Crystal Clear

Crystal Clear

Crystal Clear

If you want to understand how Georg Riedel became the world’s leading maker of fine wineglasses, watch him order at a restaurant.

On a recent sunny afternoon in Scottsdale, Ariz., Riedel sits down for lunch outside and orders a bottle of Schramsberg, one of California’s top sparkling wines. He has some instructions for the sommelier: He wants large Riedel glasses—not flutes; he’d like a small bucket of ice cubes so that he and his dining companions can add ice to their glasses if needed; and he insists that the bottle be placed in a large bucket filled with half water, half ice, just high enough to completely cover the remaining wine inside. 

Turning to his tablemates, he smiles and acknowledges that he is being high-maintenance. “But how is the wine supposed to get cold if it’s not actually in the ice?”

Georg Riedel is obsessed with controlling the details. He knows this about himself. But he does it because he wants that bottle of Schramsberg Brut Blanc de Blancs 2015 to taste its absolute best. The winemaker and his team worked tirelessly to produce a beautiful wine. Why shouldn’t it be served in a proper glass at the proper temperature? 

Riedel calls it getting the full “return on investment” from the wine. That belief—that wine should show its full potential—is part of what has driven Riedel to spread his gospel of glassware around the world for four decades. His father, Claus, was a visionary, responsible for creating glasses intended for specific types of wine. Georg took that work and nurtured it, designing numerous new glasses and decanters. 

And he was the one who sold them, convincing the world that the glass a wine is served in matters. “Not only do Riedel glasses enrich the beauty of a dining table, but they are also professional instruments,” says legendary Piedmont vintner Angelo Gaja, a longtime friend who has distributed Riedel glasses in Italy for years. “They help the wine to fully express itself and to gain its full dignity. Winemakers should erect a monument to honor Georg.”

Riedel’s success turned his family company into the leading name in wineglasses, with three factories in operation today: one specializing in high-end handmade glasses and two producing machine-made glasses. The company reported approximately $300 million in sales last year across 125 countries. 

Riedel changed the way we think of wineglasses and, in the process, changed our appreciation of wine. For all that, combined with his deep dedication to philanthropy, Georg Riedel is Wine Spectator’s 2019 Distinguished Service Award winner.

A few hours before lunch, Riedel, 70, is working up an appetite by engaging in his daily workout—climbing a mountain. With hiking poles clicking, he’s heading up Pinnacle Peak. He’s joined by Julie Barba, 54, a longtime Riedel employee, currently chief executive advisory officer. She has also been Georg’s life partner for almost a decade. The couple spends their winters at her Scottsdale home, less than a mile away from the mountain. In the summers, they relocate to his home in Kufstein, Austria. 

Riedel gave up marathon running a few years ago and now focuses on hiking to stay in shape. He has fallen in love with this area and can explain the local geology better than a native. The views are gorgeous and the desert is teeming with life—blooming paloverde, towering saguaro cacti and even a chuckwalla, a type of large striped lizard, sunning itself on a rock. It’s hot.

But not nearly as hot as the floor of Riedel’s Kufstein factory, where teams of men working in shorts pull molten glass from furnaces blasting at more than 2500˚ F. This is where Riedel spends the other seven months of the year, in an office close to his son, Maximilian, or Max, who is now CEO. Georg calls himself an adviser, but he also still owns 80% of the company. “I’m involved in major decisions, and as the majority owner, my words have great weight.”

On the factory floor of this old building nestled in an Alpine river valley, a worker uses a long blowpipe to heft a large lump of new glass, glowing like the sun, from the furnace. He swings it down, inserts it into a metal mold and blows on the other end of the pipe, inflating the lump into a perfect wineglass bowl. Another worker brings over a fresh piece, touching it to the bottom of the bowl. It’s stretched with tweezers as the pipe and glass are spun, forming the stem. A third lump goes on and paddles are used to flatten it into a disc, creating the base. 

Like glass, the Riedel family has been shaped and stretched by external forces and stress. The first Riedel factory was opened in Bohemia, today part of the Czech Republic, in 1756. When the Germans occupied the region in 1938, Walter Riedel, Georg’s grandfather, was put to work developing glass for Luftwaffe, the Nazi air force, to be used in radar screens. After the war, the Russians deported him to the Soviet Union, where he was forced to work as a scientist and then spent five years in a Siberian gulag.

Georg’s father, Claus, had enlisted in the Wehrmacht, the Nazi armed forces, as a young man and served in Italy, where he fell in love with a local woman, Adia Rosa Parodi. He was taken prisoner by U.S. soldiers and was riding a train to a POW camp in Bavaria when he jumped off in the heart of the Austrian Alps. He managed to make a new life for himself in Austria, sending for Parodi and eventually opening the Riedel Tiroler Glashütte factory. Georg was born in Innsbruck in 1949.

