning on about how the 1956 September rains ruined the riesling crop in the Rheingau. Most people just want to socialize over a good glass or two (or three); and it’s just a bonus if they can also learn something.

An informal wine tasting can be a creative twist on cocktail or dinner parties; it’s a lot less work than cooking a full meal or even setting up all the ingredients for a cocktail bar. It’s also a great way to get to know your neighbors better, perhaps by inviting them over for a barbecue and matching big red wines. (Perhaps I should do this soon to clear up the misconception that I’m a lush based on my recycling bins overflowing with empty bottles.)

I decide to invite over seven of my girlfriends. Between six and twelve people is a good number for a tasting, both to encourage lively conversation and to make it easy to divide each bottle into moderate tasting samples. You don’t want everyone inebriated by the end of the evening, unless you have a guesthouse that sleeps twelve. Over two or three hours, people may consume the equivalent of two or three five-ounce glasses—about half a standard 750-millilter (26-ounce) bottle. The best sample size is two to three ounces, which is just enough to get a good sense of the wine. This increases the number of wines you can try because you’re not knocking back a full glass of each.

For my choice of wines, I have to decide whether I want a “vertical” or “horizontal” tasting. This doesn’t actually refer to which position you assume as the night wears on, but rather to comparing wines by certain variables, such as grape, region or year. For example, if you compare a selection of Australian shirazes from different wineries, that’s a horizontal tasting. Similarly, trying various kinds of shiraz from Chile, California and Australia, all from the same year, is a horizontal tasting. But comparing the shirazes of one Australian winery for each year from 1998 to 2004 is a vertical tasting.

I’ve got all kinds of ideas for the event based on themes I’ve heard about over the years. These include asking everyone to bring a memorable bottle and share its story—perhaps they drank it to christen a new apartment or at their first dinner in Venice. Another is to choose stereotype-smashing wines, such as dry German wines or Canadian pinot noir. Book clubs can choose the wines featured in their novel, such as a sherry tasting while reading The Cask of Amontillado; or ones that are made where the story is based, such as Italian chianti for Under the Tuscan Sun.

Another option is a “blind” tasting, in which you brown-bag all the wines and taste them without knowing their identities. At the end, everyone votes on a favorite and then all is revealed. Guests can rank them in order of preference, with a score of one to ten—or even play the Roman emperor, giving the vinous “combatants” a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. (In the end, they’ll all go down without a struggle anyway.) I’ve always thought it would be fun for the host to slip in a Chilean cabernet among the California cabs, or an expensive wine among cheaper ones, for example, just to see if anyone can spot the “ringer.”

Food matching is also a great way to theme a tasting: deciding which wines go best with seafood, cheese, desserts, hors d’oeuvres, artichokes, vinegar and so on. The only flavors to avoid are volcanically hot and spicy dishes since these can numb the palate. The food doesn’t have to be elaborate; nibbles are fine. We’re doing potluck, with each woman bringing an appetizer. The idea is just to give us something to absorb the booze, since alcohol hits the bloodstream harder on an empty stomach than a full one.

For our event, I decide to go with a modified horizontal tasting: a mix of wines in the $10 to $20 range, four whites and four reds. Several wines grouped together for comparative tasting is called a “flight” of wine. I’m hoping that everyone will find at least one wine she likes for her shopping list. There’ll be time enough to get more specific if we all agree to hold another event.

The big day arrives and I feel surprisingly nervous. My friends all know I write about wine, so they probably have high expectations for this tasting. I open all the wines and try them so I can find out if any of them is corked, otherwise spoiled or just plain awful. I also put a glass of water at each place. Not only is alcohol dehydrating, but guests won’t drink as much wine if they have water to slake their thirst.

Fortunately, I have enough stemware for the evening. For those who don’t, options include asking guests to bring their own glasses from home; renting glasses for the occasion; or (for longer-running groups) pooling funds to buy dedicated glassware for the gatherings. Apart from wine tastings, though, how many glasses do you need for weekday dining or even entertaining? You could buy the full Sommelier line, but even if your cellar has complete verticals of Margaux and Cheval Blanc, a full set isn’t really necessary. Instead, just buy two all-purpose styles: the bordeaux glass is the most versatile for reds, and the sauvignon blanc glass works for most whites.

