2000s Archive

Shattered Myths

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By the time the session’s over, this little group of tasters has bought about $1,000 worth of Riedel glasses. “I was surprised,” says Jim Pusateri, who’s one of them. He says he never knew about the tongue map before, but now he’s sold on Riedel. “Absolutely,” agrees Jim Couch, who’s buying a set. “I’ve resisted this whole Riedel craze, which a lot of my friends have gone through, because the glasses are so expensive. But I think I’ve been convinced.”

There’s just one problem: Studies at major research centers in Europe and the U.S. suggest that Riedel’s claims are, scientifically, nonsense. Starting with the tongue map. “The tongue map? That old saw?” scoffs Linda Bartoshuk when I reach her at her laboratory at the Yale University School of Medicine. Bartoshuk has done landmark studies on how people taste. “No, no. There isn’t any ‘tongue map.’”

Wait a minute: When you sip Pinot Noir from the correct Riedel glass, won’t it maximize the fruit flavors by rushing the wine to the “sweet” zone on the tip of your tongue? When you serve a Chardonnay with too much fruit, won’t the correct glass balance the flavors by directing the wine to the “acid” spots near the middle? “Nope,” Bartoshuk laughs. “It’s wrong.” She and other scientists have proved that you can taste salty, sweet, sour, and bitter everywhere on the tongue where there are taste buds. “Your brain doesn’t care where taste is coming from in your mouth,” Bartoshuk says. “And researchers have known this for thirty years.”

Call Riedel’s glasses graceful. Call them beautiful. Who would argue that a lovely frame doesn’t enhance the enjoyment of a painting? But despite Riedel’s and other companies’ claims—and despite all the anecdotal testimony from wine critics and consumers alike—researchers haven’t found any scientific evidence that a $90 glass makes your wine smell or taste better than a $3 version from Wal-Mart.

In fact, you might want to stop reading this article if you’ve gone to a Riedel tasting and left as a convert. Because studies suggest you’ve been brainwashed.

You can often trace a turning point in history to an epochal event—and in the universe of wineglasses, the earth shuddered on October 24, 1997. Wine aficionados from around the country had gathered at the Marriott hotel in New York’s Times Square for an annual event sponsored by Wine Spectator. Riedel glasses had already been endorsed by some influential winemakers and critics, but on this cool and cloudy afternoon, more than 1,000 rank-and-file drinkers poured into a ballroom to put Riedel’s claims to the test.

Thomas Matthews, the magazine’s executive editor, was there. “Everybody who ventures into a Riedel tasting starts as a skeptic,” he says. “I did.”

But Matthews says that as Georg Riedel, the company’s president, guided the crowd through the dizzying tasting, pouring wine into one glass after another, “people were surprised and even shocked. I think at that point, very few people had had the [Riedel] experience. And before you have it, it seems nonsense that the shape of a glass can significantly affect the flavor and aroma of wine. After Georg Riedel gets through with you,” Matthews continues, “almost everyone is a convert. It’s partly because he’s a very persuasive speaker. He’s a master salesman. He’s almost a prophet, with that passion. But the wine did taste better in the right glass.”

Georg Riedel’s friends (and his detractors) will tell you that he’s confident, charming, and ambitious. His family has been making glasses since 1756, but it was his father, Claus, who died last March, who devoted much of his career to studying “the physics of wine delivery to the mouth.” As a result, the company declares, he became “the first person in history” to discover that even tiny variations in a glass affect a wine’s “harmony, depth, balance and complexity.”

Trouble was, most people in the food and wine world didn’t buy it. Georg came up with a plan. He figured that if he could meet face-to-face with potential buyers, if he could get them to touch their lips to his glasses, he could break down their resistance and “make them believers.” He and his staff stage tastings across the country, at conventions and restaurants and wine shops. And then those new converts go forth among the flocks and spread the Riedel gospel by word of mouth.

You’d think this kind of success might be satisfying enough. But Riedel is a proud man, and even as sales were taking off, he seemed to crave something that still eluded him: He wanted validation from the scientific community. So in the late 1990s Riedel staged a tasting for scientists at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, one of the world’s most prestigious laboratories studying taste and smell.

As riedel led the center’s staff through the usual paces, at least a few scientists were swayed. “None of us are wine experts,” says Monell’s Marcy Levin Pelchat. “But the wine did, indeed, seem different in different glasses.” On the other hand, she says, Riedel kept hinting which glasses should make the wine taste better or worse—and like any good scientist, Pelchat knew to trust results only from carefully controlled studies in which people don’t know exactly what they’re testing. But when Pelchat and a colleague scoured the scientific literature, they couldn’t find a single study in which researchers had tested Riedel glasses under ­rigorous conditions.

They decided to be the first. Pelchat and her colleague Jeannine Delwiche rounded up 30 subjects, all of them from Monell. There would be no hoopla at these tastings; the atmosphere was almost medical. Imagine, now, that you were one of those 30 pioneers who volunteered in the service of science.

You are led through a heavy door into an environmentally controlled chamber. The only sound you hear is a gentle whoosh as the laboratory’s ventilation system constantly refreshes the air so your olfactory system can’t be sullied by odors that don’t come from within the wineglasses themselves. Next, a pair of blackened goggles are slipped around your eyes so you can’t see which glass is which. Your head is positioned in a metal and plastic gizmo that looks like a torture device (who says testing wineglasses is supposed to be fun?); the apparatus is designed so that when the researchers place a glass with precisely 60 milliliters of Cabernet below your nose, the rim of the glass will be the same distance from your nostrils every time. That way, you can’t smell the aromas differently simply because you’re sticking your nose at different depths into each glass.

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