HOME | IN THE MAGAZINE | BACK ISSUES | JAN/FEB 2009
Story by Robert Simonson
Photos by Steph Goralnick
Georg Riedel, armed with the Old-World manners of his native Austria and soft-spoken, accented English, greets four dozen guests as they enter a private dining room at The Modern in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. With his high forehead, thoughtful countenance and perfect posture, Riedel has the look of a career diplomat. Ever dapper, he wears a business suit with a black tie, setting off his rosy complexion and sharp blue eyes. Maximilian, his 31-year-old son and heir apparent to the Riedel glassware empire, looks equally elegant in a red tie. Red and black: the Riedel colors.
Near the entrance is a Warholesque portrait of Georg’s father, Claus Josef Riedel. Though he died in 2004, Claus is actually the man of the hour: The event is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the invention that sparked the Riedels’ ascent to the top of their industry, the Riedel Burgundy Grand Cru glass. With that creation, Claus set the company on its future path by proposing that the shape and design of a glass could materially affect the way wine is received by the nose and palate.
The guests quiet as Georg knocks his glass against a microphone—the loudest noise he’ll make all night. “I am between two giants,” the diminutive man says with a self-deprecating air. “My father, Claus, and my son, Max. I am just happy to be squeezed in the middle.”
This kind of modesty belies the fact that under his leadership, the Austrian company has come to command the wine-drinking world. Over the past year alone, the glassmaker, who turned 59 in December, has seen his company expand in key ways. Already armed with more than a dozen different lines of wine glasses, Riedel (pronounced “REE-dle”) has extended its domination of modern drinking by introducing a Barware series sporting specific glasses for grappa, bourbon, tequila and other spirits; and a trio of beer glasses, released through Spiegelau—a former competitor that Riedel absorbed in 2004.
Though Claus can be credited as the progenitor of the Riedel revolution, it is the analytical, driven Georg who took the battle to the doorstep of every restaurant, wine bar and liquor store in the western world (and, increasingly, Japan, China and India). Friends describe him as a cultured perfectionist who is single-minded in his commitment. Larry Stone, general manager of Rubicon Estate, calls him “very persuasive and very ordered. He’s a serious person who’s passionate about what he does and has been for most of his adult life.”
And not only wine connoisseurs harken to the Riedel name. A wine drinker who can’t tell a Bordeaux from a Burgundy may very well recognize a glass made by Riedel Glassworks. Now in its 11th generation, the Austrian glassmaking family has made itself famous to all—and nearly indispensable to some—through the philosophy that each grape varietal requires the right glass to offer the full expression of a wine. It’s a notion that’s hotly debated among winemakers, journalists and other professionals. But whether you buy the theory or not, there’s no denying that Riedel’s campaign has elevated the role a glass plays in the wine-drinking experience.
“There’s a practical impact to what they’ve done,” says Robert Bohr, the wine director at Cru, a wine-centric Manhattan restaurant. “The ample-sized glass that’s elegantly designed is now the base minimum that a restaurant can provide. And I think that’s a good thing. If you went into a two-star restaurant and they gave you a catering glass, you’d be floored.”
The Riedel dynasty began in the late 17th century with Johann Christoph Riedel, a glassmaker from Bohemia. For centuries, the company produced a wide range of glass goods: windowpanes, chandelier parts, colored glass beads. And wine glasses. Things changed in 1957, when Claus Riedel assumed control of the company and answered the call of a wine-loving Italian nobleman.
According to Riedel lore (many of Georg’s sentences begin with “The story goes…”), one Conte Odazio asked Claus to create a glass suitable for Piedmont reds. Claus came up with the Burgundy Grand Cru. Its enormous bell and closed mouth ran counter to the decorative, flare-lipped glasses of the time. According to Georg, Odazio raved about the glass to Italian merchant Richard Ginori, who then featured it in his tony shop on Via Condotti in Rome. Wallis Simpson, the wife of Prince Edward, the Duke of Windsor, saw the glass and bought 60. At a 1958 World Exhibition in Brussels, Riedel was awarded a “Grand Prix.” The company’s reputation was made.
The Burgundy glass, as well as the equally famous Bordeaux Grand Cru glass, eventually formed the foundation of the Sommelier collection, the company’s first wine-specific line of stemware, introduced by Claus in 1973. Georg entered the family business that same year, though it wasn’t always a certainty that he would. “My papa was not such an easy person that you would have jumped on the opportunity to come to this business,” he says. “He was a patriarch. Everything had to go as he would have it and there was very little dispute about it.”