About twenty minutes before my guests are due to arrive, I pour the first flight of white wines. I want them to be at the right temperature by the time we taste. Wine is often served at the wrong temperature: too cold and its complexity and aromas are numbed; too warm, and it tastes alcoholic and flabby. To get the most from white wine, serve it chilled to about 55 degrees Fahrenheit; and when you pour, your glass should feel cool but not ice-cold—it shouldn’t mist over. The quickest way to chill whites is to submerge them in ice water for about thirty minutes—chilling them in the fridge can take two to three hours. Don’t even think of putting them in the freezer unless exploding bottles are to be part of the evening’s entertainment.

Red wine is much easier: store it away from heat and serve it just below room temperature, about 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Reds are often served too warm. This faux pas probably comes from the long-established advice to serve them at “room temperature,” which actually refers to the temperature of a chilly eighteenth-century castle rather than to today’s centrally heated homes. However, some light reds, such as beaujolais, are better served at cooler temperatures, between red and white wine, to capture their freshness.

Some wine lovers like to “condition” their wine glass before drinking from it. They pour an ounce or two of wine into the glass, swirl it around so that it coats the sides, then dump it, supposedly along with any residual odors, but my hands are too shaky to do that.

The women arrive, one by one and a few together. (Carpooling is a good idea for tasting parties, and so are taxis.) We chat and nibble for a while before sitting down at my glassware-laden dining room table. I explain that we’ll taste from left to right at first, but later we can go back and compare. Taking notes is optional, but might be helpful if they like the wine and want to remember its name so they can buy it. So I’ve provided sheets of white paper and pencils too.

I tell them that the only way not to get tanked when tasting so many wines is to spit out some of their samples after they swirl them around their mouth. If you swallow all the wine you taste, not only will you get drunk, but you will be unable to smell or taste the later samples: alcohol numbs the palate after a while.

Lisa looks disappointed, presumably about not getting sloshed; Natasha seems disgusted. Many people consider spitting or “expectorating” as crude as spitting out gobs of food or wet tobacco. And in a social setting, a force stronger than gravity impels most of us to swallow whatever’s in our glass. Europeans, however, are much less inhibited—just as they are about so many other things, from nude bathing to May-December sexual liaisons. The French consider it no sin to recracher onto the vineyard earth, down winery drains, or even on the barrel-room floor.

I’m not aiming to take us that far, though: even I don’t think it’s a mark of European sophistication to spit on a floor that’s finished in bird’s eye maple or covered with Persian carpets. That’s why, for this charming tradition, I’ve set out mugs at each place as ersatz spittoons. (They’re opaque rather than clear to preserve the much-needed illusion of delicacy.) The bottom line: nobody should have to swallow wine they don’t like or be forced to drink too much, which is another reason that you should provide some sort of spittoon.

“Do you mean like a big, horking spit?” Shelley asks me mischievously. “Let’s see you do it first.”

It’s not a common request from one girlfriend to another, but I’m happy to oblige since I’m now a practiced spitter. Alas, it wasn’t always so. This odd little demo makes me recall one of my first unfortunate attempts in a winery tasting room. It happened just as I was about to release a mouthful of robust cabernet into the spit bucket: a large man suddenly leaned on the tasting counter in front of me, blocking the spit bucket. He had his back to me and was chatting merrily with his group, oblivious to my presence, as the tannins started to erode my tooth enamel.

I should just have given up and swallowed, but I had ten more wineries to visit that day and was stubbornly determined to follow standard procedure. In my panic, I made a foolish mistake: I tried to say “Excuse me, please” out of the corner of my mouth.

