When winemaker Chris Brockway and his partner, Bridget Leary, set out to create a signature Broc Cellars decanter with designer Rafi Ajl, the idea was to make something that elevated the everyday experience of drinking wine. It was their second project with Ajl, whose studio, The Long Confidence, is just down the block from their winery in Berkeley, California. The first was a handblown stubby-stemmed drinking glass conceived in the early days of the pandemic. “It’s casual, it’s not precious, it’s for daily consumption as opposed to an overly delicate experience,” Brockway says. For the decanter, the trio’s design vision focused on a more expected shape, but likewise emphasized its everyday utility. The result is a small, classically contoured decanter—with a wide base and narrow spout that opens outward at the top—constructed of 11 facets that display a scaly texture from the molding process.
A crucial component of Ajl’s approach was to nail the functionality. After all, the purpose of a decanter is to make wine taste true to itself—either by eliminating the sediment (often necessary for an old red wine) or through aeration, which can both soften a wine’s tannins and allow it to develop more complex aromas. For young natural wines, which Broc Cellars specializes in, decanting also serves the purpose of breaking up and releasing carbon dioxide. “We wanted something for younger wines, where you can pour it in, then grab it with your hand and shake it to swirl,” Brockway explains. Still, he says, their decanter can be used for any wine that could use a decant.
For many drinkers, the decanter remains synonymous with fine wine’s fussier proclivities—a sidekick to inaccessible wines and the culture that attends them. In the mid-aughts, this opulence took on an air of the absurd with the advent of showy, sculptural designs, like the Horn and Mamba decanters produced by Riedel, Waterford’s Elegance Accent and, a personal favorite, this $750 jellyfish decanter of dubious utility. Broc Cellars’ decanter, along with a number of other recent designs, indicates a shift away from notions of pretension and performance once prevalent in the industry and toward wine’s more current values of approachability and frankness.
“I think the wine industry as a whole has tried to knock itself off the pedestal and bring itself down to earth,” says winemaker Dan Petroski, of Napa Valley’s Massican. “If you think about what New York City looked like from 2002 to 2007, pre-recession, with the proliferation of fine dining, everything was bolder and more expressive… We’re no longer in the days where all wine was being poured out of a crystal vessel, and I think the concept of a decanter, and its usefulness as part of the wine experience, has changed over time.”
Jancis Robinson, in collaboration with designer Richard Brendon, recently released a pair of Old and Young Wine Decanters that, although hardly quotidian in price, likewise illustrate a prioritization of practicality. In an article on her website, Robinson explains that her design intent for the decanters was to complement the shape of her and Brendon’s streamlined wine glass. The Young Wine decanter maximizes “the surface area of the wine and [provides] an ideal way of aerating the wine: seizing the neck and swirling it around,” she writes, while the design for old wines is “a much narrower, less generous decanter,” to separate sediment while minimizing contact with air.
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Compared with the sleek designs of, say, Zalto’s minimal, elegant carafes and Robinson’s Old and Young decanters, the Broc Cellars decanter is more baroque in form. Still, its sturdy structure is built with artifice-free utility in mind; you’re meant to pick it up by the neck and shake the contents, after all. The design was informed by Brockway and Leary’s favorite antique decanter, which has an etched bottom and a ridged spout, in addition to a straight-necked flower vase they have at home. “Whether or not we’re using the decanter, we leave ours on the table—it’s kind of like a piece of art,” Leary says. The facets of the glass emanate crystalline shadows when showered with light. In this way, it moonlights as a showpiece, but one that invokes a quiet, homespun beauty as opposed to the shock and awe of the sculptural decanters of the mid-aughts. “We worked within an overall traditional form language, but then [added] our own personal, surprising elements to create moments that are new and unconventional,” Ajl explains.
The journalist and prominent natural wine advocate Alice Feiring maintains that regardless of its function, the decanter’s primary purpose will always be aesthetic, no matter how practical the design is. “We’re really talking about something that looks good on the table because a lot of things that you have in your household could perform the basic function of a decanter, which is air, and, depending on the opening at the top, how much air you want to introduce,” she says. She cites Riedel’s more simplistic Cabernet decanter and Zalto’s carafes as being driven by function while still bearing a “beautiful, simple design.” Petroski also loves the Zalto decanters for the way they occupy the same footprint on the table as a bottle of wine. He suggests that for the decanter to find a place on the modern table, it must not only respond to a shift in wine culture’s values, but also the predominant aesthetic of home goods, which now favors the subtle elegance of clean lines, hand-crafted ceramics and natural tones.
“All of my nice, fancy decanters that I bought 15 to 20 years ago that have these long necks and kind of bulbous bottoms, they all sit in the garage right now,” Petroski says. “Don’t get me wrong, I love the beauty of really fancy decanters, but when your plateware and your bowls are ceramic, do you need something that just came out of Downton Abbey?”