When Tra Vigne, one of the Napa Valley's most popular restaurants, opened 12 years ago, it served all of its wines in small, chunky tumblers. For a brief instant, there was something charming about that ― like being in a Sicilian trattoria. Within about a month, however, the tumblers were history, and in their place were big, long-stemmed wine goblets. The restaurant had been flooded with complaints from winemakers and consumers alike, none of whom seemed to think drinking a $30 Merlot out of a 99-cent tumbler was romantic in the least.
Which brings up an interesting question: Just how much does the glass matter? Is all the fuss about correct wine glasses just a question of aesthetics?
The answer isn't easy. On one hand, how a glass looks and feels in your hand and against your lips does count. On the other hand, does an $80 glass necessarily make a wine taste better than a well-designed $8 glass does? Moreover, is it important to adjust the shape of the glass for the variety of wine ― to have different glasses for Merlot and Chardonnay?
After years of buying dozens of kinds of glasses, here's my advice.
• Don't buy glasses you can't afford to break. What's the point of buying $25 burgundy glasses if they sit in the cabinet because you're afraid to use them?
• Buy simple, clear glasses that are not cut, faceted, etched, or colored. You want to be able to see the wine; part of its beauty is how it looks in the glass. Crystal glasses are more elegant than regular glasses, but they're not necessary.
• Choose glasses with generous bowls. One way of maximizing a wine's flavor is by swirling it in the glass to aerate it. If the glass is too small to accommodate swirling, the wine in it can taste blank and lifeless.
• Don't bother to buy smaller glasses for white wines, larger ones for reds. Since both benefit from aerating, it's perfectly fine to serve both white and red in the same generous-size glasses.
• Always opt for a thin rim. Because liquids flow more easily and evenly over a thin rim than a thick, rolled one, drinking wine from a glass with a thin rim is more pleasurable.
• Be sure the rim of the glass tapers slightly inward. A tapered rim focuses the wine's aroma so you can smell and taste the wine better.
• Avoid small-footed glasses. The foot, or base, of the glass should be wide enough to keep the glass from tottering when it's filled with wine.
• As for the stem, there's no perfect length; you just have to pick up the glass and see how it feels. The stem's purpose is to give you a place to hold the glass easily without cupping the whole bowl in your hand.
A lot of $8 to $10 glasses meet every requirement above. For example, both at home and for the wine classes I teach, I use Riedel's all-purpose red wine glass called "Ouverture" (sold in many good wine shops). It is elegant, costs about $8, and works for every type of wine ― red and white ― except sparkling, for which I use a flute.
Sure, like many other wine lovers, I also have some specialized, different-shaped glasses for burgundies, Rhône wines, and Cabernets ― glasses that come out for special bottles of wine, special occasions, and special friends. But most nights find me perfectly content with my basic Riedels. A good glass won't let you down (which, sadly enough, isn't always true of wine).
SUNSET'S STEAL OF THE MONTH: Chateau St. Jean Fumé Blanc 1998 (Sonoma County), $11. An absolutely stunning Sauvignon. Herbal, lively, and peppery, yet creamy at the same time.
SAUVIGNON BLANCS FOR SPRING
April in Paris ― at least in cafes and wine bars ― is when warm goat cheese salads begin to replace heartier fare, and white wines, especially Sauvignon Blancs, begin to replace reds. Crisp, fresh-tasting, and herbal, Sauvignon Blanc is the perfect partner for the vegetables and salads of spring. And most are very affordable. (Note: Fumè blanc is another term for a wine made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes.)
Cakebread Cellars Sauvignon Blanc 1998 (Napa Valley), $15. Lovely and subtle, with soft lime flavors.
Chateau St. Jean La Petite Etoile Fumè Blanc 1998 (Russian River Valley), $14. Scrumptious flavors exude everything green, from snow peas to sage. This is St. Jean's most famous Sauvignon Blanc.
Husch Sauvignon Blanc 1998 (Mendocino), $12. Zesty and vibrant, with a good, fresh herbal snap.
Lambert Bridge Sauvignon Blanc 1998 (Dry Creek Valley), $14. A softer, creamier style but with fresh green flavors.
Markham Sauvignon Blanc 1998 (Napa Valley), $13. Sassy with lime, along with classic strawlike aromas and herbal flavors.
Mason Sauvignon Blanc 1998 (Napa Valley), $14. Dramatic and exotic, with loads of herbal flavors overlaid with tropical fruits.