invisible stemware

Thursday, June 03, 2010

As a recovering golfer (five years hole-free!) I still recall the endless struggle to shave strokes off my blimpish handicap. A trip to the local golf emporium might fill the better part of an afternoon. The usual quest was something simple – some new golf balls, or perhaps a pack of tees – but a few steps inside and all hell broke loose. The putter section of any well-stocked golf shop is enough to bring a grown man to his knees. But I rarely got there. Even something as simple as choosing tees turned into a mission impossible. I'd start reading labels – a lifelong debilitation – for everything in sight. Gloves, hats, balls, clubs, bags, carts, special pencils, umbrellas – everything in the shop promised to help your golf game. I once calculated that if I bought carefully, and really stocked up, I could shave about 42 strokes off my handicap.

Why am I telling you this? Because IT'S THE SAME WITH WINE!

Is there a more gadget-prone hobby than wine collecting? Apart from the furniture made out of barrels, wine-themed clothing, housewares, posters, and other ephemera, there's the stuff you actually use to open, decant, pour, store, and consume wine. And every single item promises to help your wine taste better! Do you see what I see? Wine glasses are like putters – you can never have enough of them. They come in an astonishing array of shapes and sizes, and they assure you – guarantee you – that if you can find the right one for each wine they will make the wine taste better!

I have stood on that artificial putting green, with a stack of putters beside me, desperately seeking ergonomic nirvana. And lo and behold, if you hit enough balls, you eventually find one that seems to work. Hopes rise. Out comes the wallet. But out on the actual golf course, it generally fails. Same with stemware. Look through any catalog, or have lunch with Georg Riedel, and you come away pretty certain that if only you had the "Sommelier Supreme" stemware from the Cojones Collection that bottle of plonk you've selected for dinner would suddenly turn into Petrus.

So I was pretty intrigued when a company called Ravenscroft ("The Leader in Handmade Lead-free Crystal for Fine Wines and Spirits") offered to send me a sample of their new line of invisible stemware. The Invisibles Collection, the company assured me, is "ground breaking, sensual, and whisper light. A quantum leap in enhancing the technical and sensual pleasures enjoyed from the experience of wine." In fact, they concluded with a flourish, this is "the most significant development in wine glasses in 25 years."

The promo sheet featured a supportive quote from someone identified solely as the world's most famous enologist. "A wine glass should be invisible," opined this un-named sage. Hence, I presume, the raison d'etre for the Invisibles Collection.

My invisible wine glass, a more or less standard chianti/zinfandel shape, arrived in a box large enough to hold a case of wine. The box was filled with Styrofoam popcorn, and the glass itself surrounded by bubble wrap. So I was immediately concerned for the landfill implications, though impressed that a single glass could command such extraordinary attention. Must be really fragile and really expensive, I thought to myself.

The letter from the company thanked me for my interest in the invisible line, and noted that "enclosed with this sample is a catalog listing all our products and also a hard copy of the invisible press release." That brought me up short. I've received many thousands of press releases in my life, but never an invisible one, and certainly not a hard copy of an invisible one. I was starting to feel a bit Harry Potter-ish as I set out some wines for tasting with my freshly-washed (and happily visible) invisible.

The glass is incredibly light in the hand. Perusing the catalog, which lists the Amplifier Collection, the Amplifier Pro Collection, the Decanter Collection (astonishing in its own right, with such exotica as the "Punted Trumpet" and the "Beveled Duck"), and the Distiller Collection, I felt my heart sink. No prices listed at all. Generally that would mean if you have to ask, you can't afford it. The presumed cost of re-outfitting my already groaning wineglass cupboard was now well into four figures and climbing rapidly.

I set the Invisible out with my everyday wine tasting glass, an Italian-made, universal-sized, sturdily leaded (alas) item purchased from Costco (8 for $24) some time back. Having just returned from my locker, I was laden with miscellaneous vinous odds and ends - a Sylvaner from Germany, a couple of Lucien Albrechts from Alsace, a selection of white and red wines from southern Oregon, a biodynamic sauvignon blanc from California.

