The Story of “O”

While in the Liquor & Wine Grotto on Coast Village Road this week I had my first “O” experience. In a line of beautifully arranged Riedel crystal wine glasses shaped to best reflect light was a stubby oval glass with no stem. It seemed as out of place as a jam glass wine “tumbler” at an elegant dinner party. I asked Ingela Orbell, the Grotto’s wine buyer. She explained that the glass is a Riedel innovation called the “O” wine tumbler; it has been on the market for several years and its popularity, she says, is rising.

This news was disturbing. I am neither a wine nor a wine glass snob, but I immediately rejected the concept on several sensory levels. I don’t want to see my greasy fingerprints on my wine glass. How can I swirl the glass while holding it up to the light to view the wine’s color if there is no stem? Then there is temperature. Brandy snifters have no stem so the body heat can gently warm the wine, but I don’t want to warm my chilled white wine.

I asked Ingela why people use these glasses. She suggested that they are dishwasher safe and wrap and pack easily for travel so you don’t need to drink your wine out of hotel water tumblers or the wine “glasses” at the condo you rent.

Neurology of Wine Tasting

A bit of history. Founded in 1756, Austria’s Riedel Crystal is the world’s premier manufacturer of wine glasses. Claus Riedel (pronounced Ree-del accent on the first syllable) was the first person to design glasses’ shapes according to the character of the wine. As neuroscience caught up to wine glass design, adaptations were made so the glass for each wine would send the liquid to the best splash zones on the tongue and palate.

You may recall from biology that we have gustatory receptors on the tongue and palate that identify sweet, salty, sour, or bitter. At the same time, volatiles from foods and beverages rise through the oral and nasal cavities and ultimately reach the olfactory receptors in the upper nasal cavities. Without smell we can’t taste very much. Think about how food or wine you tasted, or didn’t, the last time you had a cold.

You also may recollect seeing a diagram of a tongue map with the more responsive zone for sweet at the tip, bitter in the back, and sour along the sides. The Riedel designers explain that the glass’s shape is responsible for the flow of the wine and consequently where it touches the various taste zones of the tongue. The initial contact point depends on the shape and volume of the glass, the diameter of the rim, and the rim’s finish (whether it is cut and polished or rolled edge) as well as the thickness of the crystal.

Riedel analyzed physical movements as influenced by glass shape and believe that these movements and adjustments are controlled subconsciously so the shape of the glass forces the head to position itself in such a way that you drink without spilling. Wide mouth glasses appear to require a lowering the head when we sip. Narrow rims roll the head backwards and the liquid flows further back in the mouth. Through these analyses, glasses are designed to deliver and position the wine to the most appropriate zones of the palate to suit the wine varietal.

I attended a Riedel tasting event and to my surprise all of us at our table of eight rated the same wines higher in the Riedel glasses, compared to uniform stemware. The tasting was “blind” in that we were told we’d be tasting six different Cabernet Sauvignons in eight glasses. Four glasses were the Riedel “Ouverture” red wine glasses from their lower end glass, not crystal, line ($10) and four were typical red wine glasses that conformed to the general rule that red wines’ character benefits from large glasses (medium-sized glasses are best suited for white wines). One additional wine was added to be a repeat of one of the six and was poured in a Riedel Vinum Cabernet Sauvignon designed glass ($25).

The results, on average at this tasting, placed the top three rated wines as being in the Riedel glasses, with the top two in the Ouverture and third in the Vinum. Next down were three wines in the non-Riedel glasses and last two were too close to call. It turned out that the identical Cabernet, selling for about $30, had been poured in the Vinum, one Ouverture, and one non Riedel glass and that wine was ranked (on average) number three in the Vinum, number seven in the Ouverture, and number nine in the non Riedel. That wine was one of the lower price end wines poured for the tasting (the number one and two ranked wines in the Ouverture glasses were $60 Cabernets. There was a definite difference in the wines’ ratings on the basis of the glass, with identical wines ranking higher when in the Riedel glasses.

From the Wine Experts

As I investigated the impact of wine heating through hand contact without a stem to hold, I learned that the sweetness of wine increases significantly with heat, which kept me concerned about the potential distortion of a wine’s sweetness in these tumblers. However, one aficionado pointed out that if the correct amount of wine is poured (2-3 oz) it would not be held in the glass long enough to be significantly heated. He also emphasized his concern that some wait staff pour too much wine into our glasses seeming to be in a hurry to empty the bottle.

This from wine consultant expert Wendy Van Horn’s perspective: “The Riedel O series seems an effort to imbue the old-school practicality of simple tumblers for rough and ready country wine with a more sophisticated aesthetic geared towards catching the eye of those with pretensions towards the latter. In other words, I think it is simply a marketing gimmick – which, in and of itself, is just fine – another spoke in the cog of consumerism. From a practical point of view, however, I find the stemless glassware lacking. I am a self-described early adopter, a champion of the new. So, I am predisposed favorably towards novelty. But, new for the sake of new does not cut it and the O series glassware seems to be just that.”

Wendy agreed that, “Without stems, the bowls immediately become smudged with fingerprints. The heat of hands warms the temperature of the wine (this is fine when wine is served too cold, often the case with white wines, but who wants to drink 70-degree Shiraz?). There is no particular cleaning advantage, as the bowls are still delicate and hand washing is recommended. And, frankly, the visual appeal of the glass elegantly raised in toast is all but obliterated by the clumsy image of bowls of booze palmed like softballs.”

When Wendy was once given a set of O series glassware as a thank you for participation on a panel she gave them a shot and found, “Within the drinking span of one bottle of wine, it was agreed that this stemless-ware was best suited for orange juice at the breakfast table.”

On breakability, winemaker Dave Yates, told me “I’m not a big fan of the tumblers. I have broken three of the four that I own. Not sure why they seem to break faster than the stemmed ones.” Craig Jaffurs, winemaker and owner of Jaffurs Wine Cellars, agreed: “I had three of the larger ones and broke two almost instantly, so I’ll say they are more fragile than the stemmed glasses.”

Jaffurs continued, “I like the way they feel in my hand, but it takes some getting used to not holding the glass by the stem. Still, I like them for the fun element. They make wine drinking seem less formal. Maybe that is what Riedel is trying to do. I use my remaining glass when I BBQ! Per their effect on the wine’s taste, I do not think they either help or hurt relative to either the Syrah or Cabernet Riedels that have a similar bowl shape with the stems. Both styles are appropriate shapes for Syrah and really focus the aromas.”

Final “O” Thoughts

I did find more reasons for the popularity of the trendy O series tumblers. They were featured in O, The Oprah Magazine this past April on 'the O list' and they are made of non-leaded, dishwasher-approved glass. They are easier to store, pack more securely in picnic baskets and suitcases, and are relatively inexpensive at about $10 each.

The shapes of the four different tumblers and diameters their rims are designed to enhance the flavors and aromas of the most popular wine varietals: Cabernet/Merlot, Pinot/Nebbiolo, Syrah/Shiraz, Viognier/Chardonnay, and Riesling/Sauvignon. The people I spoke with who have the full set agreed that if you were to purchase one style tumbler to be used for all red wines it should be the Syrah/Shiraz glass because it is slightly taller and seems to succeed in bringing out the flavors and aromas of all red varietals.

Bottom line for wine drinking at home and in restaurants, “O” will not compete with the existing Riedel stemware. However, it appears to have found its niche among people who enjoy its trendy looks and feel - and its convenience factors.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one. I haven’t bought my set yet.