Proper Stemware? Bah Humbug!

Winesnark Wally World 2 posterI‘m not one to obsess over matching each specific wine varietal to its own particular type of wine glass. Just last week I tasted Shiraz from a Riedel Syrah glass and I couldn’t even tell they were spelled differently. I’m even less sensitive when it comes to spirits. I drink my whiskey from one of those pint beer glasses. Anything less and I’d have to get out of my chair too often.

I find two basic glass designs are all I need. First, there’s the tulip-shaped Bordeaux glass for wines made from traditional Bordeaux varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. This glass is perfectly suited for just about any wine I want to drink. Okay, so maybe that’s setting the bar pretty low but you get the idea. I even use it for white wine. It’s just a bigger version of the most commonly used white wine glass and bigger is better for those of us who want to get out of our chairs less often.

Don Carter Charmes-ChambertinSecond, there’s the broad-bowled Burgundy glass for more delicate varietals such as Pinot Noir (the native grape of Burgundy) or other wines that might need a little coaxing out of their shell. Nebbiolo for example (especially when mature) develops quicker in the rounder goblet-shape of the Burgundy glass. And quicker is good, as I hate waiting for a drink almost as much as I hate getting out of my chair.

When a properly designed wine glass (regardless of its shape) is filled to the correct level, the surface contact with oxygen is maximized which expedites the wine’s evolution. The “correct level” is about five or six ounces which should fill roughly one-third of the glass. This is where the wine bowl is widest, which allows the wine to “breathe”. Oxygen seeps into the liquid and complex chemical reactions release aromas and flavors while simultaneously softening the wine’s texture. Swirling wine in the glass introduces even more oxygen which is another reason you only want to fill the bottom third of the glass. Swirling wine is less like breathing and more like CPR, and if that doesn’t bring the wine to life you might want to apply immediate mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Don Carter Chateau LatourThe second function of a well-designed wine glass is to concentrate and focus the aromas by tapering the glass at the top. Not only does this design element deliver aromas directly to your nose, it also delivers the wine to your tongue and not to the roof of your mouth or your cheeks. Some of the strongest taste perceptions occur during the initial impression or “attack” so it’s crucial to funnel wine onto the densely populated taste buds of the tongue. The cheeks and roof of the mouth are more like taste bud suburbia.

When shopping for wine stemware the shape is important but be sure to check out the rim before making your purchase. A lumpy rim can alter the funnelling effect of a perfectly formed bowl. Michael Austin of the Chicago Tribune suggests;

Place your thumb and forefinger on the rim and scrape your fingernails upward. If there is any sort of bump or lip, or anything that catches your fingernails on either side, slowly place the glass back where you found it and run for the horizon. The rim of your glass doesn’t need a speed bump; it needs to get wine into your mouth as effortlessly as possible. It seems like a small thing but it makes a big difference.¹

My family’s wine glass standards are slightly more relaxed than mine which comes as no surprise to those familiar with their standards in cleanliness, clothes and spouses. At our Christmas gathering last week I served a selection of Classified Bordeaux from the 1980’s and I noticed very few of my guests had chosen an appropriate Bordeaux glass, instead choosing instruments that Winesnark measuring cup postercould only be called “glass” because that was what they were made from – well some of them anyway. I looked over the assembled crowd and thought, “Well at least the wines are mature.”

My sister-in-law tries to follow the guidelines I’ve espoused through the years which isn’t surprising as she’s one of those people who puts the Ohh! in OCD. She remembered the proper pour is five ounces, and wanting everything to be perfect, I found her drinking Chateau Lynch-Bages  from a Pyrex measuring cup.

I grabbed my camera and made the rounds to capture some of my family’s other stemware choices. I caught up with my wife Caroline as she was discussing the intricacies of Chateau Margaux with Uncle Ralph and Aunt Tootie.

Aunt Tootie; “I think it’s sweet.”Winesnark Pint Glass poster

Caroline; “I think it’s dry.”

Uncle Ralph; “I think it’s wet.”

Uncle Ralph had forgone the Bordeaux glass in favor of a pint beer glass (which is also known as ‘Don’s whiskey glass’). Most of my precious Margaux would have gone into this one glass except that Ralph had pre-filled it with ice.

Later I spotted my cousin’s new wife Yolanda pouring a glass of cheap Australian Shiraz.

“Yolanda, why would you bring an Australian Shiraz to a Classified Bordeaux tasting? Don’t you realize this 1989 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild scored 96 WS points?”

Winesnark shot glass poster“WS points?”

“Wine Spectator.”

“Oh, I prefer this cheap Shiraz because it scored 15 ABV points.

“ABV points?”

“Alcohol by Volume.”

Yolanda is a creature of habit so I wasn’t surprised to find her pounding down Mouton-Rothschild in a shot glass. There’s not much room for swirling but the wine really opens up with a beer chaser.

Once Yolanda’s husband Eddie arrived, it was apparent that the Christmas tree wasn’t the only thing that was lit. Eddie was sampling a wine Winesnark Wally World posterthat meant a great deal to me. It was my last bottle of Chateau Haut-Brion, a bottle that I purchased to commemorate the birth of my first son, a bottle I had patiently cradled and coddled and pined over for decades. His wine chalice of choice; you guessed it, the Wally World Moosehead glass made famous by Clark Griswold in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

My head was starting to pound and just when I thought I couldn’t take another wine glass faux pas, I spotted someone drinking from a proper Bordeaux glass. I rushed across the room and said, “Mom! I’m so happy to see you’ve chosen an appropriate glass for the Cheval Blanc! I guess that after all these years you’ve finally come to appreciate the practices and customs of fine wine tasting!”

“Oh yes dear,” she replied, “I’ve poured the proper amount, let it breathe and Clark Griswold posterswirled my glass to release the aromas. There’s just one thing left to do before sipping this fine wine.” With that she ripped open a small pink packet and poured Sweet ‘N Low into her glass.

I spat out my wine and inadvertently repeated Clark Griswold’s immortal holiday exclamation point …

“Holy shit! Where’s the Tylenol?”


¹ Shattering wine glass wisdom: You only need 2 types. The Chicago Tribune. Oct. 13,2015


  1. GF
    Jan 4, 2018

    As my brother-in-law likes to do, completely fill the glass, then chug-a-lug half of it before allowing the remainder to breathe!

    • Don Carter
      Jan 5, 2018

      Like I used to say at The Wine Seller, “He let’s it age on the way home and breathe on the way down.”

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