High quality stemware - is it worth the investment

Posted on Analysis Dec 2011 - by Tandoori Editor
High quality stemware - is it worth the investment

Can wine ever look more tempting? Yes, as Chris O’Leary looks at what’s deemed as correct stemware.

During a recent visit to the Mint Leaf Lounge – the ultra-fashionable sister venue to London’s Mint Leaf Restaurant – I found myself surrounded by winemakers and sommeliers debating the merits of drinking wine out of fine stemware. 
I suppose it was not much of a debate as everyone – including myself – agreed that it would be sacrilege to serve and/or drink fine wine out of an awkward and small wine glass.
Sure, in an ideal world all restaurants from the Michelin-starred to the casual would serve Champagne and wine in hand-blown lead crystal flutes and glasses.  But is this ‘ideal world’ a ‘practical world’ for restaurateurs considering the fortune it would take to outfit a fleet of luxury stemware costing between £10-£30 per glass? 
The unfortunate reality for any fine-dining restaurant is that you absolutely need to have high-quality stemware that facilitates a fantastic wine drinking experience; however things are no so clear-cut for the bevy of restaurants that fall anywhere from minimally to massively below the fine dining-category.
For instance, if you are ambitious restaurant that serves first-rate food in a formal, but not ‘white table-cloth’ setting, what are you do when faced with the reality that your customers will expect their wine served in the appropriate glasses, while said glassware is only one small act of clumsiness away from breaking? 
Asking Chef Cyrus Todiwala of Café Spice Namaste for clarity, he responded in the indirect and ambiguous fashion that befits a culinary leader of his standing: “Depending on the restaurant and its style, what it aims to achieve, what standards it aims to raise its bar to – yes – it becomes important. People will associate quality and price with value all around.”
Cyrus is about providing his diners with a wholly fantastic dining experience, including drinking. Nonetheless he has had to keep his ambitions rooted to the reality of his business.
He adds: “Due to the nature of our business and the extremely limited washing up space, we have to look for durability and looks [in a wine glass]. In short we have to go for practicality.”
In Cyrus’s case, practicality does not have to mean compromising the importance of offering a glass that is suitable to fine wine. ‘At Café Spice we have two tiers of glassware. One is Villeroy & Boch – a very high-end brand – while the other is a more regular stemware but of good quality. Depending on the wine or the event we would alternate the glasses.’
Villeroy & Boch will typically costs between £10-30 per glass, a price that will likely make most restaurateurs gasp. But for Cyrus – as for most wine lovers – good wine calls for a great glass. “If I am drinking a particularly smooth and gorgeous wine I would hate to sip it from a squat, thick glass!”
But Cyrus warns to stay away from stemware that is beautiful but also impractical: “If there are big breakages, you are talking from a variance between £3 to £30 per glass!” He suggests finding something that is elegant but also sturdy – and most importantly something that it falls into your budget.
According to Richard Halliday – Marketing Director of Dartington Crystal – providing fine stemware is simply a part of good restaurant business practice:  “Your sale of wines and drinks in one of the most profitable things a restaurant does, therefore the way you serve it – and the resulting experience - is very important.”
He notes: “Table setting and glassware is a statement about what you are offering and how serious you are about food and drink. We believe that the product that we offer is one that is well-made, highly durable and reflects quality and value through a brand name that people recognize.”
Profit margins and branding aside, Halliday says: “From a wine drinking point of view, the Dartington range does a good job in handling the experience of wine drinking.”
Halliday explains that what people expect from a restaurant has changed radically over the past 10-15 years as during this period the public has taken a much greater interest in wine. Consequently people expect restaurants to put a noticeable emphasis on this part of the dining experience, including different glasses for different wine styles.
“Today nicer restaurants will not serve white and red wine in the same style glass like they would have done a decade ago,” says Halliday. “The size of the wine glass has increased – a trend from the United States – with bigger bowls and finer and longer stems. In today’s environment, if someone is paying £60 for a bottle of wine, it would be an insult not to serve the wine in the appropriate wine glass.”
So what is the appropriate glass? One style for white and another for red, or should a restaurant invest in the different style glasses offered by the likes of Dartington such as stemware made specifically for wine from Bordeaux or Chablis, and even glasses made for individual grape varietals like Sauvignon Blanc or Shiraz? 
Halliday confirms that science is behind individual wine glasses being designed for different styles of wine, not clever marketing.  “Most of the great wine regions of the world have developed glasses in conjunction with their wine. As it is true with beer – a pilsner tasting best in the appropriate glass – so it is with wine.”
Is it practical for a restaurant to invest in glasses for each and every wine style? According to Halliday: “At top restaurants it is practical to use all the different wine glasses for different styles of wine. However, most establishments will be happy with a good white and red glass, but when a restaurant starts to charge premium prices the customer will expect a high level of stemware.”
No surprisingly, one item that Halliday insist upon is that Champagne is always served in an elegant flute. Another item is that fine dine restaurants should use is lead crystal, as it is the best quality but also the most expensive.
“More mainstream restaurants will prefer lead-free crystal, which is a harder substance more suitable to a dish washer – it is more durable but still feels luxurious,” he states.
Halliday finished our chat with a sensible point about aesthetic quality of holding a nice wine glass: “If you can give your customers that extra bit of quality and glamour, just by putting a glass in their hand, isn’t that a good trick?” 
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