A wine glass is a wine glass is a wine glass, right? Wrong. Very wrong.
To truly appreciate good wine, you should be sipping it from a vessel specifically designed to "open it up," and if you're doing it right, that glass was probably made by Riedel. We recently got a look behind the scenes at the Austrian factory where their award-winning handblown batches of glassware are made. Prepare to want to overhaul your whole cupboard.
Nestled on the Austria/Germany border in a town called Kufstein, Riedel's HQ is home to its only factory that still produces glasses and decanters entirely by hand, just the way they started out doing things in the late 18th century.
They've turned to mechanized production in more recent years to keep up with demand, but most of their finest stock is still made here by a team of talented artisans using ancient glassblowing techniques.
Riedel was first established in 1756 in Bavaria, earning a reputation as one of the preeminent glassmakers of the era by producing a variety of extraordinary decorative items like perfume bottles, jewelry, and specialty engraved bowls. They also pioneered some advanced molding techniques, like spinning glass fibers without using platinum, which caught the attention of the military, who commissioned them to create enormous radar screens.
And while the Riedel brand had been in the business of making drinking glasses for quite some time before, it wasn't until the mid 1950s—under the leadership of Klaus Riedel, the 9th generation of Riedels to have a hand in the company—that they got into wine-specific stemware.
In 1973, they made a splash in the vino community with the debut of the Sommeliers Collection, which featured a range of different glasses, each designed with a distinct shape and weight to showcase a specific varietal. It was a total game-changer in the industry, and cemented the Riedel name as one of the most respected and trusted amongst winemakers and oenophiles alike.
While it's still very much an active production facility, the Kufstein factory also serves as an homage to the Riedel family's 250 years in the glassmaking business. Its towering 55-foot tall glass pyramid atrium (which Riedel constructed themselves) has 1756 individual panels, a nod to the year the family business was born.
Hop in one of their tours and you'll get to walk above the factory floor to watch their legion of glassblowing artisans in action.
Kufstein doesn't have the same capacity as Riedel's other three factories—which use mechanized production methods—but they can still turn out 1.8 tons of glass in a day, and 250,000 individual pieces of stemware per year. It's a lot, for sure, but the other factories that have an insane production capacity produce nearly 50 times that. Still, nothing compares to the level of detail and care that comes with a pair of expertly skilled hands.
Every piece starts its life in the unbelievably hot furnace. Silica is heated to its melting point (over 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit) and the molten glass is globbed together by the glassblowers, who then prepare to create the bowl, that part of the glass that holds the liquid. It's crucial that each glass is crafted with incredible and uniform precision, as the so-called "architecture" of each pieace is fundamental to highlighting the specific varietal intended to be enjoyed from each.
Once the bowl is shaped and cooled, it's on to pulling the stem.
Then on to the base.
The final detail for every glass and decanter before inspection and packaging is the handwritten Riedel insignia along the base.
There's also an impressive gift shop, decked floor-to-ceiling with their full range of work, including some exceptional one-offs. Depending where you're visiting from, odds are you'll be able to score most of their stuff for a good deal less than average retail, which should keep your wallet happy considering it's not uncommon for a set of just two wine glasses will set you back a cool $60.
Joe McGauley is a senior editor at Supercompressor. Just thinking about working alongside 3000-degree furnaces all day makes him sweaty.