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A Clear Benefit for Wine

Of all your wine paraphernalia, don't overlook glasses--they really make a difference

James Laube
Posted: February 22, 2005

If you want to make all of your wines smell and taste better, there's an easy solution.

Make sure you're using top-flight stemware.

Good glasses help bring out the best in any wine. While it's true that wine, even great wine, can be enjoyed out of any vessel, you owe it to yourself to splurge on at least a couple of upscale glasses to taste what I mean. Once you do I'm sure you'll convert to a full dining set.

Many factors affect how any wine is appreciated. For example, the environment and the company you're drinking with both hold huge sway. I've enjoyed fabulous wines from tumblers in dimly lit motel rooms and sipped fantastic bottles from cheap plastic cups sitting around smoky fires in high Sierra campgrounds.

At home, I use Riedel and Spiegelau glasses (which you can easily order online), and to simplify matters I've narrowed it down to two--the Vinum Bordeaux and Vinum Chardonnay/Pinot Noir glasses. I've yet to find a table wine that didn't perform well in one or the other.

But at my office in Napa, for official Wine Spectator blind tastings, I use an old favorite. It's not very pretty, but it's effective. It's a bowl-shaped, stemless glass with a small punt at the bottom, and an indentation for the thumb on the side. It's called The Wine Taster Glass from a line of stemware known as les impitoyables. I always use this glass, and have for decades.

As best I can remember, I learned about this glass in the early 1980s. Back then, it seemed like every winemaker I visited had a set (this was before Riedel made a huge splash and sold stemware to wineries). Many winemakers, in Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhone Valley and California, recommended it because the shape of the glass was designed to maximize the taster's perception of the aromas in the wine in the shortest possible amount of time. Winemakers said they preferred it to other stemware because it helped highlight possible defects.

It was also said that the glass name--impitoyables--stood for merciless (actually a more literal translation from French is pitiless), because it showed no mercy for any wine and highlighted everything in the glass--especially, and perhaps most importantly, flaws such as Brettanomyces, volatile acidity or TCA taint.

While most wineries now use classy stemware to showcase their wines, I've stuck with the impitoyable because it has served me well. Part of it is habit and there might be a little superstition. But a lot of it is a belief in the value of consistency, using the same glass for every wine, week in, week out.

When you're tasting wine, or better yet, critiquing it, you want to eliminate as many variables as possible. While you can't change the weather, you should go into every tasting well-rested, taste early in the day, always spit, try to taste in the same environment (office or room) each time and, I've found, use the same glass.

The impitoyable isn't very attractive for dinner parties. It's small, with a narrow opening at the top and awkward to hold. But with its narrow opening and design, it does highlight wine aromas better than any glass I've used. That's why I've stuck with it for all these years.

Peter Leeman
Miami —  August 19, 2013 12:48pm ET
Hi Jim,

Just bought the impitoyable glass and I wondered how you clean it between wines?

Water? Or just a wipe? Or do you just rinse with the next wine?

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