The procedure was to pour a bit of each into both the visible and the invisible glass, sniff, sip and compare. While so doing, it occurred to me that the whole point of these wine-specific lines of stemware is to match the proper glass to each type of wine, because by so doing the wine will presumably taste better. It was not at all clear how matching a glass intended to be invisible was going to pull off that feat of legerdemain. It's a bit like picking out a tie for the invisible man, isn't it?

Bottom line – the wines in the invisible glass did smell and taste different from the wines in the Costco glass. Whether or not that was due to the cloak of invisibility I could not determine. I'm all in favor of transparency – especially here in the poodle-packed confines of the blogosphere – but invisibility did nothing to improve the wines. So I've put the invisible glass away for now (with my Wine Wand and other paraphernalia). I'm happy with my current stemware. It's not all that sensual or whisper light, but it works just fine. A lot better than my old putter.


Arthur said...


I did a similar comparison with Stolzle stemware.

I agree that different bowl shapes and sizes will affect aromatic expression.

With all due respect, to suggest that they make a wine taste different is to be ignorant of the power of suggestion. This "wine-TASTES-better-from-different-bowls" concept is a clever figment of the imaginations of Riedel's marketers.

PaulG said...

Arthur, all due respect aside, many thousands of wine professionals have done these compare-the-glasses tastings – not only with Riedel – any collection of different stemware designs will do – and come to the same conclusion. The wine does smell different in different glasses, and since aroma is 60% of taste, it tastes different also. Don't know why. Why does one putter actually put the ball in the hole? And where the hell is that putter?!

Anonymous said...

here is my invisible comment...

love, n.

Arthur said...


How many of those wine professionals really understand their own sensory physiology.
I really think it is a matter of suggestion.
Not trying to be contentious but to make a point:

I agree 100% wines *smell* different in different glasses.

Once the wine is in the mouth nothing about the bowl's shape will alter retronasal olfaction.
The wine is in the oral cavity and that is where the aromas originate.

One would have to keep their nose in the glass while holding the wine in their mouth to have the effect you are describing.

One reasonable factor that may have in impact on oral sensation (weight, texture, acids, sweetness, etc) may be that the overall shape of the bowl may affect how quickly/slowly the wine warms up. That said, being exposed to 98.6 F in the mouth may make that temperature difference irrelevant.

If I may:

Howard S. said...

I never believed in the whole "special glass" theory...that is until I tasted Port side by side and it was like 2 completely different wines...not just better but different...but,,,,that said...I will stick with a glass that feels and looks good to me..

Jo Diaz said...

RE: (five years hole-free!)

How funny is that?!

Sherman said...

Amore gadget-prone hobby than wine collecting? Oh yeah -- guns. As someone who had over 22 years in the gun biz, I've seen it all and every aspect of that hobby is gear intensive. Making your own ammunition to feed the various rifles, pistols and shotguns? That consumed 2/3 of a 3-car garage. Hunter, to have an excuse to use all the toys? Then you get into all the related clothing, outdoors gear and let's not even mention travel.

Wine is a relatively benign gadget-prone hobby; at least that's the story I'm spinning to the SO (significant other);)

PaulG said...

Oh good - I can't wait for the invisible gun to make an appearance...

Andrew said...


Not withstanding your knowledge of wine, you are a gifted writer who makes people think and have a lot of fun while reading.

Anonymous said...

Great blog! I have recently come to the conclusion that a truly great wine tastes great in any glass. I still however prefer to use my Riedels. It doesn't make the wine any better or worse, but does however make me feel better about myself.

Anonymous said...

While I think the "glass fetish" is overdone, there IS a huge difference between glasses. We were drinking a very unimpressive yet very expensive Bordeaux on my neighbor's patio out of plastic tulip glasses. I grabbed a Reidel stem and the wine suddenly got very good. Days later at my place we tasted out of a variety of glasses and everyone was surprised at how much difference the glass shape made. However, what seems to make the difference is the shape, not how much you paid for the glass. And I'm not convinced that you need a different bowl shape for different varietals.
Jim W.

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