When I began the process of opening a wine shop and bar, I knew exactly which wine glass I would use. Short-stemmed with a smaller-than-average bowl, I noted it years ago at Via Carota, Rita Sodi and Jody Williams’ Italian restaurant in Manhattan’s West Village. I hadn’t put too much thought into why I was drawn to it, except that it had all the trappings of a proper long-stemmed glass, but was less fussy and delicate. (I still cry every time I break a Zalto.) It was just a feeling, really.
The Riedel Vinum Water glass is part of a style known as the “bistro” or “tavern” glass. There are chunky, wide-diameter versions like the stackable Bormioli or the ribbed, straight-sided Ripple glasses from Ferm Living. Schott Zwiesel makes a version similar to Riedel’s, and Wine Enthusiast employs its own Fusion Air short stem as the “official glass” of its tasting panel. (In my best estimation, the term “tavern glass” originates from an iteration by HAY, a Danish design company owned by MillerKnoll that specializes in good-looking functional objects, including pastel-hued toasters and candy-colored geometric desk trays.) The style is one of several more casual forms that suggests a break from—even a defiance of—the dogmatic rules that guided the world of wine only two decades ago.
Take Chris Brockway and Bridget Leary’s handblown Broc glass. At three and a half inches tall with a volume capacity of three to four ounces, it is more akin to an amaro glass or a European cordial glass than anything purpose-built for wine. Inspired by a piece Leary picked up in Tokyo and another at the Alameda flea market, the glasses were created in partnership with Rafi Ajl of The Long Confidence, a process-based design studio in Berkeley, California. “There’s an intimacy about them that’s very unique,” says Ajl. For Brockway, founder of Broc Cellars, they are meant for a particular moment and a particular feeling. “There are certain things that I like drinking out of this glass as opposed to others,” he says, noting orange wine and pét-nat in particular. While more diminutive than the aforementioned tavern-style designs, the Broc glass still echoes the form.
“The style is one of several more casual forms that suggests a break from—even a defiance of—the dogmatic rules that guided the world of wine only two decades ago.”
The tavern glass stands in stark contrast to the trends of the 1980s and ’90s, when glasses fabricated for specific grapes or styles of wine became emblematic of fine dining and wine expertise. Leading the charge in specialization was Riedel, which carries stemware for everything from “oaked chardonnay” and pinot noir to port and gin. Eventually, the pendulum began to swing back, giving rise to the all-purpose or universal glass as well as the polarizing stemless tumbler. Today, depending on the venue, wine comes served in all shapes—jam jars, sherry copitas, bistro tumblers, even squat Old-Fashioned glasses. On one end of the spectrum is extreme attention to precision. On the other, a clear eschewing of function for aesthetics. The short-stemmed tavern glass seems to strike a balance between these two poles—functional and good-looking, yet quietly subversive.
“We’re seeing more of a style preference versus [choosing] a purposeful white wine/Burgundy-style glass,” says Casey Simring, tabletop and bar buyer for Food52, the recipe and e-commerce site. “Customers are buying more with a visual design element versus how wine is going to pair with the shape.” Food52’s shop carries several styles of short-stemmed glasses as well as French bistro tumblers by Duralex, all of which they deem appropriate for a “casual glass of wine.” Simring points out that as wine-drinking has become more approachable, the culture around it has become more casual. Arati Menon, Home52’s editorial lead, says the way their customers buy is centered around convenience. “If I can put wine glasses comfortably in the dishwasher or not worry about guests knocking over glasses on the table—convenience and versatility have been big.”
Justine Belle Lambright, co-founder of Kalchē, a wine cooperative in Fletcher, Vermont, says the shift in glassware is also indicative of a change in wine’s leadership. “All those rules from the old guard are starting to go by the wayside,” they say. “Before, you had to know what the rules were—all these different gatekeeping tactics to make sure you’re the real deal.” Lambright points out that our relationships and home lives have shifted beyond rigid frameworks: “Before, you got married and on your registry you got three different glasses, three different forks. The formality and set of our dinner tables has changed.” They also point out that we, as a culture, have become more transient, and thus have acquired fewer delicate objects; the idea of inheriting traditional stemware like crystal-cut Waterford is simply out of vogue. In Vermont, Lambright has also noticed that beer culture dominates glassware; short-stemmed snifters and goblets often take the place of a wine glass and may just as easily double as a water vessel.
There are, of course, those who just can’t abandon the stem. “Yes, I live in an encapsulated world,” says Aldo Sohm, sommelier of Le Bernardin and his own eponymous wine bar, of his fine-dining bubble. “But when you drink wine, no matter what that is, you want to drink it out of the right vessel.” He concedes that he is obliged to have an opinion that favors the glassware he reps—Zalto, with which he has his own glass line—but says that this obligation is baked into his already-formed opinion. Having grown up in the shadow of the Riedel factory in Austria, he’s forever been attuned to the impact of glassware on a wine's subtleties, but also believes that today, a glass for each variety is unsustainable for budget and space. Rather, he insists that even if a wine is not super complex or rare, it still deserves good glassware. “You drink differently and it gives you a different feeling.”
A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting around my dining room table tasting wine with Jonathan Gray, a wine rep from the distributor Uncorked here in New Orleans, along with Steven Alexander, of the importer De Maison Selections. I brought out the Riedel Vinum glasses and asked their thoughts on the style. Gray mentioned his first memory of drinking from them at Frenchette in New York, whose program is run by natural wine champion Jorge Riera. Alexander talked about the concept of disruption via glassware, which he noticed in the early days of New York’s The Ten Bells, which still serves wine in sherry copita–style glasses—interesting but problematic, Alexander notes, if you’re trying to drink good Champagne or a wine that needs some air.
It’s subtle, but there’s an aesthetic politics at play in the wine world’s ushering in of alternative glass shapes, akin to the visual semantics of, say, something like footwear in fashion. What did it say about culture when women traded stiletto heels for chunky platforms in the 1960s and ’70s or swapped Keds and ballet flats for thick-soled combat boots in the ’90s? The accessories of a counterculture, at their point of origin, are always indicative of a reaction bubbling up somewhere in society. Glassware in relation to the natural wine movement is no exception. The tavern or bistro glass stands in for a vibe, one that is less concerned with tasting notes and brix or stem length.
Gray swirled a biodynamic gamay from Lantignié and thought for a second. “If you talk to the more natural wine people [about glassware], a lot of them will meet you halfway,” he says, considering the experience of drinking as a whole. “Because they’re just about how the wine feels or the energy or resonance versus the very precise details.”