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Interview - Georg Riedel

The Riedel family has been at the forefront of glass manufacture for 250 years. Tenth-generation CEO Georg Riedel explains how the company makes some of the world’s best wine glasses.

Did you raise a glass to see in the New Year? Have you ever wondered about that glass, and why we insist on supporting our wine, champagne or fizzy pop in such an eminently shatterable bowl at the end of a stem so tantalisingly snappable?

One person who could entertain you at parties with his knowledge of the area is Georg Riedel, a man with a passion for glass, its traditions and its innovation. And he could explain to you how the design of the ‘wine delivery system’ is as much an engineering discipline as it is an art or craft.

Riedel has good reason to be interested in glasses, as he represents the tenth generation to have sat at the helm of one of the most famous brands of glassware in the world today. The company that bears his name can trace its past back more than 250 years to northern Bohemia, where in 1673 Johann Christoph Riedel was born. “No one,” Georg says, “could have guessed that one of the greatest glass enterprises in the world was about to come into existence.”

Such greatness comes at a cost: half a dozen standard wine glasses start at well over £100, while the accompanying decanters can cost many times that.

Yet it is all worth it, he says, for what the consumer gets out of the wine experience is as much to do with the glass as it is to do with the grape. It’s tempting to imagine a complex process behind designing the world’s best wine glasses, but Riedel suggests otherwise: “Actually, I think you’d be very surprised if you knew how simple it is to design a good wine glass.”

The problem is, he says, there is a generally held assumption that the first principles of glass design are wholly aesthetic. “But what my father, Claus Riedel brought to the world of the wineglass is the principle of Bauhaus, which dictates that form follows function. We take our designs to tasting panels where we try to understand what is the best glass shape for the type of grape. The wine determines the shape of the glass.” The industry jargon for this is ‘varietal specific stemware’.

Riedel tells me that once the idea for the shape of the bowl of the glass has been established, a wooden mould is hand-carved, which is then used to blow the first prototypes. “We then analyse how the prototypes work with the specific beverage. We don’t do this with computer modelling for the simple reason that we are not providing glasses for computers, we are providing them for humans. The original drawings are of course incredibly precise.”

There are three critical aspects of glass design: size, shape of bowl and rim diameter (material is virtually arbitrary, but more on that later). Typically, a Riedel glass will have the capacity to hold 750ml - the entire contents of a standard wine bottle. But, of course, you only pour a measure of 120ml (or ‘two fingers, never more’).

What this means is that your glass is more than 80 per cent empty, allowing for the “accumulation of molecules in the air trapped in the glass that determine the expression of the wine. How this expression is further developed is by the nature of the way in which the top of the glass curves, which will have an effect on the intensity and concentration of the taste of the drink.” Shape then comes into play, and this is, according to Riedel, in charge of how the wine is delivered into the mouth and on to the tongue. Depending on the glass shape, different parts of the tongue’s ‘taste map’ will detect the wine. In a practical demonstration, rather disappointingly, Riedel demonstrates his point using ice-cold water. “Most people are very surprised about the effect the shape has, because the glass is actually in control of the flow of the liquid on to your palate. Using ice-cold water allows you to understand the temperature differences on your palate, and so understand how the glass delivers.”

The third aspect is the ‘opening’ of the glass or rim diameter, which has a direct relation to how much you move your head or tilt the glass. There are only two ways of drinking: first by gravity and second by pressure. In the case of the former, you achieve this by tipping the liquid into your mouth by means of a receptacle. With the latter you use a straw, but that has no relevance to glass design. As a general principle, the wider the rim diameter, the less head and arm movement and the narrower it is, the more. Think of how much more effort it requires drink from a bottle than it does a glass. “Of course, we have generations of experience and wisdom in design, but it is just basic fluid dynamics. As I say, it is surprisingly easy.”

A journey through history

The story of the Riedel glass dynasty is one of Bohemian murder mystery and lots more besides. In 1723, the 50-year-old Johann Christoph Riedel, founder of the brand, was brutally murdered as he returned from his travels as a glass trader. It is thought that his murderers believed him to be carrying a lot of money. Johann Christoph’s story became famous and was retold all around Bohemia, while the circumstances of his death bear more than a family resemblance to the plot of Schiller’s ‘The Cranes of Ibykus’.

Yet it wasn’t really until Johann Christoph’s grandson, Johann Leopold, came along that the entrepreneurial side of the family really came to the fore. Working his way up through the ranks of his cousin’s glassworks, the young Leopold excelled as a glassmaker. Unfortunately, this was at a time when the glassware market was in decline, leading to the closure of the glassworks.

The market eventually returned and with the aid of a venture capital loan, Leopold was able to re-establish himself as an independent glassmaker at a facility in Zenckner in Antoniwald. Just as the enterprise was getting off the ground the Bavarian War of Succession broke out, resulting in the Prussian army torching all the glassworks in the region.