Nonetheless, Georg—who lives with his wife Eva in Kufstein, Austria—took his father’s concept of “wine-friendly glassware” and ran with it. In 1979, he shrewdly opened a subsidiary in the United States, foreseeing that it would become Riedel’s biggest market. Traveling the world—with a case containing four wine glasses for his personal use—he earned the support of winemakers like Robert Mondavi and Angelo Gaja. “I understood the potential of the winemaking in America,” he recalls. “I saw the investments there.”
At the turn of the 21st century, when Americans were becoming entranced with wine and wine culture, Riedel was poised to capitalize on the phenomenon. Its glasses started to be seen more widely in department stores and fine-dining establishments; Target began carrying them in 2006, the same year that U.S. sales hit $60 million, their highest annual figure so far. More glassware lines were introduced—five between 2006 and 2007 alone, each one’s design overseen by either Georg or Maximilian. Today, six European plants produce 150,000 pieces a day. “I am selling tools,” says Georg, explaining his populist marketing approach to what is essentially a luxury item. “So why shouldn’t we, as a toolmaker, sell tools to everyone who wants one?”
Such success has inevitably prompted increased scrutiny, as well as some grumbling: Does all this specialized glassware really do what the Riedels claim? Are they visionaries, or merely smart marketers? “It’s not that I don’t appreciate the glasses,” says Eric Asimov, chief wine critic for the New York Times. “They’re great. But the idea that every sort of wine requires a specific glass is nonsense.”
In 2004, Gourmet published a blistering broadside by Daniel Zwerdling called “Shattered Myths,” which asserted that scientific studies had debunked the notion that glassware makes a difference in tasting wine. It also condemned the idea of the “tongue map.” The map—which claimed that the salty, sweet, sour and bitter taste buds are located on different parts of the tongue—was a conceptual tool the Riedels once used to explain how the differing deliveries of liquid imparted by their glasses influenced taste.
It’s clear the criticism stings, though Riedel has not given up on the idea. “There are scientific backgrounds on why there are differences in the aromatics and the quality of the aromas,” he maintains. “But the effect on the palate is impossible to explain, especially once you swallow it. How is it possible that from different glasses the perception changes? But it does change! There is no doubt.”
To prove his point, Georg (who’s on the road six months a year), Maximilian and other Riedel associates maintain a steady schedule of tasting demos; very often, former skeptics speak of being converted by these seminars. But the tastings also provoke criticism. “People do this because they know how it’s going to work,” says Asimov. “It’s one of the reasons winemakers want you to taste their wine in their presence, because there’s a psychological disposition to like them better as they tell you the story.”
Other aspects of Riedel’s growth have fueled further cynicism. For example, the introduction, in 2004, of the popular stemless glasses known as the “O” series struck some observers as going against much of what Riedel preached about creating vessels that served the wine. “The O line throws me for a loop,” says Tyler Colman, author of the popular wine blog Dr. Vino. “Having your fingers touch the balloon, it does warm the wine. But I also find it gets goobery fingerprints all over the glass.”
Regional glass lines have been equally scrutinized, such as the Oregon Pinot Noir glass, created in 2006 at the request of some of the state’s vintners. “Overlaying place on top of grape variety is a recipe only to fill up your cabinets,” argues Colman.
And yet Riedel can’t seem to resist promoting the concept. In August 2008, he traveled to New York’s Finger Lakes area to consider what shape glass would work best for the wines of this developing viticultural region. Bob Madill, winegrower and partner at Sheldrake Point Vineyard, organized a tasting, and then spent some time afterward quizzing guests at the event. “I don’t think they came away thinking, ‘Riedel glasses are the only glasses,’ ” he says. “They came away thinking, ‘Darn, a glass makes a difference.’ That’s a big piece of information to a lot of folks.” And it may be the only piece of information needed to keep the Riedel train steaming ahead.
Which begs the question: Where does the proliferation of glassware end? What if a burgeoning, but young, wine-growing area—like, say, Virginia—approached Georg Riedel about making a new glass? Would he accept the challenge or gracefully decline? Ever the diplomat, Riedel smiles mischievously and says, “I would listen carefully.”