No name is more famous when it comes to wine glasses than Riedel. Through eleven generations dating back to 1678, when Johann Christoph Riedel was born, there has been an incredible history not just of glass-making, but of family and country. That is why it was an honor to get to speak with Georg Riedel, the 10th-generation Riedel, and talk about wine glasses, wine, and wine history.
Fortunately I had the foresight to make sure I was pronouncing "Riedel" correctly. Working in the wine business and purchasing these glasses for a business for many years, I have heard three different pronunciations. So, for the record, it's "Ree-dl." With that out of the way, I was able to answer the phone with a modicum of confidence when Georg called.
My first questions regarded the wide array of glassware that Riedel produces, and how to make sense of it all. As Georg simply put it, the best way to approach wine glasses is to "be curious how to improve your wine enjoyment." He was careful, however, to point out that a wine glass cannot improve a wine, but, like "a fine-tuned instrument, express wine better." For someone starting out becoming interested in wine, Riedel recommended investing in one glass equal to the price of the bottles you normally enjoy. Drink $15 bottles of wine? Start out with one $15 wine glass. You can always expand the range of glassware you own as you gain more experience with different types of wine. Georg was remarkably laid-back about glassware, telling me, "I don't have a problem when people drink from the bottle. It's their choice!"
I enjoyed learning more about the role that Georg's father, Claus, played in shifting wineglasses from being designed purely for aesthetic purposes to functional ones. Up until the 1950s, wine glasses were only made to reflect the owner's income and had nothing to do with the wine inside them. Claus made unadorned, plain glasses that were, as George put it, an "instrument to convey a message." Wine glasses would never be the same again.
With the design of wine glasses changing, the next step was to get the world to accept that change, and certainly the American market would be an important one for Riedel. I had read on the Riedel website that the founding of a branch in the United States came about due to an encounter that Georg had with Robert Mondavi, though no detail was provided. I asked Georg about it and he related to me what happened:
Georg was invited to London in 1989 to conduct a wine glass seminar at Harrods with Mondavi. Having traveled throughout much of the US, his interest in American wine was growing, but, surprisingly, he shared, "I didn't even know who Mr. Mondavi was." While trying to explain the function and purpose of his seminar and tasting wines in various shapes and styles of wine glasses, Mondavi cut him off and said, "In 50 years of winemaking I have not heard such nonsense." Upon tasting his own Fume Blanc out of a Riedel glass later that same day, however, Mondavi interrupted Georg's presentation, shouting, "Can you taste the difference? This is amazing!" Later on, Georg was to learn that Mondavi even called his sons to talk about this experience, and they were "surprised about Papa's endorsement." This began a wonderful partnership. Mondavi invited Riedel to travel to Asia as part of his team. Georg was introduced to key wine distributors, wholesalers, and journalists. It was a huge break for Riedel to help establish the brand in the United States.
Naturally I couldn't speak with Georg Riedel about wineglasses and not about wine. I was curious as to what wines he enjoys. "I am one of those people who enjoys mature wines," Georg related. "You are almost drinking history when you drink mature wines." He drinks more red than white and, as he gets older, enjoys "Pinot Noir over more dense, loaded Cabernet, Merlot, and Shiraz." And as far as his wine buying philosophy goes, Georg explained that his primary goal was to purchase wine "to enjoy with family and friends." I couldn't have stated what the chief pleasure of wine is about any better.