Practicality wins out for serving wine with ease
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.