The Untold Story of Wine and Spirits Glass Evolution (Part 1 of 3, the Wine Glass)Well over 95% of all wine glasses in use today are large bowl, stemmed, convergent rim (rim diameter smaller than the bowl). How did this particular shape evolve? Not for any reasons you might have suspected.
Early drinking vessels include banana leaves, bamboo sections, scallop shells, animal horns, coconut shells, gourds, animal (and human) skulls, goat skins, leather flagons, and even cupped hands. The fun didn’t really begin until the discovery that glass could be manipulated into functional shapes.
Persians were blowing glass by 2000 BCE, and Romans began making glassware around 400 BCE and mold-blowing around 50 AD. By 1400, cristallo glass, produced on the island of Murano in Venice, was turning the heads of the royal courts of Europe.
Cristallo is a particularly hard material, made from crushed quartz pebbles of the Ticino and Adige rivers flowing from the Swiss Alps into northern Italy. Difficult to work, it was nearly as prized as diamonds for its superb optical qualities, rarity, and superb craftsmanship. High refractive index (light bending qualities) creates vibrant rainbows and turns drinking vessels into dazzling jewels, not to mention the prismatic pendants of spectacular chandeliers and candelabras that graced the tables and halls of the ruling aristocracies.
Few could afford to own a single Murano quartz glass, much less the place settings of 50 or more common among the ruling families of Europe and Russia, and its popularity was restricted to those who knew and could afford it.
In 1647, George Ravenscroft, searching for a way to recreate Venetian cristallo, began to use flint as the source of silica, and added lead oxide (PbO, 10-30%) to soften the glass and keep it from crizzling (thousands of tiny surface cracks). Since lead oxide also increases the refractive index, it creates the prismatic appearance and brilliance of quartz at a fraction of the cost, and adds more weight to the glass, giving it a richer, heavier, more substantial feel.
Patenting his formula in 1673, Ravenscroft produced beautiful glassware with two side benefits: (1) sea coal, cheaper and readily available in England, could be used to melt the softer glass, and (2) lower working temperatures extended working time for more intricate shapes and decoration.
The patent expired in 1681, and within 15 years, over 30% of the factories in England were making leaded crystal. By 1800 the courts of Europe were using lead crystal manufactured in France (Baccarat), Russia (Gus), and Ireland (Waterford), and the upper class, rich, and famous were purchasing the same glassware used by the dynasties that controlled Europe and Russia. Leaded crystal was coveted by all. Ravencroft’s discovery paved the way for the evolution of the stem and large bowl wineglass we use today.
Until the early 1900s candlelight was the primary source of dining room lighting, and the visual experience of leaded crystal on the table held much more importance than today, with hundreds of tiny rainbows, prismatic flashes, and flickering flames. In addition, much silver (and gold), in the form of serving dishes, carafes and utensils added to the sparkling dinner table display.
As lead crystal became more popular in candlelight, so did the stem. Raising the glass bowl even higher catches much more light, heightening the visual experience. Not only did stems become a common appearance, they grew from about one-half inch to 3-5 inches or higher, raising glasses to a catastrophic height. With the passing of plates, flipping of napkins, difficulty in handling and drinking, and wine-inspired, hand-animated conversation, the tipping of tall glasses of permanent staining red wine onto cherished heirloom linen table coverings became an all-to-frequent occurrence.
Prior to the 1900s most glassware designs were vertical or divergent rim (lip expanding outward as a martini glass), and the convergent rim (rim smaller than maximum bowl diameter) commonly used today was widely criticized because it required tilting the head much further back to get the last drop. As the glass stems grew, designers realized that curving the rim inward had three distinct advantages; (1) reducing accidental spills with a smaller bowl “target”, (2) catching even more light from above at the rim as it curves inward, and (3) collecting all wine aromas into a central location for sampling, so none escape the nose. As a result, stemmed, convergent rim wine glasses became the accepted, unchallengeable norm as the common wine glass we use today.
