A Glass is Just a Glass – Except when It’s Not

I grew up in the 1960’s on East 112th street in upper Manhattan, where my grandparents had a grocery store that had a cellar. My grandfather was born in Italy, where wine was often made at home. Here in America, he kept that tradition alive by making wine in that cellar.

Back then, Welch’s grape jelly was sold in jars you could wash out and use as a glass once the jelly was gone. Most people used them as juice glasses, but my grandmother saw they were the perfect size for just a little taste of wine. Homemade cellar wines, also called garage wines, could be strong, and my grandfather’s productions were no exception. When it was time to have a taste, a jelly glass did the job just fine, especially for seven-year-old me*.

Jelly glasses are now a thing of the past, and the wines we buy today are not made in anyone’s cellar. Choosing the appropriate glass is important to the enjoyment of wine. If you don’t think that’s true, try a simple experiment: pour the same amount of your favorite wine into a stemmed wine glass and into a juice glass; now taste from both. The same wine in the stemmed glass should taste better to you. Why? For one thing, you lift your chin when you drink from a glass with a narrow rim. This means the wine is going to hit your tongue differently than when you drink from a wide-rimmed glass. Another reason is that the aromas can’t escape as easily, and aromas will always influence the taste.

But how many types of glasses do we really need? In 1973, Claus Riedel of the Riedel glass company was looking for ways to increase sales, and he came up with a novel way to do so: the Riedel Sommelier series of 10 glasses. I don’t think we actually need all 10, but I do believe there are a few that make a difference: a tumbler for brandy; a martini glass for a martini; a flute for champagne; a Bordeaux glass for cabernet sauvignon, and perhaps a universal glass for everything else. The one I like is referred to as a Burgundy glass. It’s designed for lighter, full-bodied red wines like pinot noir. It’s shorter than a Bordeaux glass, and has a wider, bigger bowl that directs the wine to the tip of your tongue and lets you detect more of the flavors.

Once you’ve chosen your wine and your glass, think about how much you’re pouring at one time.In the case of White wine, Pour too much and the temperature will change before you finish it. And when you’re out, always smell your glass before the server pours. Restaurant dishwashers sometimes leave behind a thin residue of soap. It pays to remember that how you drink wine makes drinking it all the more enjoyable.

*The importance of wine in the Italian culture can be traced back to the Roman Empire. Once babies were weaned, they drank fruit juices, water and wine like the adults, who watered it down. That tradition endured over the centuries, which is why allowing children to have a taste now and then back when I was a kid was not frowned upon the way it is today.