Its Burgundy Grand Cru glass is the only stemware that resides permanently in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Übercritic Robert Parker claims that its line of more than 100 wine-specific glasses is "the finest for both technical and hedonistic purposes." Oenophiles can argue until they're red in the nose about whether Mouton Rothschild, Lafite, or any of 100 other vineyards produces the best wine, but most agree without argument that Austrian glassmaker Riedel has come the closest to creating the perfect wineglass.
Riedel's top-of-the-line, lead-crystal glassware is still made in the traditional way in factories at Schneegattern and Kufstein. Lumps of molten glass, heated to over 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, are mouth-blown into cast-iron molds and fitted with stems that are fashioned by hand. Apprentices ply the craft for a minimum of 10 years before they make their first glass. Their margin of error: one millimeter.
Such precision is merely a prerequisite for producing the perfect stemware. For Riedel, the real secret to fashioning a flawless product resides in matching the glass to the grape. Thirty years ago, while rivals were tinkering with cut glass, Claus Riedel — the ninth generation of the 300-year-old dynasty — had a hunch that a glass's size and shape influenced a wine's taste, bouquet, and balance. Working with expert wine tasters, Claus began tailoring the stemware to individual grape varietals. In 1973, he launched Sommeliers, a series of wineglasses that were custom-made for Bordeaux, Burgundy, Chablis, and so on. Sommeliers revolutionized wineglass design. Applying the Bauhaus design principle of form following function, Claus created a wineglass that was more than just a glass — it was a vessel meant to deliver the full potential of a wine.
It was up to Claus's son, Georg, to take on Riedel's next challenge: to bring wine-drinking perfection to the masses. German firm Spiegelau and other imitators had followed Riedel into the market by producing cheap clones of the basic shapes that Claus introduced in the 1970s. Georg, the company's president, responded by introducing a more-affordable, machine-blown line of wine-specific potash glasses and a dishwasher-proof series for restaurants. Both lines sacrifice a bit on quality — they lack the near weightlessness of Riedel's handblown, crystal glassware. But for Riedel, the path to perfection lies not in raw materials, but in design. Until rivals find a way to clone Georg — a master who has handcrafted scores of wineglass shapes that range in size from fishbowl to thimble — Riedel will remain the best in its class.
A version of this article appeared in the August 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.