GlasswareTo The MAX

GlasswareTo The MAX

During his rabble-rousing teen years, which weren’t so long ago, all signs pointed to Maximilian Josef Riedel heading off to Asia to begin his career with his family’s wineglass company. That’s where his father, Georg Riedel, the man largely responsible for revolutionizing the way in which the world looks at stemware, saw the greatest potential for his only son. Not coincidentally, it was also where the elder Riedel believed his company would achieve its greatest growth in the 21st century.

The time was the mid-1990s, and the Asian Tiger was growling. Wealthy businessmen from Tokyo to Taipei were celebrating their good fortune with bottles upon bottles of fine Burgundy and Bordeaux, some of which were going into proper wine cellars and many of which were being mixed, on the spot, with Coca-Cola or Sprite. Georg Riedel, who in the late 1980s had taken over the company officially known as Riedel Glas from his father, the late and legendary “Professor” Claus Riedel, was convinced that Asia would become the next wine wonderland. He wanted his son to eventually be responsible for this burgeoning market.

But fate delivered a bowl of shark’s fin soup and a snake blood-and-gin cocktail, and as Maximilian Riedel tells it, his proscribed future in Asia was not to be. “When I was 18, I went to Asia after working a year at Tiffany in New York. I was in the hands of our top vice president and we traveled to Taiwan to meet our distributor there. He was a powerful, rich man who was pouring Krug Champagne and ’82 Pétrus at a dinner that included many important buyers.

“The first course was soup, with something I’d never seen before floating in it. It was a shark’s fin worth more than my annual income, which was basically nothing. I didn’t eat that, or much of anything. And at the end, when I was asked what I thought of the dinner, I said I was still hungry. Our host immediately stopped dessert and made everyone at the table eat the whole meal again. It was an embarrassing lesson. Later that evening he took us to the night market. There he bought a live snake, cut it open and let the blood drip into a glass of gin. He then made me drink it, a penalty for what had happened earlier. I’ve never worked in Asia since.”

Today Riedel insists that it was actually Japanese intransigence toward working with the son of an overseas-based father that chased him away, but that dinner in Taipei left an indelible mark. And in the annals of Maximilian Riedel’s fast and furious 27-year life, there are a number of wild, harrowing, even comic, occurrences that have shaped and steadied him, experiences not out of line with his what transpired on his first business trip to the Far East.

Like the time when he was 15 years old and he and his buddies went ski racing down an Austrian mountainside to see who could get to the pub first. “Probably one of the only problems with a country with no drinking age,” he notes. “Of course, since there was a bet involved, I was leading the way. But then I hit a jump and went flying out of control. I crashed hard, bit through my lip, broke my shoulder, and ended up with a head injury and internal injuries. I spent three weeks in the hospital and left in a wheelchair. It was another three weeks until I could leave the house.”

Unfazed and miraculously in one piece a dozen years hence, Riedel still loves action sports such as skiing, snowboarding and auto racing. “Cars are the illness of my family. We love them,” he says, displaying a photo of the vintage red Maserati he recently purchased from the Christie’s catalog.

Next he unveils a snapshot taken at Brick Raceway in New Jersey, where earlier this year he spent a summer Saturday racing Legend Group mini cars. And in the garage of his high-rise apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey, a building that overlooks the Hudson River and New York City, rests a jet-black 2004 Porsche Cayenne Turbo.

Art is another of Maximilian Riedel’s passions. He attributes his fondness for modern paintings in large part to his girlfriend of three years, Daniela Behr, also a native of Austria and currently a clothing designer with The Gap. “Women influence me, in good ways and bad. They always have, from my older sister (Laetizia, 30; now a lawyer in Switzerland), who got me smoking cigarettes when I was a kid, to Dani. She’s my unofficial advisor on all things related to design. She has great taste.”

Well groomed, properly dressed, formal until he gets to know you, Max Riedel is secure enough in his recent accomplishments not to blush about his years of rich-kid indulgence. “During my mandatory military service I spent most of my time acting as the de facto bartender in the officers’ casino. I grew up on Grüner Veltliner and fine food, so I knew what to serve. And while I thought I’d get discharged, they loved me for it,” he says, still exhibiting a hint of mischievous pride about the scheme.

And as far as traditional school was concerned, “I was a bad student; I hated my teachers,” says Riedel, who never attended university but did attend a two-year business school in Kufstein, his hometown in the Tyrolean Alps. “I think that’s why I was sent to boarding school in Salzberg.”