In 1958, an oversize wineglass Claus had created won a gold medal for design at the Brussels World’s Fair. It was later named the Burgundy Grand Cru. Claus studied how the shape of a glass emphasized different characteristics of a wine and concluded that most glasses, designed with beauty or cost in mind, were too small or were improperly shaped to allow enough air in to highlight aromas and flavors. It was a revelation. 

A year later, Parodi died in a car crash. Father and son lost their foundation. Claus would marry five times in the next decade. “My father was very loving, very generous, and in the same way, difficult,” says Georg. “He was emotionally unstable.” His father’s temper was unpredictable, and Georg never knew what he had done to trigger it.

But Georg believes it shaped him to be the 10th generation of Riedels to work as a glassmaker. “An irrational father with a very rational son is not easy. Everything has to be stable,” he says. “I learned from it. It taught me to cope.”

Claus introduced a Bordeaux Grand Cru glass as well, and in 1973, Riedel launched the Sommeliers collection, the first wine-specific line of stemware. Georg joined the company the same year, as an accountant. He would have to work with his father to build on their success.

Back in the kitchen in Arizona, Georg puts three glasses—all from Riedel’s new Performance line—on the counter: one for Pinot Noir, one for Syrah and one for Cabernet Sauvignon. Next he breaks out four other Riedel Pinot Noir glasses, each from a different line, including one still in the design phase, and pours some California Pinot into each one, as well as into the Syrah and Cabernet glasses. 

He has conducted tastings like this for decades. When he first went to work for his father, marketing was an afterthought. But Georg understood that the idea of wine-specific glasses was such a new concept that he had to convince people they actually needed such a thing. 

Today, Riedel “ambassadors,” who have undergone intensive training sessions, conduct tastings like this around the globe. More than 40,000 potential customers attend such events each year. 

But at the beginning, the only ambassador was Georg. Selling did not come naturally to him. “I am a very shy person,” he says. 

“At the beginning, Georg showed up in restaurants with a little bag containing his glasses and asked to place them on the table for him and a few friends of his,” remembers Gaja. “He wanted to drink wine in his glasses to better enjoy it. The restaurant owners would approach the table, as they found this practice ridiculous. Eventually, the entire dining room would approach Riedel’s table, curious about what was happening there.”

It was slow going, and the company was struggling. Rising oil prices had raised the cost of firing the furnaces. But Georg doubled down on wineglasses, urging Claus to add a machine-made glass line to the portfolio. Claus resisted, fearing it would cannibalize sales of the handmade Sommeliers series. Instead, the new Vinum line spread the gospel of Riedel to millions of people who considered a handmade glass too expensive but would try the lower-priced machine-made versions. 

Winemakers proved to be Riedel’s biggest champions; tasting their own wines in his glasses was eye-opening. “Before Georg, the playing field was so uneven, with the perception of a wine dependent often upon faulty glasses,” says Bordeaux’s Christian Moueix. “Riedel glasses have given each and every wine a chance to shine.” 

Georg had opened a U.S. division in 1979 after seeing how the sleepy American wine market was starting to rouse itself. A decade later, he convinced Robert Mondavi to test him: Riedel conducted a tasting of Mondavi wines in Riedel glasses and the ones the winery had been using. Mondavi immediately decided to stock only Riedel glasses in his tasting room. Tasting by tasting, Georg persuaded other winemakers to follow suit. American wine lovers, with fewer wine traditions and looking to learn all of wine’s nuances, embraced the glasses. Today, 35% of Riedel sales are in North America, making it the company’s biggest market.

Since the late 1970s, Claus had been transferring control and shares of the business to Georg. In 1994, Claus retired. Riedel then belonged to Georg. In 2004, without any financing, he purchased an Austrian competitor, Nachtmann, which owned the brand Spiegelau. Riedel had been sourcing its machine-made glasses but now could use Nachtmann’s factories to produce them instead, guaranteeing quality and potential growth. Claus died in 2004, leaving Georg alone at the helm.

Riedel’s success, however, put a target on his back. Today, a number of competitors, such as Zalto, Schott Zwiesel and Sophienwald, are also making high quality glasses. Critics have called Riedel a modern-day Barnum, using the power of suggestion in tastings to make attendees think the wine shows better in specific glasses. But anyone who has suffered through drinking wine in a tiny bistro glass can testify to the impact good glassware makes. “The skeptics still say today that it makes no difference,” says Riedel. “But the right shape enhances the enjoyment of wine. We can’t improve wine, no. We never said we could. The glass is a loudspeaker for the wine.”

Other critics have rolled their eyes as Riedel has continued to roll out new glasses for particular regions or grape varieties. Is a Central Otago Pinot Noir glass truly necessary? 

To Riedel, these regional glasses are about collaborating with winemakers. “Often we get commissioned for it,” Riedel says. “The winemakers have shipped us samples of their wines and I taste them in different glasses. Based on that, I craft a proposal of a small range of glasses. They travel to Kufstein and we try the wines in those glasses and discuss the differences. And based on that, they suggest changes and we make adjustments.” Most recently, Riedel developed a glass for Ao Yun, Moët Hennessy’s sparkling wine operation in China’s Yunnan province, near Tibet.

