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Stemware Sanity--and a Little Magic
By Michael Franz
Oct 27, 2009
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I opened a column here on WRO earlier this year with the observation that wine temperature is a crucial factor in wine appreciation, yet one that is insufficiently appreciated by many consumers.  I would also argue that the role of glassware is insufficiently appreciated, and know from experience that many consumers would be astonished by how profoundly glasses affect performance if they tried sensory comparisons of the same wine tasted from different glasses.

If I seem to be adopting a superior tone here, as in, "I’m Mr. Knowledgeable about this, and you probably aren’t," that certainly isn’t my intention.  Indeed, my own eyes have been opened to the importance of glassware more than ever before during the past few months.  I’ve been performing an extensive series of comparisons (it has become a borderline compulsion, I confess) after paying a very interesting visit to a glassmaker in Germany in the spring (more on that below).  I believe that some of the results of my experiments are worthy of your attention--and independent testing.

Since I’ve become something of a glass-testing maniac since May, I want to make my point of departure a quick plea for stemware sanity.  In my view, glassware sanity is a moderate stance somewhere between a scoffing minimalism and an obsessive maximalism.  Scoffers dismiss the importance of fine glassware and the proliferation of specialized glasses that purportedly enhance the experience of particular wine types.  At the other extreme, obsessives would have you believe that you are committing a sacrilege if you try to drink your Brunello di Montalcino out of anything but a purpose-built Brunello glass.

Both of these positions end up looking silly in the light of repeated testing.  It is true that a good wine will still taste good out of a jelly jar or a cheap restaurant glass with a thick, rolled lip.  However, almost anybody with an appreciation for subtleties will appreciate the wine more--often a lot more--out of an appropriately sized and shaped glass with good balance and a thin lip.

Similarly, it is true that specialty glasses in a line like the Riedel Sommelier Series can effectively enhance one’s enjoyment of the particular wines for which they were designed.  I’ve purchased a number of glasses in this famous collection, and I thoroughly enjoy using them.  However, it is a bit looney to think that one needs all of the glasses in this line, as it is demonstrably untrue that every bottle of, say, Grüner Veltliner will smell and taste better out of Riedel’s Grüner glass than out of an alternative vessel.

Months of glass trials have taught me definitively that different renditions of different grapes are more expressive and interesting when tried from different glasses. 

For example, some particular Cabernets perform better out of Riedel’s Vinum Bordeaux glass than out of Waterford or Eisch glasses that I’ve been trying.  Others show better in the Eisch or the Waterford.  But perhaps more importantly, some Cab-based wines are really more expressive out of Syrah or Pinot glasses than any of the three Cabernet glasses I’ve been testing, and consequently I’ve been cured permanently of any temptation to shell out a big wad of money for a comprehensive collection of purpose-built glasses.

I suppose that I’d envy anyone who had enough money to buy the whole Sommelier Series line, but only because I wish that I were equally flush with cash.  I know for sure that anybody who isn’t limitlessly rich would be much smarter to buy a few excellent glasses and spend the rest of their money on wine.

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I got started on this whole glass testing thing after reading about a line of purportedly “breathable” glasses made in Germany by Eisch.  I performed some informal (but pretty promising) trials with a sample glass while still in the USA, and then headed to Germany on the return trip from a wine judging in Spain.

The original Eisch glassworks is located in Frauenau, in the Bavarian Forest outside of Munich.  I wasn’t prepared for this side-trip to take me quite so deep into the hinterlands, but it helped to learn that glassblowers have historically located in forests due to their need for wood to stoke their furnaces.  This made sense even to a city boy like me, and this particular hinterland was quite beautiful, so I settled in to learn what I could learn.

Eisch is not an old establishment, having been established only in 1946, though family members worked for others in the business as early as the 17th century.  The company remains entirely family owned, and beyond wine glasses and decanters, is well known for art glass.  Family member Erwin Eisch was a founder of the studio glass movement along with American Harvey K. Littleton, and he’s still active as an artist and member of the company.

But it was the connection to wine that I was pursuing, and in particular the performance claims being made for Eisch’s so-called "breathable" glasses.  I don’t mean to sound snotty when using the words “claims” or "so-called."  There was absolutely no bluster or hard-sell from Eberhard Eisch, who currently directs the firm.  On the contrary, he was serenely matter-of-fact in his approach, mouthing none of the claims made in company literature but simply inviting me to "Test the glasses for yourself."

Which indeed I did, and in a very interesting way.  The testing I had done in the USA involved comparisons between an Eisch glass and comparable glasses from other manufacturers.  The problem with this is that the glasses are never identical in size or shape.  Since both size and shape of vessels are well known to affect the sensory experience of the wines they hold, this is an imperfect way to assess any “breathable” performance aspect of the Eisch glass, since any perceived difference could conceivably result from other variables.

However, the testing I did at Eisch involved pairs of identical glassware with one "breathable" vessel compared to another one that didn’t have this property.  The only visible difference was a little squiggle on the base of the stem that is the company icon for the breathable technology, and this was obscured on both glasses by a sticker.  In the first few trials, I would shuffle the two glasses after they had been poured, and later in the process I had others do the shuffling for me to assure random placement of the two glasses.  There was no way for me to know which glass was which--or at least no way that I was clever enough to conceive.

