Next Round: The Art of Fine Wine Glasses With Maximilian Riedel, CEO of Riedel GlassVinePair
On this episode of “Next Round,” host Zach Geballe speaks with Maximilian Riedel, CEO of the eponymous 11th-generation glass manufacturer, about how Riedel’s ubiquitous wine glasses enhance various types of wines. As a specialty wine glass company, Riedel creates custom glassware for myriad varietals — from Chardonnay, to Cabernet Sauvignon, to Pinot Noir.
Riedel also discusses the long history and enduring process of glassmaking in Austria. Finally, Riedel and Geballe discuss the proper way to clean and care for wine glasses and decanters.
Or Check out the Conversation Here
Zach Geballe: From Seattle, Wash., I’m Zach Geballe, and this is a “VinePair Podcast” “Next Round” conversation. We’re bringing you these conversations in between our regular podcast episodes so we can focus on a range of issues and stories in the drinks world. Today, I have the privilege of speaking with Maximilian Riedel. He’s the CEO and president of Riedel. Maximilian, thanks so much for your time.
Maximilian Riedel: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
Z: Yeah, my pleasure. This is an interview that I’ve been really looking forward to because, for someone like me who’s worked in the wine industry for quite a long time, your company’s glasses are ubiquitous. I touch one most days. And even at home, they’re what I drink out of personally. I will say I wanted to start with the history of the company and your family’s history as glass manufacturers.
M: Thank you, Zach. Our history is long and has obviously many, many stories to tell. We are celebrating this year our 265th anniversary.
M: We are in the 11th generation, and we take our job very seriously. The family was not always in the production of wine glasses, but always in the production of glass. Glass is what we breathe and is what we know best. We have turned art pieces, decorative glassware, and perfume bottles, all the knowledge that we had, and turned it into professional wine glasses.
Z: When did the manufacturer of wine glasses themselves start?
M: After World War II, prior to World War II, my family were Sudeten Germans, which means they were Bohemians in Bohemia. The family operated many, many factories of pressed glassware. The glassware traveled all around the world. They were also famous for glass bead production for jewelry. This is what they did originally. After World War II, my grandfather, who was in the German army as a soldier, found himself in Austria as a very young man. He was looking for a glass factory because he was searching for work. There was absolutely no communication with home, with the homeland. He restarted and was lucky to meet at the right time, the right people who gave him shelter and money to study. Then, he had a vision. He had a vision of a thin, handmade, mouth-blown glassware. This was the beginning.
Z: You mentioned a little bit about that, the methodology. I will admit my own ignorance of this, but can you give us an explanation of how a fine wine glass is made.
M: Well, the production process is not an easy one. At Riedel, we are one of the few leftovers. We have handmade production but our dominance is nowadays machine-made production. We produce everything in Europe. Handmade mouth-blown in Kufstein, Austria. This is where we have our headquarters in Tyrol. We’re surrounded by the most beautiful mountain scenery, and the machine production is in Bavaria, Germany. I always say that so people know where that is, our glassmakers all wear lederhosen and they all know how to yodel, which is obviously not true. It’s always a nice little story that I like to share. Glassmaking is a history that dates back 4,000 years in the making. The raw materials in 4,000 years have changed very little. The key ingredient is quartz sand, and the best source is in Bavaria, Germany. That’s why we and also our biggest competitors are all in a village, because this is where the raw material comes from. This is one of the key ingredients. We melt this mixture of different ingredients, and overnight, we produce glass. With many skilled glassmakers, we can actually produce our fine wine glasses. On the machine, we use the same ingredients, but we melt a bigger volume, and we have machines doing the same job as a glassmaker here in Austria.
Z: How much time does it take to make an individual glass? I’m sure that varies depending on the shape. How long does it take a skilled glassblower to make a glass?
