Glasses, Rhymes With…

While doing my best lately to pay attention to the things that restaurants are doing well in regard to their wine programs, I’ve said not a word about something that many restaurants absolutely stink at. It seems that there are too many restaurants where the folks in charge aren’t sure what a wine glass is for or how it actually works. The fact of the matter is that, regardless of what sort of wines particular restaurants offer, too often the glassware they are using, and the condition they’re using it in, is a disaster.

For something as simple and universal as a drinking glass there is unending controversy when it comes to the best ways to present and consume wine. There are, as far as I can tell, at least three groups involved in the ongoing skirmishes in the wine world. Let’s call the first group, for better or worse, the Snobs. Why? Well, because that’s what they are. The second group we’ll dub the Folksy Faux Folks. And the third group is the “We’re In The Wrong Business But We Never Got The Memo” crowd, or WITWBBWNGTM, for short. (Admit it, that’s a pretty catchy acronym, right?)

The Snobs are, for the most part, the good team in this arena. They care deeply about what kind of glasses get used for their wines. They utilize quality brands such as Spieglau, Schott Zweisel, Riedel, or even the ultra-premium (and costly) Baccarat. At restaurants owned and managed by Snobs, diners can expect their wine glasses to be cleaned, polished, and presented with great care. Wines will be served in the glasses traditionally used for that particular variety. All this effort amplifies the wine experience, making the drinking of wine a special part of the meal. At a recent dinner at eVe in Berkeley, I complimented our waitress for taking the  trouble to put up to the light, before setting it on our table, every single stem she took out of the rack. She explained that the staff polished every glass before service began but “double checking is always a good idea.” Unfortunately, this is not the mindset at most restaurants.

The Folksy Faux Folks, or the Triple Fs, are not the bad guys here but they aren’t the good guys, either. They’re simply confused. These are the restaurant and bar owners who, in their desire to bring wine to the masses, in mass quantities, have been stricken with terminal cases of reverse snobbery. They vigorously assert that it’s a great thing to serve quality wines in Mason jars, rocks glasses, tumblers, and old chipped Welch’s jelly jars. This push for the plebian life, for gettin’ down and homey with the juice, intends to come off as endearingly populist, I think, but in the end it’s gimmicky and fails to treat the wine with the respect it deserves. At some point it’s no longer about the wine, it’s about the Triple Fs being able to impose their design beliefs and attitudes on you, and the hell with you being able to enjoy your wine with any semblance of normalcy. They have become the style fascists they claim to be freeing you and your wine from.

At Linguini’s, one of Alameda’s more popular sports bars and restaurants, they use heavy rocks glasses. I don’t think this is driven by any pseudo-artsy design motive, but by practicality. Rocks glasses stack easily, last a long time, and don’t call for fancy hanging racks like stemmed glasses. Because the wine at Linguini’s isn’t grand cru quality, the stubby glasses don’t bother me. What does bother me is that I’m pretty sure I’m not getting $8 worth of wine in my armor-grade shotglass on steroids. But that’s a point for another time.

Finally, we have those unfortunate souls who really don’t know what they’re doing, or don’t care, the WITWBBWNGTM crowd. These are the owners and managers who have cobbled together a wine program that, if it were a car, might not be as good as the Edsel or Yugo. They list halfway decent bottles on their menu but then set the table with glasses that look like gas station giveaways from the 1960s. I’ve been at restaurants where two or three of the glasses at the table were different shapes and sizes. Too often there is an inverse proportion between the size of the glass and the price of the wine that is supposed to go in the glass. (See above.) In these restaurants it is not unusual for your wine to be poured into a glass right out of the dishwasher: warm, cozy, and wet to the touch. If you are lucky, the brisk aroma of soap still clings to the glass. If it weren’t so annoying, it would be comical. And, sadly, these conditions are not the sole province of low-budget eateries; places that sport linen tablecloths and napkins are no strangers to shoddy and lackadaisical service.

Does all this really matter, or is this just more navel gazing by the oenerati? Well, to sum it up concisely, in three precise words: yeah, sort of.  On my first trip to Northern Spain in the late 1990s I came to love the wide-bodied, thin-walled glasses that are used in many Basque and Catalan establishments for most bar drinks: wine, beer, water, soda – you name it. They were nothing fancy, but neither was the wine we were drinking. At the Basque restaurant Irati in Barcelona, and this is true for many similar spots throughout the region, you’d use these friendly, over-sized vessels at the bar up front while enjoying tapas or pintxos, but when seated for a formal meal in the dining room, out came the stemware appropriate for the event.  Which glass is better? Neither. Each serves a purpose, each has its place.

I guess that’s my bottom line: give me the right glass for the job. If it’s ordinary wine, I don’t need Riedel. But if it’s a top-shelf Napa cab, I don’t want granny’s canning jars on the table. And, if it’s not too much trouble, can you make sure the glasses are clean? Maybe, at least, we can start with that. 

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For more on the various positions wine lovers take on glassware, visit the FAQ section, now under construction.

4 thoughts on “Glasses, Rhymes With…

  1. Dan

    Tom,

    Well said, I to have had the unpleasant experience of stemware that is used for a relatively expensive wine on a nice occaision thast looks as if it were left from previous diners! The wine list is loaded with upscale fine wines down to moderately priced wines and they intend to serve any of them in a spotted, lipstick smeared glass that tells your mind you should be bringing your own and aside from the corkage, pull out the appropriate, clean glass so you can enjoy getting triple mark-up-ed for what is intended to be a highlite of the evening! As wine lovers we can help educate as we stimulate the econony in our own way!

    1. Tom Riley

      Thanks for the comment, Dan. You really have to wonder what restaurants are thinking, or not!, when stuff like that happens. They’re sloppy and then they expect you to just go along with highway robbery mark-ups. Makes no sense. Like you said, we should bring both our own wine and maybe even our own glasses! If we bring our own opener can they legitimately charge corkage?

  2. Noreen

    You are onto something here, Tom. It’s bigger than the which wine glass to use. Sometimes — often — the right word, the right music, the right person makes all the difference.

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