A Glassware Menagerie

Dixie Cups rank high in the pantheon of great inventions. They are sturdy, compact, disposable and capable of filling a room with oily black smoke when ignited.

The Burning Question crew prefers to say no more about that last attribute.

The little plastic cups are perfect for a late-night swig of water or when filled with a fine boxed wine at an impromptu gathering of NASCAR fans. But versatility wins little admiration in our specialized culture. Bar and restaurant patrons expect drinks to arrive in the proper glass: martinis in a cocktail glass, champagne in a flute, cognac in a snifter and so on. Beer snobs insist on chugging pilsner from a pilsner glass. Wine experts sip reds from different glasses than whites. The real aficionados select from glassware specific to the particular grape--the Burgundy glass, for example, or the zinfandel glass. Hell, they even make a piece of stemware for grappa.

But does the glass really matter?

"Sure, it matters," claims Jasper Russo, general manager and wine buyer for Marty's Wine Bar. "They are all designed to accentuate the strengths of different wines. With white wines you want to highlight the fruit. With reds you want to soften the bitterness of the tannins." In addition, he says, well-designed glasses enhance the aroma of a fine wine. It doesn't work on Thunderbird, apparently. "You eat with your eyes and nose first," agrees Steve Oliver of Capital Grill. "Well, drinking is the same way."

Russo also claims that a wine's taste will vary depending upon the glass. He foolishly handed the Burning Question crew several pieces of expensive, hand-blown Riedel stemware--fortunately nonflammable--to prove the point, pouring the same wine into a multipurpose glass and a piece created specifically for cabernet or pinot noir or sauvignon blanc. You might not notice if you down big gulps, but when you taste properly--swirl the glass, inhale evenly for 10 seconds, sip and allow air to pass over the wine as you hold it on your tongue--the difference is striking. "The wine is constant," says Russo. "The difference is your perception."

We tasted several times, just to be sure.

"Every once in a while I'll drink a good wine from a plastic cup just for fun," admits Jordan Lowery, manager of Firehouse. "It does make a difference, and the more experience you have, the more you'll notice it."

Eric Hanson, captain of Voltaire, refers to glassware as a functional art form. The slender champagne flute, for example, exudes a subtle elegance fitting for the drink. Its design also forces the bubbles onto your tongue to enhance that sharp, distinctive mouth feel. But fashion and tradition often drown out the functional aspects of glassware. People once consumed champagne from broader bowls, which dissipated the bubbles. Most cognac fans prefer the snifter--a fat-bodied thing with a narrow, tapered rim. Experts, however, recommend serving aged cognacs in something more akin to the short, straight port glass. "With certain things, like cognacs and ports, it helps to have a glass that allows the bouquet to filter up," Lowery adds.

Beer drinkers insist on dumping spicy wheat beers into large tulip glasses, traditional ales into slightly angular pints and light pilsners into, well, pilsner glasses (imagine that). "It doesn't do anything for the flavor," says Ben Williams of Ben's Half Yard House. "We serve in 16-ounce shakers, and it still tastes the same." Centuries ago, when taverns served murky ales of uncertain quality, drunkards tipped big ceramic mugs. The guys who created the bright, golden pilsner wanted something to show off the color of their new brew. They opted for a clear glass that fit easily in the hand. Of course, beer snobs offer elaborate--and sometimes flowery--explanations of the merits of one glass over the other, assuring listeners that the pilsner glass' design supports the crisp beer's delicate head.

A few glasses survive on form alone. "I don't know of any reason for the martini glass unless it's easier to dig out the olives," Hanson says.

In answer to this week's Burning Question, then, glassware matters, for appearance if not for taste. "Some men won't drink a scotch out of a stemmed glass, but that's an insecurity issue," says Gary Dennis, bartender at Chuy's. "For most folks the all-purpose wine glass is all you need," Russo admits, "but for complex wines, the specialized glasses bring it out." Marty's uses multipurpose glasses in the café simply to avoid costly replacement. Voltaire stocks 10 different glasses. Capital Grill finds room for 12. For home use, the experts suggest five: a multipurpose wine (also for frozen drinks), a highball (beer and mixed drinks), an old-fashioned (whiskey), a cocktail (martini) and a good set of shot glasses.

After sweeping the remaining shards of Riedel crystal from the Marty's Wine Bar floor, the Burning Question crew went in search of the elusive margarita glass. Few restaurants use the big upside-down sombrero-shaped thing anymore. Instead, they pour the green concoction into everything from water glasses to fishbowls. "They just don't hold the ounces that most people want," explains Stacy Sheets at Blue Mesa.

Ah, size. Now in that respect, glassware definitely does matter.


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