I performed multiple comparative tastings of different glasses with a Muller-Thurgau, a Pinotage from Swartland in South Africa, and a very nice Maremma IGT from Tuscany.  Since the technology is also used by Eisch for other types of glasses, I also tested a sake, a Cognac, and some espresso--of all things.  All in all, I ran 36 separate tests on the same liquid in the two different glasses in this way.

The result was that in 34 out of 36 trials I was able to correctly identify the breathable glass.

It is therefore very hard to avoid the conclusion that something real is involved with this technology, though it is not so easy to say rigorously just what is going on.  First, I should clarify the result by noting that I did not prefer the liquid out of the breathable glass 34 out of 36 times; rather, I was able to identify which glass was the breathable one because the liquid seemed marginally more expressive to me.  I didn’t always like what was being expressed by the breathable glass better, but I did fine marginally more aroma and dimensionality of flavor.

Nevertheless, I did prefer the liquid from the breathable glass more times than not, and the better the wine, the more I preferred the breathable glass.  It was easy to pick out the breathable glass when it was holding the delicious 2004 Tuscan wine, as the aromas were notably more open and the flavors both broader (i.e., more complex) and deeper (more intense and penetrating).  Similarly, with the Cognac, there was an undertone of orange rind perceptible in the breathable glass that was a total give-away signal, and I think that I could have found the glass dozens of times in a row, had I been interested in running up a streak as a parlor trick.

Two additional caveats should be noted.  The first involves a subtle point that I’m still testing.  Eisch’s company literature touts the glasses as supplanting the need for decanting as "no longer necessary” because a wine will reach its optimal state “shortly after it is opened," specifically, "in only 2-4 minutes."  Now, I think it is fair to say that most wine lovers decant young wines to achieve two changes in the wine that are related but not identical, namely, a more openly expressive character on the one hand, and, on the other, a lessening of astringency due to tannin in red wines.  These two are related because tannic astringency effectively slams the door on fruit flavors as a taster’s sensation series moves from the "mid-palate" to the "finish" of a wine.  In any case, my experience when working with the Eisch "breathable" glasses is that they do have some effect in making wines marginally (but significantly) more expressive, but that they don’t seem to lessen the tannic astringency of red wines notably--or at least not in 2-4 minutes.

Another caveat has to do with glass size and shape, which is an independent variable in glass performance as I noted above.  To its credit, Eisch is an innovative company turning out a lot of fresh designs, but some of its glasses wouldn’t suit my preferences regardless of the performance of the breathable technology.  For example, in the "Superior" line of breathable glasses, pursuit of consistency of shape results in a very good Bordeaux glass but also a Chardonnay glass that is seriously top-heavy and disconcerting to handle. 

The "Bellagio" line is internally dissimilar in shape, but there are still design issues, as the red wine glass is simply too elongated, leaving one’s nose too far from the wine.  The white wine glass in this line is much better--but for reds rather than whites.  Finally, a new Petite Sirah glass in the Superior line is very attractive, but tapers to an opening so small that I find myself continually jabbing myself below the bridge of my nose when trying--in vain--to get my honker into the glass to smell the contents.

Nevertheless, Eisch also has some excellent designs.  The Grand Burgundy glass in the Superior line is a very strong performer, as is the larger Champagne glass in this line.  I’ve also tried Eisch’s mouth-blown (non-breathable) glasses, and loved some of them.  In the "Jeunesse" line, there’s a small Burgundy glass as well as a much larger "Grand Burgundy" version.  The larger is presumably for reds, and it is very effective and also endearingly simple in appearance (even a bit retro, looking like a bowl design from the 1970s).  Nothing I’ve read specifies whether the smaller glass is for whites or reds, but I’ve gotten terrific results when using it with a variety of white wines--not just Chardonnays.  Also in this line is a small glass (item number 514/013) designated generically for white wines, and it is probably the best glass I’ve ever tried with Fino or Manzanilla sherry.  There’s actually a sherry glass in this same line, but I’ve yet to try it.

Finally, it is worth noting the curious fact that this company--which would seem intent upon rendering decanters superfluous--makes ingenious decanters that are often quite beautiful.  Two merit special mention.  One is a swan-shaped decanter with a tail that flares out to a wide opening that supplants the need for a funnel when filling.  At the other end, it has a finely beveled lip that is treated with Eisch’s "No Drop Effekt," which is amazingly effective at preventing the last bit of wine in a pour from dribbling onto one’s tablecloth.

The other truly amazing item is the "Rapid Cool" cooling decanter.  It is handmade and double-walled, with the interior space filled with a mixture of water and anti-freeze.  It will cool any wine from room temperature in even less than the 5 minutes claimed in Eisch’s product literature, and is beautifully sleek and simple.  Although it is presumably intended for whites predominantly, it would also be very useful for getting red wines that are sitting around at room temperature down into the mid-60s where they belong, and it would be able to do so in just a minute or so.

In closing I should note that--as my testing mania may indicate to you--I am by nature a rationalist rather than a romantic, and a skeptical one at that when seemingly magical effects are in question.  I have no idea how or why Eisch’s "breathable" technology would have any effect, and the product literature’s explanation the glasses are treated with “oxygen waves” in an “oxygenizing treatment” is utterly meaningless to me.  Nevertheless, the glasses certainly do seem to have an effect, and one that is usually beneficial, so I’m sure I’ll be continuing my mildly-mad experiments into the future.

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Questions or comments?  Write to me at mfranz@winereviewonline.com