We went out to dinner last night, my wife and I. We ordered a Misha’s pinot noir from Central Otago and it arrived on the table accompanied not by traditional stemmed wine glasses, but by two elegant tumblers.
It was a lovely, lighter style of pinot noir and it looked, smelled and tasted just fine in tumblers. They were tapered inwards at the top, so you could still swirl and sniff the wine if that’s your thing.
We have a similarly shaped set of glasses, made of an usually fine plastic material, that we use for wine when we're camping.
It set me thinking: why don’t we use glass tumblers more often? We’ve encountered them in Germany and Italy, where they’re regarded as acceptable alternatives to stemmed wine glasses. Admittedly some were a bit clunky, but that couldn’t be said of the stylish ones we drank from last night.
Then this morning, quite by chance, I happened to read a column in The Spectator by the always entertaining and thought-provoking British ad man Rory Sutherland.
According to Sutherland, the stemmed wine glass is the world’s most ludicrous object. Allow me to quote him:
“Nobody briefed to design a [wine] receptacle from scratch would say: ‘Let’s give it a high centre of gravity for maximum instability, with a base so small and a stem so long that one misjudged gesticulation will catapult the contents into the lap of someone three feet away. We’ll also make sure it doesn’t fit in the dishwasher’.”
Sutherland continued: “So why does this idiotic item persist? Because restaurants already own hundreds of the things. And most homes contain six or more. While these do break, tragically they rarely break simultaneously. And so, when you break one stemmed glass, you replace it with another to maintain the set. The whole hideous business becomes self-perpetuating.”
Most wine enthusiasts would argue there’s a reason why wine glasses were designed the way they are. They have a stem so that the temperature of the wine is unaffected by body heat from the drinker’s hand (especially relevant for white wines, which are served chilled), a wide bowl so that the wine can be swirled to release the aroma and a tapered opening which minimises the risk of spillage (especially when swirling) and which, in theory anyway, traps the aroma in the glass so that it can be better appreciated by the nose.
But these are considerations that matter only to wine nerds. Most people drink from stemmed wine glasses because custom decrees that’s what sophisticated wine consumers do.
It’s true that some wine glasses are preposterously ostentatious. We have some that were given to us years ago that are 260mm tall. I don’t think we’ve ever used them. They were designed to be smashed by over-exuberant dinner guests, of whom we’ve had a few (not all of them guests, in fact). But even with normal-sized stemmed glasses, the risk of breakage, either at the table or in the sink or dishwasher, probably outweighs any benefit to the casual consumer who drinks wine primarily for social enjoyment rather than the aesthetic experience.
So maybe Sutherland has a point. Perhaps the traditional stemmed red wine glass, if not those for white, will go the same way as the spectacularly impractical glass known as the coupe (supposedly inspired by the Empress Josephine’s breasts), which was once the fashionable way to drink champagne.