M: Well, glassmaking is a team effort. It’s one of those few jobs where, if you do it manually, you need a team. The team needs to work together, entwined, and they depend on each other. When somebody needs to have a coffee break, the whole production comes to a standstill. It’s a team of three to five people, and each person has a very significant part of the job to create a glass. It’s not done by just shaping it. You have to remove it from the glass maker’s pipe and put it into an oven. An oven that is about 30 meters long because that’s the time that it takes to cool off. If you cool glass too quickly, it will explode and shatter into small pieces because there’s too much tension in the glass. You need this aligning oven where you start at a higher temperature of 300 degrees Celsius and it slows down as it walks itself through this cooling oven where you’re starting at 300 degrees Celsius and you end at about 60 degrees. This takes about two hours. It’s a long process, and then you have to remove the part which was connecting the glass to the glassmaker’s pipe, which is another person. Then, you have to fire-polish the rim. It’s a process. It is really a manufacturing process. I think that whoever likes glasses, Riedel glasses, and comes and visits us here in Kufstein where you can see and watch the entire process, I think the value increases, because you see how many steps are involved.
Z: With any manual process like that, does the remarkable consistency and uniformity of the glassware, is that because the people making the glassware are very experienced and skilled? How do you ensure that kind of consistency and uniformity? With an individual glass, we can appreciate something that’s unique. I imagine that when you have a business, you need them to all be the same or very close to the same.
M: Our wine glasses are fine-tuned instruments. If there is a difference from one to the next, our philosophy would not work. That’s the reason why the glassmaker blows the bowl in a shape that is pre-directed by the molds. We’re blowing it into a mold, guaranteeing that whatever comes out at the end of the production is the same. Of course, it’s handmade. It will not be 100 percent the same, but it is the same. That’s different from our decanters, which are free-formed. Each piece is somewhat individual. They all look and feel alike. But if you put them side by side, there’s a difference. This must not happen with our wine glasses.
Z: One thing that’s very interesting to me, and I would love your thoughts on, is over the years, Riedel has added a number of different types of glassware — I’m sure both machine- manufactured and hand-blown — to the product line. How do you develop new glassware? I know you’ve added some cocktail glasses and I think beer glasses, also. How does that new product development come about?
M: Well, first of all, it’s a family business. Yes, we have over a thousand employees. Yes, we produce 60 million glasses a year. We are a family business in the 11th generation, so we have never hired a designer. Good for us, form follows function. This was started by my grandfather, Professor Klaus Riedel. You need the passion and love for wine. If you don’t have it, you cannot become a wine glassmaker. You need to understand the different kinds of beverages being a wine, spirit, a beer, or even Coca-Cola, a coffee. Those are glasses that we have developed. This is where you need to have the knowledge of the beverage first, before you can shape the glass towards or create a design towards the functionality. We never do this ourselves. We design it, we develop it, we blow it. Yes, we do that part. For example, at Riedel, all the wine glasses are grape varietal-specific. Let’s talk about a grape. You’re in Seattle, Wash. You make beautiful Cabernet, you make wonderful Pinot Noir. We’re talking about a specific shape. Annually, you have a Pinot Noir festival. That motivated us to work with Washington wine producers, led by French families, to come forward with a Pinot Noir glass, which is truly designed to enhance New World Pinot Noir, Oregon Pinot Noir. Together with the winemakers, we shaped the glass. It was not a process of designing and being artsy crafty. No, we had existing glasses for Pinot Noir. We had samples of Oregon Pinot Noir, for example. And with those samples, we developed some prototypes, which we took all the way to the West Coast. We took them to Oregon, and many local wine producers participated with their own wines. We did a workshop, a Riedel workshop, where we poured their wine into the different-shaped Riedel glasses. We were looking within what we had produced, the two or three glasses where the individual winemakers agreed. This one shows the fruit best, this one the acidity, this one the minerality. The task was to come forward with existing shapes which we took back home, out of which we created more prototypes where we said, “OK, this one highlighted the fruit, this one the perfume, the minerality, the acidity.” We came forward with another series of prototypes. Again, we knocked on the doors of the winemakers, which they happily opened because they saw in the glass the messenger of the wine. With them, we finalized the process until all of the winemakers agreed on one shape, where they all said, “My wine shows best in this glass.” It’s a process, it’s a development, it’s a partnership. It’s a friendship between Riedel and the winemakers in which they see our glass as the stage on which the wine can show.