As I opened my lips, wine dribbled down my chin; I tried to gulp after it and managed to inhale a good ounce of wine. I choked, lungs burning and tears streaming down my face. I scaled to the summit of my humiliation as I sprayed out the remaining wine all across the counter, the tasting sheets and the brochures; though I narrowly missed the large man’s white shirt.

All the other visitors went quiet for a moment. Then the young girl behind the counter, with the compassion of a nurse to some poor soul who has just lost bladder control, offered me a paper towel and asked, “Would you like this one to wipe yourself?”

I shake this sad little incident out of my mind now as I take Shelley up on her challenge. I show my friends the technique: after you have tasted some wine, you just suck in your cheeks, purse your lips into a slightly open O-shape, lean close to the bucket (or mug) and expel in a steady stream. It’s considered bad form to dribble, spray or have your wine ricochet back at you.

It sounds simple, but it takes some perfecting. Some people prefer to start in the shower, then move on to the bathroom sink—and only when they’re finally ready to work without a net will they graduate to the dining room table. In our case, there were many slurping laughs as my friends tried to master the art of expectoration. I told them not to sweat it as tonight was about enjoying ourselves rather than sticking to procedure.

Now we get to the fun part: actually tasting the wine. I fill the glasses with a towel wrapped around each bottle, to keep its identity a secret until later. I explain about the five basic aspects to examine: look, smell, taste, texture and finish. The first means we need good light—though as always that means striking a balance between creating a cozy social setting and being able to see what we’re doing. Candlelight isn’t ideal for judging the color of wine, but we also don’t want a harshly lit lab-like environment. So we compromise with the lights on a medium setting.

When I say we’ll look at color, several of the women immediately hold their glasses up to the chandelier. Although this is a standard approach in movies (poorly made ones without a wine adviser on the set), it’s useless: all it tells you is what the wine can reflect from your wallpaper. Instead, tilt the wine glass on its side a little against a light background, such as a white tablecloth—if you’re willing to risk getting wine stains on it. I’m not, so we use our pieces of white paper.

The color tells us how old the wine is. Young whites are usually green at the edges and become a deeper yellow or gold with time; reds are usually purple or ruby in youth and turn to garnet or brick in age. We can also tell how clear the wine is and whether there’s anything floating in it (usually not a good thing).

If white wine is dark gold or brown, it may be oxidized. Too much oxygen is an enemy of wine, as it is of so many other substances. Overexposure to air makes nails rust, fruit turn brown and wine taste unpleasant. Even mild exposure while the wine is being made, aged, bottled or stored, makes low-acidity wine smell cooked and high-acidity wine smell burnt. Prolonged exposure causes wines to smell and taste of vinegar, which eventually evolves into an aggressive smell of glue or nail polish remover.

For reds, young wines should ideally be a vibrant red or purple; while lighter reds, such as gamay and pinot noir, are on the brighter-red end of the spectrum. Robust reds, such as cabernet, zinfandel and shiraz, are darker purple. Only mature reds, such as aged bordeaux and barolo, will have hues of mahogany, brick or even faded brown because of their long, slow exposure to the air in the bottle. This is accompanied by smooth, integrated flavors, which are nothing like the stale taste of oxidized wine due to a dried out cork that has allowed too much air into the bottle. This usually happens when a bottle is stored upright, rather than laid on its side so the wine inside keeps the cork moist.

Fortunately, none of our wines is oxidized. We give our glasses a good swirl to aerate the wine and release its aromas. If you’re nervous about doing it with your glass actually in the air, try the training-wheels version with the glass on the table. Then lift the glass to your face and inhale deeply. I tell the women not to be shy about this inelegant move and to get their noses well inside the glass.

Although we can detect only five tastes with our mouths, we can smell more than two thousand aromas with our noses. Try sipping wine with your nose plugged and you’ll taste the difference. Wine’s aromas are considered the determining factor of its character. This scent factor is also why I’ve asked the women not to wear perfume, as it interferes with the wine’s aromas.

The other thing about smell is that it’s so evocative. I ask the women what the wine reminds them of: wood chips, cherries, apples, their Aunt Mildred’s spice cake? This is a subjective judgment, but it becomes sharper with time and experience.

