The Riedel family has been in the glassmaking business for more than 300 years. The Riedel website even claims that the method for handcrafting the stem and base of the glasses was developed “at the time of Christ's birth.” Riedel also survived a number of Old Testament-like struggles, including the murder of its patriarch, several wars, rampaging Prussians, the 1929 stock market collapse, expulsion from its homeland, and imprisonment in a Siberian work camp, before Claus Riedel, of the family's ninth generation, began tinkering with stemware designs while working for his father at their relocated Austrian facility.
Long before the US$ 3 cup of coffee and the $200 pair of sneakers, Riedel sold a premium-priced product whose purpose, arguably, could be served just as well by a much cheaper item. (You could even consume wine without spending a dime on stemware if you drank straight from the bottle and were among nonjudgmental friends or, um, alone.)
The backbone of the Riedel brand is “The content determines the shape”: that is, a wine cannot be fully appreciated unless consumed in a glass whose shape, volume, rim diameter, and crystal thickness complement the elements of that wine, from fruit character to aroma. This is why, for instance, Champagne is usually served in a tall, narrow flute, while reds like Merlot are poured into wider glasses. According to Riedel’s online wineglass guide, what you pour your Grüner Veltiner or Ruländer into even depends on its alcohol ratio.
Riedel bases its claims on research—much of which is available on its website—that includes a “tongue map,” illustrating that individual tastes (labeled as sweet, acid, salty, and bitter) are exclusive to different sections of the tongue. The Riedel glasses, thanks to Claus’ research, are able to properly deliver wine to the appropriate areas of the palate.
Behold, for example, the brand's Sommeliers series, which was released in 1973 as a 10-piece set; it now contains nearly four dozen glasses for liquid consumables from wines to water. A member of this series is one of Riedel's most famous glasses, the Burgundy Grand Cru, developed in 1958. "The large bowl allows the bouquet to develop to the full," the product description reads, "while the slightly flared top lip maximizes the fruit flavors by directing a precise flow onto the front palate." This glass, which is represented at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, is considered "the greatest Burgundy glass of all time" by Decanter magazine.
Robert Parker, one of the most influential wine critics in the world, agrees. His endorsement—“The effect of [Riedel] glasses on fine wine is profound. I cannot emphasize what a difference they make”—appears more than once on the Riedel site.
So Riedel's brand strength is based not only on its long history and European craftsmanship, but on scientific facts that prove its products deliver form and function.
There's only one problem, though: Riedel's scientific claims might not be true. The idea of a tongue map, at least as it's described on the brand's website, is at best inaccurate and likely based on a mistranslation. Gourmet declared in a 2004 article that Riedel's success has more to do with savvy salesmanship than gustatory inquiry: "Researchers haven’t found any scientific evidence that a $90 glass makes your wine smell or taste better than a $3 version from Wal-Mart."
But these revelations haven't hurt the brand. After all, wine-tasting can be a subjective science, tasters have been fooled into thinking they're drinking red wines that are actually whites-with-food-coloring, and even the great Robert Parker's grading methods have been criticized by many (including, ironically, by the folks at Decanter).
Consider, too, that no one outside of a campus near Beaverton, Oregon, would argue that $150 Nikes deliver 10 times the court performance of a pair of $14.98 Starbury kicks. And as much as Starbucks has become a metaphor for "overpriced," no one in the three crowded locations within view of my office seems to be gulping grandes under duress.
In other words, Riedel's stemware, like brands as varied as Coach and Godiva, falls into the amorphous "accessible luxury" category, and Riedel has several lines to accommodate varied consumer definitions of "accessible," including the sans-stem "O" series designed for everyday use and Grape, a lower-priced line sold exclusively at that bastion of shopping-mall luxury, Williams-Sonoma.
So whether you're deciding to pour that expensive Champagne into a sterling silver cup from Tiffany ($850, and its bowl is neither tall nor narrow), or a traditionally shaped glass from Wal-Mart ($29.86 for a set of four, plus a bucket for chilling the bubbly), you might want to recall a recent study conducted by scientists from the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University.
A number of wines, identified only by their retail prices, were sampled. The subjects all declared the $90 wine superior to the $10 wine. These results would be unsurprising but for one small detail.
The two samples were from the same bottle of wine.