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Claus Riedel, Wineglass Innovator, Dies at 79

The creator of Riedel's Sommeliers collection was a pioneer of form following function.

Posted: March 24, 2004

Claus Josef Riedel, the glassmaker who developed Riedel Crystal's first line of stemware tailored to different wine varietals, died on March 17 of a heart attack while visiting family in Genoa, Italy. He was 79.

Riedel, the ninth generation of a family of glassmakers, was president of Austria-based Riedel Crystal from 1957 until 1994, when he passed responsibility to his son Georg, who is currently president.

During his tenure at his family's company, Claus Riedel pioneered the application of the "form follows function" concept to wineglasses, which historically had been designed with aesthetics in mind. "He changed stemware from traditional, colored, cut glass to plain, thin-blown, long-stemmed beautiful wineglasses," said his grandson, Maximilian Riedel, who is executive vice president of Riedel Crystal U.S.A.

In 1957, Claus began experimenting with different shapes and sizes of stemware, and discovered that the aroma and taste of a particular wine could be altered -- and deliberately enhanced -- by the design of the glass. A year later, he released the Sommeliers Burgundy Grand Cru stem, a 37-ounce whopper of a glass, which was jokingly referred to as the "goldfish bowl." It is now part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

That design became the first in Riedel's Sommelier collection, which hit the market in 1973 and consisted of 10 different glass shapes, each fashioned to enhance a particular varietal. Although initially greeted with some skepticism, the collection has since grown to include 31 styles and is widely used by wine connoisseurs and professionals in the wine industry.

Riedel was born in 1925 in Polaun, Bohemia, now the Czech Republic. He was drafted into the German army during World War II and was captured by American soldiers. After 10 months as a prisoner of war, Riedel escaped while being transported back to Germany for repatriation. He ended up in Austria, where he found Daniel Swarovski, a glassmaker who had worked for Claus' great-grandfather, Josef Riedel.

In 1955, when Riedel's father, Walter, was released by the Soviets after 10 years as a prisoner of war, Swarovski helped the father and son purchase a bankrupt glass factory in Kufstein, Austria, where the family's glassmaking tradition continues today.

In addition to his son Georg and grandson, Maximilian, Claus Riedel is survived by his daughter, Barbara Orehounig; his fourth wife, Ute, and their son, Wenzel; and his granddaughters, Julia Orehounig and Laetizia Riedel. A memorial mass will be held on March 29 in Kufstein, Austria.

-- Nick Fauchald

Read more about the Riedel family:

  • Dec. 15, 1999
    The Riedel Dynasty: A glassmaking tradition spans 10 generations

  • Dec. 15, 1999
    Riedel's Artful Designs: Crafting the perfect glass for a particular wine can take years

  • Dec. 15, 1999
    Making Riedel Crystal: A step-by-step look at the fine art of glassmaking
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