“This one smells like putty,” Robyn says looking puzzled.

“I get cinnamon,” says Debbie.

“It just smells like wine to me,” Shirley says. She isn’t alone: beyond a few basic adjectives, such as “fruity” or “smooth,” most people find it difficult to analyze how a wine smells and tastes. Indeed, the first time I listened to two wine-loving friends discuss a merlot, I thought they were speaking some ancient tribal language. It reminded me of British illustrator and satirist Ralph Steadman’s description of an Algerian wine: “Very soft and very round, like sheep’s eyes with square pupils. The hint of promise got steeper and sparser yet, and it began to taste like dull pewter covered in dust and cobwebs stuck to the roof of my mouth.”

Some wine descriptions seem to be far removed from the actual experience of smelling and tasting wine. What’s prompting this proliferation of purple prose? Perhaps it’s the thousands of new wines coming onto the market, all of which need to be described? Then again, perhaps wine critics are looking to secure their niches through comparisons so obscure that nobody can question them. Perhaps wine retailers also see full-bodied writing as a good way to get more cash for vin ordinaire. But on the bright side, it could represent a renaissance of wine appreciation, this demand for new ways to talk about one of civilization’s oldest drinks.

Dr. Adrienne Lehrer, professor emerita of linguistics at the University of Arizona, has been studying this topic for twenty years. According to her book Wine and Conversation, wine description is using new words and metaphors. A wine today isn’t simply balanced, it’s “integrated” or “focused.” In contrast, an unbalanced wine is “muddled'” or “diffuse.” A full-bodied wine is now “chunky” and “big-boned”; a light-bodied wine is “svelte” and “sleek.”

“I’m interested in this from a linguistic point of view, because wine writers are enriching the language and making up metaphors,” Lehrer says. “When critics try to describe thirty Californian chardonnays, they often find that the wines are similar—but it would be boring to read the same thing all the time. So they jazz up the descriptions to keep readers engaged.”

When compiling her glossary of frequently used wine adjectives, Lehrer discovered that the tasting terms included “barnyard funk,” “intellectual” and “diplomatic.” “Funky was used a lot,” she says. “I don’t know whether it has any specific meaning that’s different from the way that it’s used elsewhere.”

Then there is the new generation of wine writers trying to make wine talk less intimidating and more relevant by including pop culture references. Wine X magazine claims to “provide a new voice for a new generation of wine consumers.” Describing one California cabernet, it asks us to “imagine Naomi Campbell in latex.” An Australian shiraz is a “Chippendales dancer in leather chaps—tight, full-bodied and ready for action.” A New Zealand cabernet merlot is like “a Victoria’s Secret fire sale: smoky charred wood, leather, spicy and very seductive.”

Is Wine X simply the same old juice in a newly accessorized bottle? Some critics think that trashing grammar and mixing metaphors makes wine writing irrelevant, not irreverent. Walter Sendzik, publisher of the wine magazine Vines, which also reaches out to young drinkers, admits that traditional wine description can sometimes be too esoteric. But you can also go too far in the other direction, he says wryly: “I’ve never smelled or tasted Naomi Campbell in latex.”

Serious attempts have been made to standardize wine-tasting vocabulary. The accepted template is now the Aroma Wheel, developed in the early 1980s by Ann Noble, professor of enology and viticulture at the UC Davis. The inner circle of its concentric rings notes the most basic wine adjectives, such as “fruity” and “floral,” while the sub-divided middle and outer rings provide more descriptive terms such as “grapefruit,” “strawberry jam” and “asparagus.”

But wait: isn’t wine made from grapes rather than asparagus or grapefruit? Well, there is some sense behind this descriptive noble rot. The molecular structures of wine are in fact similar to those found in fruit, flowers, vegetables—and can even smell like “wet dog” and “cardboard box,” indicating spoilage. For example, scientists have identified the chemical compound isobutyl methoxy pyrazine, which has the aroma of bell pepper, in sauvignon blanc. That same compound is also found in high concentration in—you guessed it-bell peppers.