Many countries have now banned importation of lead crystal glassware. Aside from air quality and pollution issues imposing new manufacturing regulations, there has been much negative, but not necessarily factual, publicity on the risks of gout, miscarriages, and lead poisoning from lead crystal wine glasses and decanters. These issues significantly reduced worldwide demand for leaded crystal. Sadly, the art and intricate decoration of leaded crystal glassware is fading to its single last permanent place in the museums of the world as miniature monuments to the highly skilled glass artisans of yesterday.
Shape was again influenced by the development of borosilicate glass (originally called Duran) by Otto Schott in 1893, introduced by Corning Glass Works in 1915 (under the trade name PYREX), resulted in much stronger glass due to the addition of boron to reduce the thermal expansion coefficient, resulting in less breakage due to sudden changes in temperature caused by hot washing water (later, superheated dishwasher water) or the addition of cold mixers or ice. More durable glass resulted in thinner wall thickness, thinner (and longer) stems, and a larger foot (allowing even longer stems and wider bowls to take advantage of the greater support).
The stemmed, large bowl, convergent rim wine glass gained wider acceptance in the USA shortly after 1976, when wine awareness was enhanced by a single blind tasting event pitting old world wines vs new. The Judgment of Paris, organized by Steven Spurrier, a British wine merchant, proved America was capable of producing wines every bit as good as centuries old European vintners. How could this event possibly affect the shape of the wine glass?
The new worldliness of American wines sparked a grass roots quest for better understanding of wine in the US, including the best ways to serve and enjoy wine of all types, and oenophiles searched for glassware size and shapes that could deliver a more appealing drinking experience. The standard glass available in even the best restaurants of the US were those dinky little mass produced, 6 oz glasses about 6 inches tall, which prevent nosing. America was seeking change and found it back in Europe at the large centuries old glassware manufacturers.
Stemware became cheaper, stronger, and easier to produce in 1956 as Rona (Slovakia), Europe’s premier glass decorator, became the first glass factory to use pulled-stem technology for hand-made glassware, and in 2001 became the first glassworks to manufacture high volume machine-made, double-blown, pulled-stem glassware.
Wine glass bowls got larger, as Riedel (Austria), produced the first varietal-specific wine glass for the pinot noir grape in 1958. The Burgundy Grand Cru holds 37 ounces (stated glassware capacities measure volume to the rim, not to the preferred pour height which occurs at max bowl diameter). In 1973, Riedel established the Glass Workshop, and began the revolution in varietal specific glassware, and extensive collaboration with wine sommelier organizations.
Along with the new interest in wine, the International Standards Organization’s ISO 3591:1977, was published in an effort to standardize wine evaluation procedures and glassware size. The ISO glass is of stemmed and convergent rim design, with a max capacity of only 7.27 oz., is the only such standard for beverage glassware. Largely ignored today by critics, it is not widely used, and is generally considered to be woefully inadequate for definitive tasting and evaluation and became a classic example of too little too late.
As a side note, although the ISO glass was designed for wine, the well-known spirits copita (sherry glass) closely resembles the shape and size proposed by the ISO, and for all practical purposes, blenders and distillers have actually, perhaps unknowingly, adopted the ISO wine glass as their own, even though it is a century older than the standard itself.
The work of Riedel, Spiegelau, Schott-Zwiesel, Rona, and Stolzle in Europe pioneered the larger bowl sizes, and longer stems of wine glasses commonly used today. Most popular red wine glasses have max capacities of about 22 oz, and accommodate a best fill level of around 5-6 oz.
As early as 1974, Virginia Collings, a researcher at University of Pittsburgh, refuted D.P. Hanig’s tongue map, the standard explanation for taste in nearly every biology text for decades. This finding was again reinforced in 2004, when Gourmet magazine quoted findings by researcher Linda Bartoshuk (University of Florida) exposing Riedel’s dependence on the “tongue map” as invalid and unscientific.
Riedel had managed to move the industry to a varietal-specific concept with somewhere between 50 and 60 different glass shapes, and remains in control of the concept despite the tongue map issue. Riedel’s major contributions to olfactory awareness and larger wine glasses has been instrumental in glassware development, furthering the rapid growth of the wine knowledge and the industry. Due to the strength of Riedel’s marketing and acceptance of their quality glassware, many people still erroneously believe the tongue map must have some validity.
