Feature Story

Stemware Showdown

Is there one wineglass that will show all your favorite wines at their best? A glass that can handle riesling as well as chardonnay, pinot noir as well as cabernet? We set out to find an all-purpose wineglass that’s as beautiful as it is functional, one that’s not too fragile. And one that won’t blow a hole in your budget.

from left to right: Riedel, Zalto and Stölzle from left to right: Riedel, Zalto and Stölzle
We began our search by contacting 50 wine directors at restaurants across the country to ask what they use for their all-purpose glass. The vast majority came down to three: Riedel’s Cabernet/Merlot Vinum series, Stölzle’s Quadrophil Red series, and Zalto’s all-purpose.

Personally, having worked in restaurants for 25 years, it took my breath away that so many use Zalto, even their all-purpose glass. My first thought was, “They’re so expensive!” Even at the most ambitious places with dedicated, professional glass polishers, glasses break—a lot. Why would a restaurant dedicate so much money to those glasses knowing they’ll put such a dent in the bottom line? I was curious, and when we set up our tasting and unveiled the top three glasses, our three invited wine directors were curious and surprised, too.

Joining Executive Editor Tara Q. Thomas and me around the table were Rebecca Banks of the Keith McNally Group, Nicole Hakli of Momofuku Ssäm Bar and Andy Newlin of Raoul’s. Collectively, Banks, Hakli and Newlin have nearly 45 years of restaurant experience, so they’ve seen a thing or two, from delicate stems snapped in guest’s hands to entire racks of glasses smashed. We popped some exceptional bottles for them at this stemware showdown, as they would know how these wines should taste and perform. All of us expected some variation with the wines in different glasses, but the results were more pronounced than we had anticipated. Banks said it best: “This is a difficult task for just one wineglass.”

The wines included Domaine Nathalie & Gilles Fèvre 2013 Chablis Les Preuses, von Schubert Maximin Grünhäuser 2002 Abtsberg Riesling Auslese, Vincent Girardin 1998 Gevrey-Chambertin Les Champeaux, Fontanafredda 1996 Barolo Serralunga d’Alba, and Diamond Creek 1998 Diamond Mountain Napa Valley Red Rock Terrace Cabernet Sauvignon. The panel tasted one wine at a time out of the three glasses, side by side. We evaluated each glass on two criteria: how it displayed the wine’s aroma, and how the wine performed on our palates.

Each of these wines showed completely differently in each of the glasses. While we agreed they are all good glasses, they each accent different things. The Riedel, for instance, seemed to stress the richness and bass notes of every wine—not what any of us wanted for our minerally Mosel riesling, but fitting for the warm, rich red fruit of the Diamond Creek cabernet. The taller Stölzle, on the other hand, seemed to firm everything up, making the wines feel leaner and nervier—a unanimously positive effect for the whites, if less welcome with the reds. The Zalto’s most outstanding effect may have been encouraging us to drink more than we’d intended. Its ethereality somehow translated into a lack of control when it came to getting the wine into our mouths in delicate sips, or, as Hakli said, made her forget she was even drinking.

Though we found no clear winner, we did reach some useful conclusions. All of these glasses were bigger than you might find convenient if you have a small cabinet to fit them in, or if you are setting bistro tables. However, if you have the space and you drink a lot of white wine, or you’re opening a seafood restaurant and the majority of your list is whites, the Stölzle Quadrophil or the Zalto all-purpose will show your wines beautifully from just about every angle—aesthetics, performance, experience. If you’re a red-wine drinker, especially if you prefer American wines, or you’re opening a steakhouse, the Reidel Vinum will perform best, thanks to its generous globe and wide aperture.

Inspired by this experiment, Rebecca Banks went home and tasted a bottle of Sancerre out of her own collection of glassware, which included a Zalto Bordeaux glass, a Ravenscroft Sauvignon Blanc/Chardonnay glass and a glass she bought from a dollar store for a large party. Her conclusion: The Sancerre showed nearly equally out of the Zalto and the Ravenscroft. The dollar store glass, however, “might as well have been a jelly jar (which I’ve also been known to drink out of)!” Haven’t we all?

This feature appears in the print edition of April 2018.
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