A glance at glasswear: science, nonsense or something else?

When I got home for Christmas break, still groggy from that wave of post-finals exhaustion, my father greeted me with a hug, a perfunctory, “Hey, how’s school?” and a glass of wine. The glass wasn’t just any glass, though. It was taken from its special spot on a shelf full of glasses of varying sizes and shapes, selected in order to accentuate the opened bottle of Shiraz that sat on the living room table. It was a Riedel glass, a brand widely considered the créme de la créme of glassware among wine enthusiasts.

The idea behind Riedel, and the glassware fad at large, is that the contours of a glass can influence the taste and smell of a wine by altering the rate of the liquid flow and the places on the tongue it hits. Riedel has produced a series of glasses that have contours specifically designed to enhance the taste of whatever type of wine the connoisseur is drinking.

Though my father is a long-time wine aficionado, his fascination with Riedel is a new romance. It started a few months ago, when Riedel promoted a “glass tasting” at a wine event he attended. Under the instruction of a Riedel employee, my father tried the same wine out of several different shaped glasses. Sure enough, he discovered that the wine tasted and smelled consistently better in the glass designed for it. He bought a set (at a steep price I’m sure), came back and gave my sister and me the same test. We both agreed quite confidently that the wine was far better in its special Riedel glass.

So I thought to myself, this is something interesting I can write about in my column. I would call the article, “Glassware Science,” and I would explain exactly how it all worked. Then I told a friend about the idea, and he told me the whole thing had been unveiled as bunk, nonsense, a myth. My first reaction was skepticism ““ and probably a bit of resentment towards my friend. I knew what I had tasted and smelled. It had been different in that Riedel glass. I was sure.

I began my research and found that Gourmet Magazine ran an article in 2004 titled, “Shattered Myths.” In it, a variety of scientific studies tested whether or not a sample group could tell the difference between glasses in a blind tasting. Though the results were technically inconclusive, findings by and large showed that the subjects could not tell the difference much, if at all. The glassware phenomena was deemed a result of the power of suggestion, a placebo effect encouraged by Riedel’s esteemed reputation and the commentary supplied by the employees selling the glasses

My skepticism turned into disappointment. Had it all really been a cheap gimmick of fake science? Had my family and I been duped? I thought about it for a little while, about my father excitedly  showing off his collection, about my sister and I quizzing him on which glass was the right glass for whatever wine we were drinking, about the pleasure we had in the talk of it, and considering all this, I decided I didn’t care much about the science. The glasses were special because we thought they were, and because of that thought, the wine tasted better. If nothing else, the glasses inspired belief, and that, by my estimation, is at least worth something.