Our culture is visually oriented, and so much of our language refers to sight cues. Of all our senses, smell is the most underdeveloped—perhaps because we no longer have to hunt for our meals and worry about poisonous plants. Even taste fares better: most waiters can come up with mouth-watering descriptions of a restaurant’s dishes. But unless they’ve taken a wine appreciation course, many are hard-pressed to offer equally rich descriptions of the wines on the list.

Yet for all that, we have only four genes for vision, but one thousand for smell. Input from the other senses must first go to the hypothalamus and then on to the cortex for further analysis; but smells are routed directly to the areas of the brain responsible for emotions and memories.

The renowned French gastronome Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin recognized the importance of smell in his book The Physiology of Taste, published in 1825. “I am not only convinced that without the cooperation of smell there can be no complete degustation,” he wrote. “But I am also tempted to believe that smell and taste are in fact but a single sense, whose laboratory is in the mouth and whose chimney is the nose; or to be more precise, in which the mouth performs the degustation of the tactile bodies, and the nose the degustation of the gases.”

The good news is that most of us can recognize a far wider range of aromas and flavors than we think ourselves capable of. It just takes a little discipline, some concentration, and lots of practice. It also means paying attention to everyday smells—literally, taking time to smell the flowers and even the grass in your garden. Sniff the bread before you put it in the grocery cart, smell the cinnamon on your toast and fruit and vegetables just after you cut them open to eat or cook.

The goal of democratic wine description is to develop a common vocabulary that’s widely understood and can be used over and over. It shouldn’t create a caste system that sets those in the know apart from those who confine themselves to margaritas for fear of looking foolish.

Now at our tasting, we finally get to taste the wine. I tell the women to swirl it around their mouths, to coat all the taste buds and to aerate it by sucking a little air into their mouths. This further enhances the taste, though it may be another technique best tried first in the shower. We talk about what flavors we’re picking up, concentrating on the most common ones such as fruit and oak. We also discuss how the wine feels in our mouths, whether it’s heavy as cream, light as skim milk or somewhere in between, like whole milk.

We take another sip and swallow a little of the wines that we like best. That tells us how long the wine’s flavor impression lasts—its finish. As with so many other pleasures in life, the longer the better. A long finish means you can still sense the wine in your mouth for eight seconds or more after swallowing. A medium finish is four to seven seconds and fewer than four seconds is short.

We taste both flights, chatting about them and turning our thumbs up or down for our favorites. By this time we’re all feeling quite festive and any initial shyness about commenting on the wines has dissipated completely. In fact, multiple conversations are going on and at times, I enjoy listening to the musical quality of their voices, without trying to figure out what they’re saying. There are high notes of excitement, soft notes of understanding and tinkling punctuation notes of laughter.

Finally, as the evening draws to a close, I amuse and shock my friends by pouring the leftover wine into the sink.

“Is this what you do every night, Natalie?” Debi asks me with mock horror. “Dump all kinds of good wine down the drain?”

“Well, yes and no,” I tell her. “I don’t do this for the really good ones. But I do pour away a lot of the free stuff wineries send me to try because much of it isn’t that great.”

Debi says half-jokingly and half-longingly, “I still wouldn’t mind taking home your rejects.”

As we say good-bye and the women head out into the dark blue night, warm and light-limbed, I contemplate the practical side of wine tastings. With tens of thousands of wines on liquor store shelves, the choice can be overwhelming. You have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince, that delicious and reasonably priced bottle. Group tastings stretch your wine budget since you can sample several bottles for the cost of the one you bring. That’s especially useful to choose wines for dinner parties when there are multiple courses that require different styles.

Looking back on the evening, I realize that wine is as much about camaraderie as taste. When we share good wine with good friends, we also share what makes us human: sensual pleasure, conversation and connection. That’s the magic hospitality of wine: you can give it all away and yet feel filled to the brim yourself.



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