Rarely (OK, maybe never) do wine glasses receive gushing compliments. Instead, they are the silent observers to a multi-course feast, cradling red and white wines in their glass bowls. It’s the paint-brush-like strokes and dabbles of sauce on a plate—in the hands of a creative chef—that rise to acclaim.
But what good is a fabulous meal without wine pairings? And what if those wines are poured into glassware that reflects their nuances?
That’s the idea at The Immigrant Restaurant at The American Club Resort in Kohler, Wisconsin, where each wine varietal gets its own Riedel glass. The wine list runs between 400 and 500 selections deep, changing weekly, with a price range of primarily $50 to $300 per bottle and spanning several different regions around the globe. A few high-ticket wines, like Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, are also on the list whenever they can be procured. “A lot of our philosophy is to find rare wines you can’t find anywhere else,” says general manager Ryan Beebe. For a restaurant whose dinner entrées run $46 to $55, with options like cold-water lobster and 30-day-aged prime tenderloin, it’s only fitting that the wine glasses equal the sophistication of the dining experience.
This mantra is also true in The Winery Bar, the restaurant’s adjacent, dimly lit lounge known for its 40-some Wisconsin cheeses and 500 wine selections. Whether the customer orders a glass of sparkling wine (which arrives in a flute because “it just looks more elegant on the table,” says Beebe) or 2008 Domaine Serene “Monogram” Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley, Oregon, (which lists for $416 a bottle), there is as much attention placed on having the proper wine glass as there is in choosing plates, flatware, and bowls.
“Reds you really want to open up a little more,” Beebe says, hence the nearly 25-ounce bell-shaped Riedel Vinum glass for Pinot Noir and Burgundy Red. For the 21.5-ounce Vinum Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot glass, which can also be used for red Bordeaux, “the size allows the guest to swish the wine around, and allows the flavors to go up through the glass and through the nose,” Beebe explains.
“It also adds conversation,” he says, for the novice wine drinker who might feel intimidated initially by engaging with the sommelier or wine director. By turning the focus to the glassware, asking questions becomes easier. “A lot of people are looking for that education. Groups of friends or family members love to see the different glassware when each course comes out,” says Beebe.
But this isn’t just about aesthetics. Matching a wine with a specific glass design allows aromas to fully develop and the tasting notes to emerge pitch-perfect on the palate. That is the idea behind the industry’s newest line of glassware: Master’s Reserve, by Libbey Foodservice, a collection of 21 different glasses, all made in the United States with ClearFire glass, an HD2 rim, and DuraTemp treatment. Launched last summer, it comes in three patterns: Renaissance, Prism, and Rivere. A fourth pattern—Symmetry—is expected to debut later this year. The glasses, which have a seamless design, are used by restaurants in the U.S. and Canada, like Monteverde in Chicago and Little Napoli in Carmel, California. “We’ve learned that the wine-glass shape can affect, positively or negatively, the flavor, aroma, and wine experience,” says Jerry Moore, Libbey’s glassware product manager.
Keeping the needs of restaurateurs in mind—specifically, their limited funds and storage requirements—it’s possible to opt for just a few designs and not all 29, and still suit many different wine varietals. One example is the 24-ounce Renaissance Red Wine glass, which can easily transition between varietals. “It’s perfect for Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s got a really wide bowl that helps with the evaporation and the aroma. This puts it more towards the back of the tongue. This is also great for Bordeaux,” says Moore. Similarly, the 13-ounce Renaissance glass is designed to hold Pinot Grigio, but would also work for Riesling.
That the glasses have an elegant shape helps heighten the dining experience, bringing it to a new level. The Rivere 23.5-ounce red wine glass, made to hold Pinot Noir, is 10 inches tall. “It’s just stunning on the table. It brings out the delicate flavor of the Pinot Noir,” says Moore. In developing the line, Libbey studied other glassware designs on the market, modernizing and tweaking as much as possible. “We spent a lot of time on the design of the glass. The result is a flat foot that’s sleek and elegant—not thick and chunky,” says Moore, adding that the design of the stem promotes better balance.
Can a single wine glass really alter the course of the meal? Absolutely, says Moore. “It provides value to the guest. If they’re paying more for a glass of wine, or a bottle of wine, because they like the experience, the glassware is all part of that,” he says. To that end, “using a different glass with each course makes it very special. It really speaks to why a guest is spending this much money.”
Sam Messina, owner of Wine Connextion in North Andover, Massachusetts, agrees. “It makes a huge difference … using the right glassware for the proper varietal. It makes that $10 bottle taste like a $20 bottle, and the $30 bottle like a $40 bottle,” he says. At his wine store is a tasting station with small pours, for customers to either enjoy a glass or sip a small taste to help decide what bottle to buy. Currently there are eight pours, but he plans to expand the offerings to 24. Riedel glasses are used—the Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot design for Cabernet Sauvignons, Bordeaux, and Rhone wines, and the Viognier/Chardonnay white wine glass for Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
“It enhances the product you’re trying to show to the customer, [and takes it] to another level,” says Messina, who is such a fan of the Riedel wine glasses that he uses them—paired with the correct varietal—in his social wine-tasting group. “You can pour the same wine from one glass to another and it’s a remarkable difference. It’s how the glass makes your wine go over your tongue.”
How the wine tastes can be a make-or-break situation for a wine retailer like Messina. “If the wine tastes bad, it will hurt your reputation,” he says. To that end, he makes sure that each glass pour isn’t too generous—another reason to invest in the bowl-shaped, larger wine glasses. “The idea is to let that wine breathe in the glass,” says Messina.
Investing in high-end glassware that doesn’t mask a wine’s unique qualities is one way to reinforce to customers that the restaurant knows wine. And, it’s not an option that should only be reserved for fine-dining environments. “It used to be just white tablecloth. Now it’s polished casual, too,” says Moore. “Customers are becoming educated about the power of glassware.”