A few weeks ago I was invited to attend a wine tasting led by Georg Riedel, current head of the famous glassware company. The tasting wasn’t about the wine itself. It was about the glassware it’s served in. Riedel markets an extensive line of glasses designed for specific varietals of wine that goes well beyond separate glasses for red and white: One glass for cabernet and merlot, another for oaked chardonnay, still another for syrah, etc. If you believe Riedel’s pitch, having the right glass for each varietal enhances the experience of drinking it, optimizing aromas and balancing tannins. If you’re a skeptic, you probably think this is a clever ploy to sell people more glassware than they really need.
My own experiences put me somewhere in the middle. When I turned twenty-one, my aunt sent me a basic set of Riedel glassware as a birthday present. They’re lovely, and twelve years later I’ve only shattered one of them. I’ve never laid out the cash for a broader line of varietal specific versions for home use. Though open to the idea that the glass shape matters, at least within some parameters, I’ve never felt that my wine drinking at home suffered in any way from an inadequate selection of stemware.
More recently, when I worked in what was Portland’s best wine bar, we served nearly everything in various glasses produced by Riedel. We even had two separate glasses for the same grape, pinot noir, depending on whether it was new world or old world pinot. This was arguably veering into affectation, but it’s the kind of thing you do when you run a wine destination. The varietal-specific glassware signals that a place puts thought into its service, just as a square white ceramic plate signals a different approach to food than a styrofoam tray. The aesthetic aspects of dining are important, and as long as one keeps a clear idea of what is truly functional, it’s fine to indulge in these details.
Going into the tasting a few weeks ago, that was pretty much my attitude toward Riedel glassware. The glasses are elegant, and I’m happy to use them, but getting deep into varietal-specific ranges struck me more as signalling extravagance than as a necessity for enjoying wine. But I also have a relatively undeveloped wine palate, so I was open to being convinced.
Arriving at the tasting, we were seated in two groups. On one side of the room were press and trade, and on the other were consumers. In front of us were five empty Riedel glasses, three plastic cups of wine, one empty plastic cup, and four squares of chocolate. (Disclosure: We were allowed the keep the Riedel glasses.) Over the next hour or so, Georg Riedel led us through a highly structured tasting featuring various wines, mineral water, and even Coca-Cola from his line of glassware, punctuated by chocolate pairings.
What did I think of the tasting? Before we get to that, why I am writing about in the first place? I posted very briefly about it on Facebook and Instagram, but hadn’t intended writing anything beyond that. The event was brought back to my attention this weekend because another wine blogger, Ron Washam, a.k.a. the Hosemaster of Wine, recently posted a biting, satirical, imaginary interview with Georg Riedel. The Riedel company responded with a cease-and-desist letter accusing Washam of defamation and threatening legal action if the post was not removed. Though Washam lives in California, the post was published on a site based in the UK, where there is less robust legal protection for satire.
Having just been through one of Riedel’s tastings, I thought the opening of the fictional interview was pretty funny:
“Riedel me this,” Georg said. “What’s the difference between drinking from my specially designed Sangiovese glass, and drinking your Chianti Classico from an ordinary wine glass?”
“When you drink from my Sangiovese glass, your lipstick leaves a mark — on my ass!”
Other parts of the piece struck me as needlessly mean-spirited. Regardless, I’m sure I never would have seen it if not for Riedel’s cease-and-desist. Their law firm should have been aware of the Streisand effect, “the phenomenon whereby an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely.” I suspect Washam’s post would have gone mostly unnoticed if Riedel had ignored it or simply requested that the site clearly mark it as satire; instead, the post has been widely linked and discussed in the wine media, with most writers predictably siding against Riedel’s heavy-handed tactics. The dispute has now been resolved amicably enough, with the site posting a disclaimer that the piece is satirical and Georg Riedel affirming his commitment to free speech.
I wouldn’t be writing about the issue, except that one paragraph of Washam’s fictional depiction of Riedel so closely mirrored my thoughts from the tasting:
In the beginning, Georg preached that his wine glasses, designed specifically for Bordeaux, or Burgundy, were designed to funnel the wine to the proper areas of the tongue to maximize the pleasure of drinking your First Growth or Grand Cru. It was misdirection. Magical thinking. But in a controlled situation, with Georg holding court, he could convince anyone that his wine glass was superior to any other for a particular wine variety. Much as an illusionist can convince you he can restore a bank note with your signature on it after he’s torn it into pieces. It’s sleight of hand, of course. Georg is the master of sleight of tongue. And it’s the reason his company is the legerdemain source for handblown, and overblown, glassware.
I don’t know much about wine, but I do know a bit about magic. I took it up as a hobby in middle school, continued through college, and now practice the art as an occasional street performer (as one does as a resident of Portland, Oregon). I have a couple yards of shelf space devoted to magic books and DVDs, crates of props stowed around my apartment, and have seen some of the best magicians in the world perform or lecture on their methods. Watching Georg Riedel conduct his tasting a few weeks ago, the thought I kept coming back to was that Georg cut the perfect figure of a Golden Age magician, an impeccably dressed and charming gentleman from Europe authoritatively leading his audience through an exhibition of wonders. As I followed along, pouring wines from glass to glass, I found myself thinking that some of the techniques employed by good magicians were at work in his presentation too. Riedel was expertly setting the audience’s conditions of perception.