It’s a symbiotic relationship. For the winemakers, the exercise provides publicity as well as the chance to use glasses in their tasting rooms that they know will allow their wines to shine. 

For Riedel, there’s another benefit. “The reward we get is credibility. Everyone who works on a project like that will never say afterward that a glass doesn’t make a difference.”

Riedel believes in using his success to help others. For three years beginning in 2005, the company sold pink glasses marked with a pink ribbon for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, with $100,000 in proceeds going to breast cancer charities in multiple countries. 

Since 2016, Riedel has partnered with the Elton John AIDS Foundation, selling limited-edition decanters designed with input from the musician in order to raise money for the organization. So far the effort has brought in $100,000.

Riedel has also made a point of donating glassware to numerous groups that further wine education, including the Chaplin School of Hospitality at Florida International University, the Culinary Institute of America, the James Beard Foundation and the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. The company also loans glasses, at minimal charge, for use at charity events. Riedel says his joy is helping others discover the joy of wine. 

Throughout the first decade he sold wineglasses, Riedel liked wine but didn’t consider himself passionate about it. Then, in 1983, he was a guest at a vertical tasting of Bordeaux, and a sip of Château Palmer 1961 enraptured him. He has been a collector ever since. He believes the best wines show their full potential after 25 years. Burgundy and Bordeaux are particular favorites, especially the wines of Pètrus, the late Henri Jayer and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.

His love of wine is a key part of what has driven him to make better glassware. “You own a remarkable wine, you stored it for all these years, you aged it correctly, you did everything right,” he says. “Serving wine is a ritual. You pull the cork. You need the right temperature. Most important, you need to have the right people with you, so you can share the wine. It is such a joy to share that moment together. And if the glass is dirty, if the glass smells, if the glass is an inappropriate shape, all of this has an impact on your wine enjoyment.”

After 46 years, he is still a missionary. “A glass of wine is something that elevates the spirit and brings people together. Opening a bottle of wine and sharing it with Julie is an important part of my day,” he says. 

In 2012, Riedel received a birthday gift from Julie Barba, his partner—a helicopter tour. They climbed into a four-seat Robinson R44 chopper and lifted off. About 60 miles east of their house, they flew over Roosevelt Lake. It was a gorgeous day, and the pilot offered to take them down for a closer look. 

The helicopter clipped the water and smashed into the lake. “I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to die,’ ” says Riedel. The helicopter was sinking rapidly, but in his dazed state, Riedel realized he could open his door. He unlatched the harness and swam to the surface.

Looking around, he didn’t see Barba. She had been in the back of the helicopter, which was partially crushed, and had blacked out. When she woke, she managed to free herself. Halfway to the surface, she blacked out a second time. “She rose to the surface facedown,” remembers Riedel. “I swam as hard as I could. Thank God, some man in a boat got to her.”

Barba had been underwater for 15 minutes. It’s not clear how she survived without brain damage. Her legs were badly hurt and her lungs had collapsed. Recalling the incident, Riedel is quiet for a minute. “When I was on the surface and she wasn’t, I thought I had lost her … I thought I had lost her … I thought of my mother. And I thought, ‘No, not again. Not again.’ ”

Sitting a few feet away, Barba reaches out and takes his hand, “You didn’t lose me.” 

“No, I didn’t, my love.” 

When it came to parenting, Georg Riedel gave his two children a foundation they could count on, but also a freedom that he’d never had. He encouraged them to take risks. 

“When I was 11, he sent me to summer camp in Canada. And I barely knew any English,” remembers Max, now 42. “It was fantastic.” He remembers riding his bike as a boy alongside his father as he ran for marathon training, the two of them chatting about life and work.

When Max was 23, Georg sent him to New York to head Riedel’s American division. He wanted his son to have the chance to make his own mark. “He always trusted in my sister and me, and that made a big difference,” says Max, who responded to his father’s encouragement by growing annual U.S. sales from $8 million to $60 million in a decade. 

When a sales rep suggested that the company partner with Target, Max looked into the retailer and liked its reputation of offering good quality at value prices. The ensuing partnership put Riedel glasses in hundreds of new stores. “We wanted to be a brand in Tiffany’s and in Target,” he says. Today, Riedel glasses range in price from the machine-made Wine line at $15 a glass to the handmade Sommeliers Black Series at $160 a glass. A series of restaurant lines fill out the portfolio. 

Since 2013, Max has worked as Riedel’s CEO. His older sister, Laetizia Riedel Röthlisberger, an attorney living in Zurich, acts as the company’s counsel. Georg has happily handed off many of his duties to his children. 

But not all. He and Max still personally design every glass they add to the lineup; Performance was the first style the two produced together, both bringing ideas to the table.

A man like Georg Riedel still wants a degree of control. That’s exactly what he wants his glasses to deliver too.

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