Glazed and Confused

Part I

I’m coming down off a gnarly dishwashing episode. Handling my four Riedel wine glasses, large as cabbages and ephemeral as spider-webs, gets me so jumpy that sometimes I’d rather just get it over with and smash them to smithereens sooner rather than later.

I got them at a Riedel tasting, an event where they demonstrate Austrian crystal-maker Georg Riedel’s theory that the shape of the glass affects the taste of the wine. The Rolls-Royce of wine paraphernalia, Riedel glasses (pronounced REE-dle), at up to ninety bucks a pop, have won over such wine deities as the Roberts: Parker and Mondavi.

But do they deliver? The Riedel tasting I attended was more Tupperware party than physics class. The idea seemed to be: get them drinking, get them laughing, toss in some science, and sell, sell, sell!

The tongue map, which divides your taste buds into zones for salt, sweet, bitter and sour, is at the heart of the theory. Incidentally, studies today call the tongue map a myth, but no matter, the idea is that a glass that directs a very narrow flow of wine to the tip of the tongue will emphasize sweetness in an austere wine. With the right shape, they say, you can direct a young Bordeaux away from your tannin sensors, or a buttery Chardonnay toward your acid receptors. You need a cut rim to achieve this; the rolled rim on cheaper glasses might as well direct wine into your ear for all the good it does you.

We tasted four wines, each from its “correct” glass, then from different shapes in the Riedel lineup, and last from what they called the “joker” glass. This squat, roll-rimmed object of derision is known to wine pros as the International Standard Tasting Glass.

Like a Baptist congregation, the people around me were seeing the light, praising the Cabernet in the Cab glass, damning it in the Pinot Noir glass. I, alone, was not saved. But maybe I’m just crabby-I thought, since I seem to be the only one spitting instead of swallowing after “initiating flow,” as the Riedel people put it.

So, I went home and set up my own tasting. Four wines, four Riedel glasses. Plus two of my own-very thin, well-shaped, $3.98 at the outlet mall-and one joker glass. I tasted blindfold, concentrated hard and took copious notes. Result? Nada. Niente. Zip. OK, one difference. The enormous bowl and small opening on a couple of the Riedels did the best job of concentrating the aroma and bouquet of the Pinot Noir. That was it.

I still have questions. This tongue-flow business is about first impressions. But a mouthful of wine is a movie, not a snapshot; sensations unfold slowly, but eventually you get them all, no matter what came first. And why would you want to “correct” the acidity in a crisp, green-apply Riesling, or the creaminess in a malolactic Chardonnay? Moreover, if shape is so crucial that there’s one glass for Bordeaux and another for Bordeaux Grand Cru, then how can all seven of the Champagne shapes they offer be correct?

None of this is to say they’re not exquisite glasses. Like writing with a really fine pen, or swinging just the right golf club, holding a Riedel just feels good. Lead crystal, they tell me, has a rougher surface than glass, so more wine sticks to it when you swirl and there’s more to smell. Speaking of swirling, some of the odder shapes are serious fun to swirl. You can work up a tornado reminiscent of the whirling vortex of a good old-fashioned, high-flush toilet.

While I’m not a convert on the shape issue, I’m certainly open if a Riedel guru would like to take another stab at enlightening me. Meanwhile, maybe it’s just a case of reverse snobbery, but Shamu-sized bowls just strike me as pretentious. And as for the handling and breakage factor, well, until I either grow up or calm down, I think I’ll stick with the joker.

Part II

A few weeks after that article runs, I get a call from a woman who says, “I’m with the Riedel Company.” I expect her next words to be, “and you are SO busted!”

In fact, it’s a summons from President Georg Riedel, himself. He wants a word with me. How good a taster am I? Where do I come off dissing the tongue-map, a central part of the Riedel theory? He is flying me to Chicago to meet with him. I WILL see the light.

Standing my ground presents a challenge when we meet, as I’m hit by gale-force Euro-Aristo charm. Riedel is impeccably dressed, speaks with a soft Austrian accent and, oh! those steely-blue eyes. I am dancing across a moonlit terrace with Captain Von Trapp. You will never be a nun, Maria. He says he hasn’t seen the movie.

First stop: a tasting for forty people in a vaulted cellar, once a speakeasy. In fact, if the prohibition-era posters lining the walls have it right, Al Capone was killed here a few times before he died for good of tax evasion. Oddly, bones protrude from the brick walls. “See, the cannibals have been here,” Riedel observes, “The people who didn’t finish their wine were eaten.”

I recognize the placemats, with three circles for the Riedel glasses and two for their lousy, stupid, laughable competitors. I notice that the tongue map is gone.

“I’m going to ask the ladies if I may take off my jacket,” Riedel begins, detonating a mass female swoon. We taste Cabernet, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from both sets of glasses. Riedel reels the audience in and out like a swordfisherman. A little science here, a story there, a tasting exercise, a joke; the rhythm is masterful.

Riedel glasses are shaped to emphasize different qualities in each wine. They affect not only the smell, but the taste as well, by directing wine to specific parts of your mouth. Or so they say. My quarrel has been that no matter what you taste first, the other components reveal themselves anyway in a matter of seconds. Besides, I can’t taste the difference.

When I tap my glass it quivers like something alive and nervous and makes a sound like a temple bell. The cut rim is so thin and crisp that I want to bite off a piece and crunch it between my teeth. “Drinking is sensuous,” says Riedel. “Really everything is sensuous.”

I want so much to believe. I keep pouring wine from glass to glass, comparing. Converts cry out around me. I am the leper, the one sentient being in a sea of hypnosis.

Later that night, Riedel takes me to dinner. We eat tiny, exquisite things served in bamboo boxes and washed down with Burgundy and Austrian Riesling. The crystal is Riedel, the wine is remarkable, but is it�different?

Designing glasses, Riedel says, is trial and error. He’ll try twenty shapes. He consults experts. RhÃ?´ne winemakers, for example, helped build the Syrah glass. When tequila makers disagreed with him on a design-he wanted to emphasize aromatics over alcohol-he deferred to their judgment. As viticulture technology ping-pongs between Old World and New, ever ratcheting up the quality of wine, he invents new shapes to suit.

“What happened to the tongue map?” I ask. It’s the only time I don’t get a straight answer and I feel smug.

A reconnaissance mission at the Four Seasons bar turns up no Riedel stemware, so we suffer through a couple of single-malts in tumblers. I have a vision of Riedel standing over a bathroom sink, designing the perfect toothbrush glass. One that sends streams of water directly to the plaque deposits between your molars when you rinse.

Then I catch those eyes again. My skeptical side has temporarily left the building. At this moment, correct shape or not, my glass runneth over.

Clue #5:

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