Being good at this is essential to presenting magic well. For an audience to experience the full impact of a magic trick, the magician has to ensure that the audience is aware of the conditions that make the climax impossible. For example, let’s say a magician presents an effect in which a deck of cards is thoroughly shuffled and then magically restored to perfect order. For the conclusion to be magical, the audience must first be aware and convinced that the deck was shuffled. If the performer casually shuffles when the audience is focused on something else, or shuffles unconvincingly, they may not believe that the deck was ever shuffled to begin with. The trick fails because the conditions for appreciating the ending were never established.
When I used to do regular coffee cuppings, we tasted in silence and wrote our notes down for comparison later. That’s because we knew that if one us said we tasted a note of, say, blueberries, we’d all be primed to pick out that same characteristic. Independent tasting requires being free of that influence.
At the tasting, Riedel was happy to suggest what he wants the audience to taste or smell — fewer tannins, more pronounced fruit, whatever –often telling them what aromas or flavors they will taste before or as they’re tasting them. This creates expectations, establishing favorable conditions for what he hopes they will perceive.
Riedel is also very skilled at managing his audience. The tasting we did was complicated, with lots of liquids being poured into lots of glasses, and bites of chocolate in between. Getting an entire room of people, most of them under the influence of alcohol, to follow along is no small feat. As a magician, I know how hard it can be to direct volunteers so that they don’t grab a prop at the wrong time or spoil a climax prematurely. Georg Riedel is a master of audience direction, and during the tasting I remember thinking that aspiring magicians could learn a lot from watching him in action.
Finally, there’s the art of the miss. The purpose of Riedel’s presentation, obviously, is to convince the audience that they should buy Riedel’s varietal-specific glassware. To this end, the tasting is aimed at persuading guests that pinot tastes best in the pinot glass, cabernet in the cabernet glass, etc. There is one moment of self-effacement, however. For one of the wines, he has the audience compare the aroma when served in the wrong Riedel glass to its aroma in a disposable plastic cup. The cheap cup, he says, is better than the expensive Riedel glass. This shows that he’s not merely pushing his own glassware, that sometimes a plastic cup can be better than a fine crystal stem. (The properly selected Riedel glass, of course, turns out to be best of all.)
Magicians sometimes incorporate a similar strategy, especially when performing routines involving mentalism or mind reading. If a performer breezily recites whatever it is an audience member is thinking of, the effect can appear too perfect and suggestive of artifice. But if the mentalist struggles and occasionally gets things wrong, the performance looks more like “real” mind reading. Riedel’s carefully placed miss plays the same role, ultimately making the argument that one needs varietal-specific glassware more persuasive.
None of this is meant to disparage Riedel’s glassware or Riedel himself. Rather it’s intended to shed some light on the ways his presentation is structured to lead the audience where he wants them to go and taste the things he wants them to taste, from the perspective of someone who has some experience managing perceptions in a different field. Judging by the reactions of the audience, this is a skill he has finely honed. A woman seated one row behind me responded with increasingly vocal astonishment as the tasting proceeded — the kind of spectator every magician desires in a crowd!
When you’re led through a carefully designed tasting such as this, it’s hard not to be influenced. I was seated next to the wine buyer from a successful restaurant, and we did our best to taste independently. For some wine and glass combinations I perceived what Riedel suggested I would, for others I tasted the opposite, and for several I struggled to note any differences between the glassware at all. We both estimated that Riedel’s tasting notes matched our own with perhaps a 50% hit rate, even with his guidance.
The most interesting aspect of the tasting by far was the opening sequence drinking cold water, not wine, from each of the stems. This focused attention to where different glass shapes caused the water to land in the mouth, which is not something I had ever thought about. Unfortunately, Riedel tied this loosely to the old idea that different parts of the tongue are attuned to different elements of taste. The old “tongue map” idea is at best a drastic oversimplification and I was surprised and disappointed to see a professional taster making uncritical reference to it in 2015. Much of the audience had probably learned about it in school, however, and to them it likely added a veneer of science to the tasting.
Is varietal specific glassware necessary? I left the event not really more convinced than I was going in. I don’t have a particularly well developed palate for wine, and this tasting was designed to lead to a pre-ordained conclusion. I’d like to repeat it sometime in conditions more favorable to blind, independent tasting.
I don’t doubt that glass shape matters on some level, but how precisely this can be determined for different varietals or how many different glasses could plausibly be useful is a question I leave to the wine pros. At home I’m content with my own hodgepodge of mismatched glassware. At the end of the tasting, all I can say for sure is that Riedel makes some very nice glassware that I’m happy to use, and that if the crystal business ever dries up, Georg could likely succeed in a second career as a professional illusionist.