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What's in a Glass? Testing Riedel

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Let's face it -- convincing people that they need to buy not just one, but multiples, of your product, is brilliant business (and if you don't believe that, Ty Warner has some Beanie Babies to sell you). That must have been crystal clear to the Riedel Family, especially when Georg Riedel decided that different varietals of wine required different glasses to be enjoyed fully. As the tenth generation of what he calls "a dinosaur entrepreneur family of Europe," Riedel spreads the gospel of varietal-specific glassware, as he did at a recent symposium sponsored by the Santa Barbara Vintners for wine industry folk in Solvang. "I am in command of the liquid flow to your palate," he told us as we sat before our own sets of three of his glasses. "And you'll say, nonsense...bullshit." He was right, of course. I've done marketing and know a sell when I smell one, but then his brilliant revival show of a sales pitch -- we didn't even taste any wine until an hour in, as anticipation built -- was as sparkling as his glassware and as dry as his Austrian wit. By the end he'd sold everyone on needing at least these three glasses to enjoy our wine. Oh, make that red wine. I guess there's going to be a white wine pitch in our futures, too.

Indeed at first all we tasted was water in the glasses, as he wanted to stress the sense of touch first, which includes sensing temperature. Sure enough, water did seem different from the three glasses (New World Pinot Noir, New World Syrah, and New World Cabernet Sauvignon), generally based on where you sensed the cold and for how long. It turns out the flow of liquid varies based on the diameter of the glass's rim, so when you drink from the syrah glass with the narrowest rim, you get a faster flow to the back of your palate. Riedel said, "I jokingly call this glass my tonsil chiller."

After this benchmarking with water, he exclaimed, "Imagine what we can do with wine, ladies and gentlemen!" and I half expected spangly-clad round card girls to circulate the hotel conference room announcing the next act. As we began tasting a pinot in all three glasses he said, "The dangerous part of wine glasses -- if it's not the perfect translator, part of the wine's message is lost."

While we tasted the pinot (and a wonderful Brewer-Clifton "Machado Vineyard" Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir 2012 it was -- they certainly served up fine juice for Riedel's experiments), he explained why three glasses were necessary, saying, "The main difference in the three varietals is they vary in the thickness of their grape skins." He admitted there are about 1200 red grape varietals but Riedel has gone easy on us, offering the pinot for thin-skinned grapes, the cab glass for thick, and then the syrah for the thousand or so varietals in the middle.

Not only did the pinot taste best in its appropriate glass, it smelled better in it too (but, of course, smell and taste are ridiculously entwined). "The good news is no one blames this on the glass and everyone would blame this on the wine...which makes me very glad I'm the glass maker," he half-joked, given that half the crowd were winemakers. "Now try to sell the wine at the price he wants to sell it at."

Steve Clifton was actually in attendance and stepped forward to give witness, claiming, "It's nothing less than remarkable. Every aspect you delineated, my palate was spot on with how you described it." If Riedel started speaking in tongues, none of us would have been fazed, at this point. Of course it didn't hurt that we got to take our glasses home, too.

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