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Steven Kolpan - WineWise: Your Complete Guide to Understanding, Selecting, and Enjoying Wine

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ImageI am really excited about today’s guest blogger, Steven Kolpan author of the James Beard nominated WineWise.  Steven along with his co-writers have created what I feel is an indispensable guide to wine in WineWise.  Without ceremony or intimidation you will learn about everything from Merlot to Malbec as well as information on storing wine, serving wine and hosting a wine tasting. 

Today, Steven is going to discuss a topic that can cause a lot of confusion with novice wine drinkers and experienced ones alike.  Does the glass your serve the wine in really make a difference in the taste of the wine? Keep reading and find out. 

Wine's Best Friend: The Right Glass

by Steven Kolpan

ImageWine snobbery, thankfully, has all but disappeared in the United States, as Americans continue to enthusiastically embrace wine. By the end of next year, the US is slated to become the #1 wine consuming-nation in the world, a notion many might have considered laughable only ten years ago.

But there is a good wine's worth of difference between snobbery and respect. I would never tell anyone what wine to enjoy, and certainly would never tell anyone why he or she should not enjoy a particular wine, mostly because everyone hates a wine snob, me included. However, I am not above  gently recommending how to enhance enjoyment of wine, and one path to enhancement is by drinking the right wine in the right glass.

I can hear the groans now, as many readers think I'm going to steer them to unbelievably expensive, hand-blown crystal wine glasses, and that those glasses you purchased at Target just aren't good enough for me and my snobby nose and palate. Nothing could be further from the truth. I'm just going to write about why a good, affordable wine glass makes such a difference in the enjoyment of wine. You can thank me later.

Recently, I went to dinner at a good Hudson Valley restaurant with several friends. We received a warm welcome, were seated at a comfortable table, and the food and service were terrific. The wine glasses were not.

With the owner's permission, I brought from home several very special wines to the restaurant, which the service staff took care of in a highly professional manner. My friends and I looked forward to a wonderful dinner complete with extraordinary wines.

And then the wine glasses were brought to the table.

The glasses, both white and red, were crap - thick glass balloons that I knew would make each white wine taste sour and each red wine taste bitter. All the wines would suffer from a short "finish," the potentially lovely aftertaste that helps to define a great wine. I asked our waiter if he might be hiding some good wine glasses somewhere in the restaurant, and he courteously replied that the glasses on the table were the only wine glasses available.  I was bummed. These fine wines, served in crap glasses, tasted like crap. And crap wines do nothing to enhance the flavors of the carefully-prepared food provided by the restaurant. Those damned glasses truly created a lose/lose proposition for the folks at our table and just as important, for the hard working folks at the restaurant.

On the ride home and for a few days afterward, I thought how could I make this negative experience positive.  So, I put together some wines and some wine glasses, and invited Janet Crawshaw, publisher of The Valley Table magazine, and Jerry Novesky, its editor, to join me at my house just outside of Woodstock, NY for a blind tasting of three wines - one white, two reds - served in several different glasses. Jerry and Janet love wine and seemed intrigued (if a bit dubious) about the idea of matching a good wine to a good glass, and so they agreed to show up, and taste, taste, taste. I intentionally chose really good wines for the tasting, hoping to demonstrate that a great wine can taste like crap in a crap glass, and that the right glass will do that same wine organoleptic justice.

The two basic glasses for each wine were a) a jelly glass that sells for about $1 (more about this choice of glass later), and b) a glass that is known as a "universal taster," a small, five ounce wine glass, resembling a style you might use for Port or Sherry, and used widely in large wine tastings; I use this glass for the tastings I conduct daily in the wine classes I teach at The Culinary Institute of America.  I use hundreds of these glasses every day (about $3 each).

The other glasses were all produced by one wine glass company, Riedel. The Riedel family has been making glassware for 11 generations, and it was Georg Riedel (10th generation), who realized that he could produce ideal glasses - both hand-blown and machine-made - for various wines, by shaping the glasses in such a way that the appearance, aromatics, and taste of the wine are optimized. So the shape of a glass meant for Cabernet Sauvignon looks completely different from a glass meant for Pinot Noir, which looks completely different from a glass made for Riesling; you get the idea.  Riedel, based in Austria, also produces machine-made Spiegelau wine glasses in Germany.