Leopold ignored the danger both to himself and his business, often sheltering families who had escaped from local Prussian-occupied towns and villages. After his death, his son Anton continued the family business. Yet times of prosperity were rudely interrupted by the Napoleonic Wars, which severely damaged international trade, leading to stagnating sales as the local currency depreciated. Despite all of this, Anton succeeded in experimenting with various new production methods. His main contribution to the family business was that he established a branch of ‘glass enhancement’ and became a gifted engraver and glass artist.

Generation after generation of the Riedel family faced the ups and downs of the life of the Bohemian glassmaker. In the late 1800s, another Josef (seventh generation) took advantage of the increased industrialisation of the era and succeeded in developing a machine that mechanised glass production. In the 20th century the company experienced the Great Depression and diversified into military glass applications such as glass-wool rope and screens.

Toward the end of the Second World War, the Czechoslovakian government nationalised the Riedel company and effectively seized its assets. “Two hundred years and eight generations of work disappeared virtually overnight,” says Riedel. A few weeks after the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Walter Riedel was arrested and sent to a camp in eastern Siberia before being transferred to Russia, where as a ‘forced contractor’ he helped to establish Russian glass manufacturing companies.

When his five-year ‘contract’ was finished Walter attempted to leave Russia only to be arrested by the Russian authorities and sentenced to 25 years imprisonment. After Stalin’s death he was able to return home in 1955. During this time his son Claus (ninth generation) ended up in Austria where finally the Riedel fortunes took a turn for the better.

Having been a prisoner or war, Claus escaped repatriation by leaping from a train. He then walked 16km through the snow in only his thin cotton prison uniform until he reached a village where the head of the local glassworks, Swarovski, welcomed him. Through collaboration with Swarovski, Claus was able to take over a glassworks, producing stemware in Innsbruck, and this is where modern history of the family begins. The world of wine glasses changed forever as Claus introduced the revolutionary idea that wine glasses were simply too small to do justice to the wine. In 1987, Georg Riedel took the helm of the company and has since made it his life’s work to develop specific glasses to enhance the experience of individual wines.

A matter of taste

The modern incarnation of the manufacturer, which Georg Riedel dubs “the wine-glass company” is the accumulation of the past six decades of research into how the shape and size of a wine glass affects the experience of drinking wine. “My great hero,” says Riedel “is Claus Riedel, who was the first to discover that these aspects of design have an impact on perception.”

As he prepares to demonstrate the influence of these physical parameters, he says that he hopes I am sceptical about what he’s about to do. One of the reasons for this may well be that his theories are not universally accepted. In 2004 Gourmet magazine went as far as to say that the company’s claims are “scientifically nonsense”, while research from Yale university undertaken by Linda Bartoschuk has put forward the idea that the “brain doesn’t care where taste is coming from in your mouth.” Riedel is seemingly unaffected by such criticism and in the interactive testing that follows, his propositions about how the shape and size of the glass affects taste is circumstantially convincing enough to satisfy most of the observers present.

Riedel produces three red wine glasses of varied shape: one apiece for drinking the grape varieties pinot, syrah and cabernet. The three different wines are sampled serially from the three different glasses in order to prove the ‘stress point’ of some glasses are more suitable to particular types of grape than others. Not only that, he is hoping to convince those present that the rim diameter of the glass affects the presentation of the wine in the mouth. “I would not be doing this kind of experiment today if I was not sure of the outcome.”

Yet before we start, Riedel has a word or two to say about the function of the wine glass. “Its only job is to control the flow of the liquid. It’s tempting to think that liquid takes its own path, but that path is influenced by the glass. It’s just basic physics on the one hand and chemistry on the other. To prove the point, I put the same wine in three different classes, and then we taste the wine, and then we observe the differences in perception.”

It’s all very pleasant. However, what about materials that go into making a wineglass? There then follows something of a surprise, as Riedel states flatly that it doesn’t matter what material is used. “Don’t be disappointed in my response to this,” says Riedel, “because it doesn’t really matter.” At this point he holds aloft a ‘glass’ made of polycarbonate. “If it’s the right shape, that’s what counts. The reason we make our glasses out of the material we do - glass - is because our customers expect quality of execution.”

He then holds up one of his varietal specific glasses: one is an expensive glass original, the other a cheap plastic knock-off. “We got hold of one of these so-called glasses. I think we spent something like five dollars on a pair of them. We then did a comparative tasting with one of our glasses and I have to say, there was absolutely no difference. This is because the shape was right and that has significantly more influence than the material.”

Varietal specificity is the cornerstone of Riedel glass design. It may sound subjective and something out of a high-falutin wine aficionado magazine, but in fact, it is important. The implication is that if you are using terrible glasses, it doesn’t matter what wine you are drinking, it simply won’t live up to its potential. If you have a well-designed glass, even a modest wine can punch above its weight. That can be applied to every liquid you drink. So next time you want to refresh yourself with a glass of cold water, try all the different glasses you own. It will taste better from some glasses rather than others. *

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