Z: I’m curious. I know when I reached out to set up this interview, one of the newer products that you have unveiled is the Winewings glasses. We’ll include a link in the show description for people who want to take a look at the collection and understand it. I would be really curious to get your thoughts on how that specific line was developed as well, because they’re a little different stylistically than the other Riedel glasses.
M: With pleasure. Riedel Winewings is brand new. Riedel Winewings is something that my father produced by himself, meaning he had the design idea, he had the vision, and he created it based on existing shapes. Obviously, the work that was done prior to craft the Pinot Noir, the Cabernet glass, was not lost. This is always the basic ingredient for us that we utilize to develop something new. What Winewings has, in comparison to all the other existing Riedel glasses, is that it has a flat bottom, which we first started internally. We created prototypes. We served friends and family in those glasses, and we learned what the reaction was. Because when we develop something new, it must keep up with the existing or be even better. This is the result, which is Riedel Winewings.
Z: At this point, I know you have a number of different glasses for different varieties. Is the intention to have the same breadth of offerings as you do with the traditional-shaped glass?
M: Well, the people are hungry for newness. It starts with the retailer. The retailer always knocks on the door of the manufacturer and says, “Anything new?” Because they want to excite their customers. This is not only new, meaning a new shape of what is existing. It’s a further development, and very important to understand is the world of wine. If you know the world of wine and you try to understand it, you know that everybody talks about global warming. Global warming, in certain areas, has a positive impact, believe it or not, in areas where wine-growing has a tradition. With the short ripening process, the wines were never up to global standards, like in Austria and in most eastern countries. On the West Coast, you have a problem with it because you have to deal with it. You have too much sun, too much sun exposure. You have a lot of fruit that has a sunburn and all these kinds of things, which the winemaker can influence. Nowadays, everybody is looking for organic wine, so the influence is very little of what we can do. The fruit is exposed to energy, which is sunlight. So the wines are very concentrated, which is good. I like those concentrated fruit-forward wines with a little bit of a side impact, which is high in alcohol. I know wines from Napa Valley dating back to the ‘70s and ‘80s. I wasn’t born then, but I’m drinking these wines, and I was growing up with these wines since my family is very close to the Mondavi family. The wines of those days from Napa Valley had somewhere between 11 and a half to a maximum of 13 percent of alcohol. Nowadays, you have them up to 15 percent alcohol. Alcohol in wine is like fat in meat. It’s nothing bad. It adds some flavor. It’s a flavor enhancer, but it is an issue that people need to deal with. My point is: Because of these big fruit-forward wines, our glasses had to change. They had to grow with the wine industry. They grew, sadly also in size, which a lot of consumers miss. They blame us for those big glasses, but those modern wines need those bigger glasses to shine. They all must be aerated. These wines are immortals. They can surpass from generation to generation. We want to have wines that are ready to drink. The only way to get these wines to open up is by aerating them in a nice decanter and serving them in a big wine glass.
Z: I have a couple more questions for you. For many of our listeners who have Riedel glassware at home, there may be a different answer depending on what they have. In your experience, what’s the best way for the average home consumer to take care of their glassware? I think for a lot of people — even for me personally — some of my glassware that I love most dearly were wedding presents. I was very proud to get them. I’m always a little bit afraid to use them because I’m worried about breaking them or worried about cleaning them. Do you have suggestions for taking care of the glassware? Beyond the obvious of “don’t drop it.” Other things that people can take some advice from.