Not that long ago, Riedel glasses were only found at upscale specialty stores, and the glasses were aimed solely at wealthy and/or aspiring wine connoisseurs. As wine-drinking in the United States (at least 40% of Riedel's worldwide market) has spread to the great unwashed, Riedel has made their glasses far more accessible. Remember me mentioning "those glasses you purchased at Target" earlier? Well, Riedel now creates a special line of wine glasses just for Target (the "Vivant" series; the glasses sell for about $10-$12 each).  Riedel glasses, in all their forms, from the least to the most expensive, can be found at amazon.com, as well as locally, from Wine Enthusiast or winenthusiast.com, which is located in Elmsford in Westchester County. Sold in sets, Riedel or Spiegelau glasses start at less than $10 per stem.

By the time Jerry and Janet arrived, I had already poured the reds, and when I saw them pull up in my driveway, I started to pour the white wines. We got down to business pretty quickly, and these are the results of our experiment in finding the right glasses for the right wines:

1st Flight: Chardonnay, Cakebread, Napa Valley, California 2005 (about $50/bottle)

Jelly Glass

  • -Appearance: Cloudy, dull.
  • -Nose: grapey, undefined other fruits, one dimensional.
  • -Taste/Finish: Hot, full-bodied, bitter, alcoholic; short finish
  • -Opinion: Undrinkable.

Universal Taster

  • -Appearance: Pale yellow/almost white peach.
  • -Nose: closed, some oak, some fruit.
  • -Taste/Finish: Hot, full-bodied, alcoholic; short finish.
  • -Opinion: Doesn't taste like an expensive wine.

Riedel "Ouverture" White Wine Glass: $10-$12; machine blown, lead free; 10 oz.

  • -Appearance: Pale gold, rim begins to show more depth, and possible ageability.
  • -Nose: More apricot, a bit of oak/not much, balance as the flavors come together.
  • -Taste/Finish: Smooth, rich, slightly toasty, almost oily, elegant, long finish.
  • -Opinion: Pretty good.

Riedel "Flow" Viognier/Chardonnay Glass: $12-$15; machine blown, lead free; 22.5 oz.

  • -Appearance: Very pale. Shimmering, reflecting gold.
  • -Nose: Oak emerges, but in balance with fruits.
  • -Taste/Finish: Emphasis on complexity and acidity, with oak tannins in the finish, a bit of pleasant bitterness; extremely long and complex finish.
  • -Opinion: Excellent wine.

2nd Flight: Pinot Noir, Iron Horse, Green Valley of Russian River Valley, California 2004 (about $35/bottle)

Jelly Glass

  • -Appearance: Brownish, dull, brackish and muddy, no difference between rim of the wine and the center of the bowl.
  • -Nose: Smells like Manischewitz, nothing but grape and alcohol.
  • -Taste/Finish: Alcohol and tannin, with bitter fruits; blessedly short finish.
  • -Opinion: Lousy

Universal Taster

  • -Appearance: Medium black cherry, rim much darker than the center of the bowl.
  • -Nose: Earthy, mature red and black fruits, touch of leather.
  • -Taste/Finish: Red fruits ascendant, nice balance of tannin and acid, long finish.
  • -Opinion: The wine is beginning to strut its stuff.

Riedel "Vinum" Pinot Noir/Burgundy Glass: $30; machine made, 24% lead crystal; 25 oz.

  • -Appearance: Beautiful red-to-black cherry, with dark, almost black rim -Nose: New and old oak, restrained wood aromatics; near-perfect balance of aromatics; red cherries, red and black currants, spice, a touch of  black pepper.
  • -Taste/Finish: high but balanced acidity, red fruits, no harsh tannins; a truly fine example of the Pinot Noir varietal.
  • -Opinion: Really nice wine.

Riedel "Sommeliers" Burgundy Grand Cru Glass: $95-$120. 37 oz.; handmade, mouthblown; full lead crystal

  • -Appearance: Glass seems to disappear; rim of the wine goes to the sides of the glass, when looking down, you see the wine is still opaque; the wine can age quite a while.
  • -Nose: Overwhelmingly fragrant; roses, black currants, black cherries; as if the wine has been decanted for hours
  • -Taste/Finish: Extremely soft; balanced, voluptuous, silky.  
  • -Opinion (from Janet): "I want to dive in and swim in this wine."