Enter the critic. The golden age of critics began in 1978 with the publication of The Wine Advocate, by lawyer-turned-oenophile Robert M. Parker, and many other critics also came to the forefront, all quickly adopting European wine glasses much larger than the puny glass defined by the ISO standard. Photographs, books, news articles, personal appearances, public tasting events, and social media exposure has permanently fixed public preference to the larger bowl, long stem glasses.
The critics have instructed the public in the intricacies of swirling, nosing and evaluating wines to the point where it has almost become second nature, and as never before, huge numbers of non-industry oenophiles are flocking to the sommelier schools to gain more education. Major magazines are providing buying guidance to the general public, and no judging event worth its medals would dare use small bowl stemless glassware. The wine glass appears to have achieved its own ultimate state of development.
Although the larger bowls permit better swirling and increased evaporation, rim sizes do not get proportionally larger with the bowl sizes, and designers conform to a single perceived but unwritten and unquantified “rule” to keep rim sizes to the small size required to prevent aromas from escaping olfactory detection.
Other than this single restriction, new wine glass design is still, as always, conceived and styled in a design studio, sent to evaluation panels for final decision, then to marketing departments to add the “science” spin. Almost never part of an original concept, “market science” provides compelling reasons to buy by applying the myth, romance, and magic of imagined, non-factual science).
Most recently observed in an article reviewing a well-known, expensive crystal wine glass are statements that the sharp angle of convergence “holds the alcohol down”. A high school scientist knows alcohol is the lightest stuff in the glass and it always hits the rim and the nose first, unless it is tightly covered.
Of course, the larger the disparity between bowl sizes and convergent rim diameters, the more one has to tilt the head back to get the last drop. Not surprisingly, most have adapted quite well to the inconvenient head-tilt of convergent rims as well as the handling of large bowls and long stems, and previous criticisms of head-tilt restrictions have all but vanished with acceptance of larger, even more convergent “burgundy bowl” style glasses.
Existing design and a few utility patents prove out this conclusion with minor physical changes to enhance air mixing, evaporation, swirling, or style. Recently, the single most radical departure in physical wine glass design has been the stemless “O” glass, introduced by Riedel in 2004, retaining the large bowls of their stemmed brethren. This simple variation places less costly nose-able glassware on more tables, and has at least gained a solid footing in the American market, in spite of the possibility of bowl fingerprints detracting from visual appearance.
Significant bowl size differences exist between white and red wine glasses, yet very few understand why. It is all about the drinking temperature of the wine than anything else. Major flavor profile differences between reds and whites are easily noted by drinking both red and white at 70 degrees F, side-by-side, in identical typical red wine glasses, then repeating with both chilled to about 55 degrees F in identical typical white wine glasses.
Both types of wine have very different flavor profiles. Serving whites colder slows aromatic evaporation subduing lighter, aromas even more, allowing fruity aromas to dominate. Smaller glasses collect the less available cold aromas near the nose, while for warmer red wines, larger bowls and swirling help volatize and oxidize aromas found in the red wine profile. Red wines served cold lose most of their aroma because lower temperature shuts down evaporation. Smaller white wine glasses boost intensity of the white wine flavor profile. At the very least, one needs a set each of red and white glasses. A few floral whites come alive in larger glasses, slightly chilled.
State of the art glassware technology currently concentrates on improving breakage resistance by the addition of various compounds such as magnesium and titanium, and little else novel has recently reached the marketplace. No doubt we will see future glasses of even stronger materials. Perhaps dashing the wine glass into the fireplace after a passionate toast will result in zero breakage accompanied by a cacophony of ringing as the undamaged glass bounces out onto the floor. What could possibly be next?
No doubt, new discoveries will continue to change the course of evolution and lead to new directions in thinking and enjoyment. For the most part, the shape of wine glasses has evolved on economics, the whims of the rich, and subjective considerations, with the great void of true science still left to be discovered.
In part 2 of 3, Evolution of the Spirits Glass, we will explore the development of spirits glassware, and in part 3, we will explore future possibilities and application of science to wine and spirits glassware design.
Author: George F Manska