M: Absolutely. I have many advisors because people think I live off broken glasses. It actually makes me very unhappy when one of my babies breaks. Rule No. 1: storage. Let’s say with a wedding gift, you got eight glasses of one particular kind, but it’s only the two of you at home, so you always use the same glasses. You never think of rotating your glassware, which is very bad. Because where you store them, you can have an impact. Let’s say you have a cabinet that is new and it still smells like lacquer, color lacquer. This can have a tremendous impact on your glasses. The glasses start to adopt the smell and create this stink, but also the lacquer steams, and this steaming — especially when you have a temperature change due to the seasons of the year. The hotter it gets, the more the cabinet starts to steam, the glasses absorb this and the glass surface is very porous like your skin. They adopt this, and the glasses get dull and they lose their brilliance. And people blame the glassmaker. It’s not my fault. It’s the way you store your glasses. So rule No. 1 is where you store them. Rotate your glasses. Don’t always use the same. Also, reach out to those in the back of the kitchen cabinet, rule No. 1. Rule No. 2, a Riedel wine glass is a workhorse. It was developed for you to have daily performance. You pour your wine and you drink it. You have a Chardonnay and you put it in the Chardonnay glass. If you have a Pinot Noir and many more, depending on what styles of wine you like. I like Chardonnay. I like Cabernet. I like Pinot. Those are the three glasses I would have at home. I rotate because I cook differently. I have friends that are coming. I know they like white wine, so I serve my Chardonnay. It is important to understand that you have multiple glasses at home and since the Riedel glass is a workhorse, you should treat it like this. Put the Riedel glass in the dishwasher. Don’t hurt yourself after a nice evening. Maybe you had a glass too many trying to force it into your sink and break it and injure yourself. Don’t do that, there’s no need. When the Riedel glass is in the dishwasher and you wash it more than one thousand times, yes, it can have scratches. Yes, it can lose its brilliance over time. It’s erosion. It’s very normal. That happens. Throw them away and replace them with some new ones. It’s a workhorse. Now comes the question, “I have some other brands at home” or “I have a Riedel handmade glass at home.” Riedel sommelier’s handmade — a glass that costs $100-plus. You have some Waterford at home with beautiful decorations. You have some Baccarat at home with some color. No, do not put those into the dishwasher. The color can wash off. The glass is much thicker. Tension can start in the glass because it’s a hot dishwasher. You have a cool glass. and the thicker the glass, the more tension breakage can occur. Handmade glasses, I suggest that you wash by hand. Machine-made glasses, wine glasses from Riedel, you can put into the dishwasher.
Z: This is my own personal struggle, what about cleaning a decanter? That’s the one I have the most trouble with.
M: Well, if it’s a Riedel decanter, and it can be beautiful, they can be fancy, but also very functional. The best way to wash them is, if the sink is big enough, put it into the sink. Otherwise, take it into the bathtub. That’s not a joke. I want everybody who listens to use your decanter daily, because every wine deserves this “wow experience” of decanting it. We decant old wine to split wine from its sediment. We aerate young wines. Good for them to wake up and mature during the process of drinking it and enjoying it. Red wine, white wine, rosé wine, sparkling wine. All of this can be decanted. Of course, you have to have different techniques. Sparkling wine or Champagne, I would never decant fast. I would do it slowly. Also, young Champagne can benefit from that. Prosecco, don’t decant. There’s no benefit because you will lose the bubbles which are artificially added to the wine. I would not do it. However, with Champagne, the method of Champenoise, you can definitely decant it.
Z: Well, the bathtub idea is a good one. I’ve never thought about that.
M: Zach, what I suggest is that people are always complaining about red wine stains. After a nice meal, rinse the decanter once with warm water, fill it with warm water, and let it sit overnight. Warm water has an impact. It will absorb all the color pixels that are left in the decanter. Even though you rinsed it once or twice, let it sit with warm water. The next day, empty it. Soak the outside. There’s no need to put soap into the decanter. You run the risk of having some leftovers. Soap and wine does not go well together, so I do not recommend that. So soak the outside because you had greasy fingers, etc. The inside, after rinsing it a couple of times, you should be fine. Wine is cleaner than water. Let’s not forget that. It has been filtered, etc. You know the process. There’s nothing that is bad in a decanter after rinsing it with some water.
Z: Wonderful. Thank you so much for your time. Really fascinating to hear a little bit more about how these ubiquitous glasses in the wine industry are made and look forward to seeing the continued development and specialization of the glassware. It’s a little early in the morning here. I would say I would be drinking a glass of wine, but it’s the morning here in Seattle, so I had my coffee. I will get around to a glass of wine and a Riedel glass tonight, and I will think about this conversation. Thank you so much.
M: Thank you so much, Zach. Thank you for taking the time and for letting me speak about the wonderful world of wine and obviously the loudspeaker, the Riedel glass. Cheers.
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Now, for the credits, VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Wash., by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shoutout to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tasting director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who is instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
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