I had to buy some more wine glasses the other day. I’ve always used Spiegelau ones at home – good quality, but not so expensive that breaking them induces a panic attack. They’re sensible, useful, good-looking. But they do not make the heart sing.
Which made me think – do I pay through the nose for something more dangerously, exquisitely, ethereally fragile, or settle for practicality? Perfection is reached when the two coincide. But in the accoutrements of wine, they often don’t.
Eighteenth-century English wine glasses are glorious. The colour of the glass (colourless, obviously, but ideally with the faintest grey tint to its colourlessness), the texture of the glass, the shapes, the minute imperfections. And those imperfections are there by accident, with the aim of perfection; they are totally different to the deliberate imperfections of modern hand-made tiles, for example, with faux-clumsiness built into the spec. You can tell later machine-cut glass from earlier hand-cutting because with the latter you can follow the movement of the hand doing the cutting: it’s a direct link between you, here, today, and a craftsman in a glassworks 200 years ago. The imperfections are only visible if you look very closely, but overall they give an 18th-century glass a human feel. Like books, they are agreeable companions in a room. But they are useless for drinking. Eighteeenth-century wine glasses are far too small and completely the wrong shape. And by the time you get to the late 19th century glasses combine the dullness of mass-production with shapes that we would not choose nowadays. It was all downhill after about 1830.
Modern wine glasses are soulless. They are indifferent. Arrange them on a dinner table and they can look good. But they are relentlessly practical. The most subversive thing they do is bend. If you squeeze the rim very gently a good modern glass will bend slightly – just enough to remind you that, as your school science books told you, glass is a liquid. (Years ago, at dinner with the Riedels in Austria, I bent one of his glasses in just that way; Georg went slightly pale and told me to stop, because I could cut myself and they weren’t insured. I’m not either, so do not try this at home.)
What about decanters? Tell me when you’re bored. You can pick up decanters made c.1800 for a tenner or so in junk shops, even today. They’ve lost their stoppers, but who needs the stopper, honestly? They are objects of great beauty and grace, and perfect practicality. A winding tube of glass made by Riedel can also be a thing of beauty, but to my mind loses points for practicality. The sommelier at Hide restaurant in London uses one so big he slings it over his shoulder and resembles some figure from classical mythology, but I wouldn’t want to be him getting through a narrow doorway.
But decanters can be practical in other ways too. I came across a feature in a splendid magazine called Better Homes & Gardens: if you’re bored with your decanter, it suggests you store coffee beans in it. Or paint it on the inside, ‘to match your home’s color palette’: ‘a permanent DIY upgrade’, apparently. Let me know if you try it.
With wine, you either have it in the cellar, and have the pleasure of knowing you have it, or you are drinking it, or it’s a memory. Wine is a performance art. Glass plays its part in that performance, but it’s the stage rather than the actor. An 18th-century wine glass might not be as effective a stage for wine as a modern glass, but it’s a constant pleasure to have around. And it has a backstory. My mead glass, c.1740, has been owned and used by a great many people before me, one of whom chipped the foot, and unless I drop it will be owned by somebody after me. My decanters, lined up on the dresser, have seen a great many dinners. I like that history. My glass rinsers, currently housing hyacinth bulbs, were made for Georgian dinners at which glasses were rinsed between wines, which saved on the numbers of wine glasses needed. (I can’t see Riedel bringing that fashion back.)
Which brings me to corkscrews. Nothing has been invented that works better than the dear old Waiter’s Friend, though it’s not particularly beautiful. But corkscrew collectors go for the engineering; and they’re often not interested in wine. I discovered this while researching a piece on corkscrew-collecting some years ago: they were super-nerdy, as you’d expect, and they were nearly all men. It was the engineering that fascinated them.
The wine magazine I was writing the piece for did not want to hear this, unfortunately – it was the wrong sort of fact. But I thought, how interesting. It would be like me collecting – I don’t know, car badges or something – something from a field in which I have no interest, but a design that appealed.
And why not? You don’t have to be interested in the associations of something to like it. Painter Howard Hodgkin collected Indian miniatures but always said he didn’t care about the stories they were illustrating. In the Sainsbury Collection at the University of East Anglia there is a wonderful Japanese earthenware pot, with earthenware flames licking its rim. The curators know neither what it was for, nor even when it was made – they date it to 2500-1500 BC, which is a pretty wide margin of error. It was, in its day, no doubt extremely practical; to us it is purely beautiful. ‘Human bones’, says the catalogue, ‘have been found in vessels of similar quality.’ So both beautiful and not designed to be seen by many people? Or would it have been on display? Or was it designed for the sole appreciation of the owner of the bones in the next life?
Either way, beauty and function (probably) coincide perfectly. It’s a long way from wine, but the principle is the same. And yes, I do rather long for modern glasses that lift the heart.
Photo by Kyle Head and Unsplash