3rd Flight: Rubicon, Rubicon Estate, Rutherford, Napa Valley, California 2004 (about $125)

Jelly Glass

  • -Appearance: Cloudy, opaque.
  • -Nose: Smells like grape jelly and alcohol.
  • -Taste/Finish: Horrible - all tannin and alcohol.
  • -Opinion: the worst.

Universal Taster

  • -Appearance: Almost black in color, totally opaque / looks quite young.
  • -Nose: Alcohol and leathery tannins.
  • -Taste/Finish: Blackberry - very full-bodied - moderate acidity - really hot alcohol.
  • -Opinion: I expect more - a lot more - from this wine.

Riedel "Ouverture" Red Wine Wine Glass: $10-$12; machine blown; lead free; 12.5 oz

  • -Appearance: Still dark in the center, but rim is much darker and "legs" (glycerol) dripping down the side of the glass are quite prominent.
  • -Nose: Black currant, oak, and vanilla.
  • -Taste/Finish: High acids. Sweet tannins, black fruits, very complex flavors; needs more time.
  • -Opinion: A fine example of a wine that, over time, should become extraordinary.

Riedel "Flow" Cabernet Glass: $12-$15; machine made; lead free crystal; 22.5 oz.

  • -Appearance: Ink black in the center with an even darker rim.
  • -Nose: Black fruits, olives, earthy, mint and eucalyptus.
  • -Taste/Finish: Mint, menthol, black fruits; balanced sweeter tannins; incredibly long finish.
  • -Opinion: Wow! What a difference. The wine seems to have achieved balance and tastes far more mature, and closer to ready to drink.

Riedel "Vinum" Bordeaux Glass: $24-30; machine made; 24% lead crystal; 21.5 oz.

  • -Appearance: Similar to above; even more opaque; glass seems to disappear.
  • -Nose: Much more black currant and mint.
  • -Taste/Finish: Beautifully balanced. Fruit acids jump out of the glass; tastes like fresh blackberries.
  • -Opinion: Tried this to see if there was much difference between Riedel "Flow" and Riedel "Vinum" (twice as expensive, but the same shape and size). Noticed the most difference in the appearance of the wine, as the "Vinum" is thinner, and the wine seems to "float" in mid-air.


So, that's it. The glasses made an incredible difference in the sensory evaluation of the wines. Jerry was blown away by the differences, but raised an interesting question. Can the right glass, properly engineered to maximize certain characteristics and minimize others, make a lousy wine taste good? I've wondered about this myself, and have to come to the conclusion that while I don't think that matching the right glass to the right wine falls under the definition of "party trick," I do think that a good glass will always make any wine  - from the relatively humble to the truly elite, taste better. Anything wrong with that?

So, why did I bother with the jelly glass, knowing it would make a good wine taste like swill? I did it to honor the memory of Robert Mondavi, who probably did more for wine in the United States than any other person in history. Robert died at the age of 94 in May, 2008, and I dedicate this article to his memory.

About 20 or so years ago, I had the honor of helping to coordinate a wine tasting conducted by Robert Mondavi at The Culinary Institute of America. Robert taught me a few things that day, First, at age 73 (at the time), he didn't participate in the tasting, because he told me his taste buds were shot, and he "didn't want to fake it." He wanted to hear from the crowd of tasters, to listen to their opinions.

The second thing I learned from Robert Mondavi on that day has everything to do with why I chose a jelly glass to lead off each wine in this tasting. Robert was well-known for shipping hundreds, sometimes thousands of Riedel glasses in advance of any wine tasting he conducted. He explained to me that it was important to show Robert Mondavi wines in the best possible light, including the best possible glass. I nodded and smiled, probably not fully realizing at the time just how correct, how smart he was in his thinking.

But then Robert Mondavi turned to me and added something to the conversation that I'll never forget. He said, "Just remember, Steven, that great wines need great glasses, but if someone offers you a great wine, even if it's in a jelly glass, never say 'no.'" And I never have.

Disclosure: Review copies of books discussed in this post may have been provided to Project Foodie by publicists and/or publishers.

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