Riedel - Tasting the difference with the right wine glass
When Maximilian J. Riedel’s grandfather produced the first wine-specific glass, some connoisseurs doubted whether it would make much difference to the taste of the wines they drank. Wine glasses then were smaller than today’s, made of cut glass and coloured, but the new Riedel glasses were designed in Bauhaus style where the philosophy is that less is more and form should follow function. Made of smooth glass blown to be thin, they had longer stems with bowls tapered to the rim and shaped to enhance the grape’s taste.
This revolutionary approach soon began to win followers, however – including Robert Parker, the influential US wine critic, who said the finest wine glasses were those made by Riedel. “The effect of these glasses on fine wine is profound,” he added. “I cannot emphasise enough what a difference they make.”
Today, the venerable glassmaking company uses the very latest guerrilla marketing techniques to convince wine-drinkers that Riedel glasses can enhance the experience. It organises wine-glass tastings around the world in which audiences of 100 people or more are given a prepacked set of the Riedel glasses. For example, the set for a red wine tasting might contain glasses for Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.
“We invite them to taste a Pinot Noir from the right glass and discuss the wine’s qualities,” says Maximilian. “Then we ask them to taste it in the two wrong glasses, and they are stunned – they can’t believe the difference. We explain that it’s all about how the wine flows onto the palate: for a wine with high acidity, flowing it onto the tip of the tongue emphasises the fruit and balances the acidity. This converts around 60,000 people a year into our ambassadors, and they buy more of our glasses so they demonstrate what they have learnt to their friends.”
The Riedel family’s links with the glass industry go back more than three centuries. They began with Christof Riedel, who was born in 1672 in Bohemia – now part of the Czech Republic. He and his son sold high-quality glass objects across Europe, but his grandson went a step further in 1756 by founding a glassworks.
The company prospered over the years, but disaster struck after the Second World War. During the war, the Nazis had forced the company to produce strategic war products, including a large monitor to be used for radar. After the defeat of Germany, all of the Riedel family property and factories in Bohemia were seized by Czechoslovakia. Walter Riedel, the eighth-generation family member, was imprisoned in Russia in 1945 and forced to work in a glassworks laboratory for ten years.
However in 1956, his son Claus J. Riedel, together with the newly returned Walter, was able to take over the bankrupt Tirol Glassworks in Kufstein, with the support of the Swarovski family. In 1973, Claus introduced the Sommeliers range, the first wine-friendly hand-blown glasses. And in 1986, Maximilian’s father Georg J. Riedel launched Vinum, the first varietal-specific machine-made glass, which has become the best-selling glassware of all time for Riedel. Maximilian made his own contribution in 2004 by designing the O range of functional glasses without a stem, as well as several award-winning decanters.
Maximilian’s career at the family company had begun when he was just 12, with a week’s holiday work in the factory. At the time, the company’s strategy was to increase sales by building relationships with the wine industry, so in his teens he was sent on internships with several well-known wineries, including a champagne house.
“I felt comfortable with the people I met in the wine trade, but I was still too young to join the industry. So I was sent to the Venetian island of Murano to learn glass-blowing and craftsmanship, which has greatly influenced my naturally flowing designs. I also completed my technical education in Kufstein and then did eight months of military service. That was followed by working in Paris for French porcelain producer Ercuis, travelling around France and learning the language for two years.
He had always wanted to end up working for the family company and his parents and grandfather had ensured he was prepared to do so. He finally joined Riedel in 1997, becoming Chief Executive of Riedel Crystal of America in 2004.
“It was a good time to be in the US: wine was becoming popular, people were drinking it in restaurants and vineyards were producing wines that proved popular worldwide. As the quality of US wine improved, French winemakers arrived on the West Coast to bring their skills to Oregon, Washington state, and the Napa Valley. And consumers wanted good glasses, which meant that high-end retailers such as Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s turned to us.
“Part of our strategy was to spend a proportion of our earnings on advertising, targeting consumers through the emerging range of wine publications. We were also among the first to put our entire product range online, which cuts out middlemen and now provides a significant proportion of sales. However, we have never discounted online, so our retail partners have remained loyal.”
The grape-specific glasses can cover only the most popular varieties – there are 1,200 red wine grape varieties alone worldwide. Riedel continues to add new ranges to its output with different designs: stemmed and stemless, taller and shorter, with colour and without. It has also made smaller runs – including for spirits – when commissioned by producers. And it produces handmade limited editions with, for example, red or black stems.
In 2004, Riedel acquired Nachtmann, a Bavarian glassware manufacturer which also owned the Spiegelau beer and glassware brand. And in 2013, his father made Maximilian President and CEO of the combined RNS Group, which is jointly managed by them both. It has some 1,200 employees, two-thirds of them working at Neustadt in Bavaria where the machine-made glasses are produced.
Around 100 employees work in the US and 200 at Kufstein, where prototypes and handmade glasses are manufactured. These include the Sommelier glasses, where traditional methods of production involve teams of workers around ovens, hand-blowing the glasses using old-fashioned tools. Each is led by a master who carries out the finishing work glass by glass.
Despite its success, the company always faces new challenges, says Maximilian. “Retailers such as IKEA make their own glasses, selling to younger consumers through their one-stop outlets. And traditional stores which sell glasses are disappearing, so internet sales are increasingly important to us.
“But we take a creative approach to maintain our growth,” he says. “As dining out has become more popular, we introduced a range of glasses for restaurants. With much lower prices, their sales are growing fast. And although the margins are smaller, it helps us maintain our output and to keep demonstrating that good wine tastes better from good glasses.
“Our family has always had the talent and entrepreneurship to face new challenges, but we have also enjoyed great luck. The exception was Walter Riedel, who lost everything after the Second World War. But his son Claus was able to restore the business in Austria, and we have continued to develop and grow ever since.”