The Rolex of Glassware
So how exactly does a child of privilege, one who grew up skiing Innsbruck and Kitzbuhel before graduating on to fast cars and a fancy apartment, become the driving force for the $30 million-a-year Riedel Crystal USA? How did this young man—the company’s executive vice president—increase Riedel’s sales in the U.S. by 65 percent in his first three years on the job?

By offsetting the fun, games and near-death experiences with myriad lessons learned from his father and grandfather. From Claus Riedel, who in 1973 introduced the now-famous Sommelier wineglass, Maximilian says he has learned how to be innovative. In his father, whom he refers to as “Georg Riedel” when speaking business and “Papa” when it’s more personal, he observed persistence, politeness and savvy business practices. He also grew to appreciate his dad’s toughness. “I never loved my father more than when I was about five years old and he went after this wild skier who had run me over. He caught up to the guy and started beating him with his ski pole. You will always look up to someone like this.”

And in the world of wine, Georg Riedel deserves admiration. The man frequently referred to as the King of Crystal more or less saved Riedel Glas from failure in the late ’80s. “He had to,” Maximilian Riedel explains. “Our company was not in good shape. Grandfather was a creator, but he lacked the dynamic personality and business sense necessary to continue running the company. Establishing Riedel in the United States [in 1979] was the first major move Georg Riedel made to grow the business.”

Long before Georg Riedel made his move to the U.S., in fact long before the 11th generation of Riedels was even born, the Riedel company had earned a reputation for being one of the most innovative, precision glassmakers on earth. Founded in the 18th century in Bohemia, Austria (now part of the Czech Republic), generations of Riedels, starting with founder Josef Riedel Sr., produced glass pieces without peer, including drinking vessels, art pieces, carafes and decanters. Claus Josef Riedel, part of the third generation, was the first Riedel to actually build a glass factory (in 1756), and over the decades, several regional wars, and two much larger ones, the family persevered, thriving at times while struggling at others.

In 1958, after the most devastating war years had passed, Riedel Glas, now led by Claus Riedel, introduced the Burgundy Grand Cru glass, still lightheartedly referred to as the “bucket.” This oversized glass remains the only piece of wine stemware on permanent display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Additionally, it led to “Professor” Claus Riedel inventing and unveiling the Sommelier collection in 1973, at the time the world’s first wine-specific line of glassware.

Sommelier, which is hand-blown and contains about one-quarter lead crystal, was the wineglass that taught wine lovers that shape, form and material could impact wine enjoyment. Originally the line featured 10 different shapes, each made expressly for a different type of wine. The upper part of the glass was blown thin and light, and the shaping allowed for wine to flow to the precise spot in the imbiber’s mouth. Along the way, aromas, flavors and textures were maximized.

Georg Riedel then took the work of his father to even greater heights, traveling the world and showing doubters that indeed the Riedel Sommelier line was the Rolex, Mercedes Benz and Gucci of wineglasses. In 1986, in response to a demand for sturdier, more durable glasses, Georg Riedel developed and introduced the Vinum line, today Riedel’s most popular line of glasses. Vinum’s style remains based on the Sommelier design, but the glasses are machine-made. In 1991, he expanded on Vinum by unveiling Ouverture, a simple but elegant everyday glass made from a compound known as potash. Lines including Wine and Vinum Extreme followed.

“O” Stands For…
Original? Outrageous? Outstanding? How about Oversold, as is the case with Riedel’s white-hot “O” glass, which Maximilian Riedel himself designed and rolled out in January of this year.

The collection of six tumblers, which Riedel admits is nothing more than the Riedel Vinum line’s bowls without the base and stem, has been selling out across the country. By July, Riedel’s contract German glassmaker, Schott-Zwiesel, said it could not produce any more than the 2.9 million units already agreed upon for 2004, despite the fact that more than a half million had already been sold in the United States at the time, and retailer orders were piling up.

“What I love about working here in America is that I feel so creative; my ideas get accepted here,” notes Riedel, who in addition to “O” also created the Riedel Restaurant line a few years ago. “Riedel Restaurant came about in 2001. I was working with Alex Adlgasser, who worked at Danube (a high-end Austrian restaurant in New York). We were visiting restaurants, and chefs and owners kept telling me our glasses were too fragile, and thus too expensive. I told my father about this problem and within a month I had samples of the new glasses, which are two-piece, as well as brochures.” (Today Riedel Restaurant ranks only behind Vinum in terms of units sold in the U.S.; 765,000 glasses in 2003 compared to 1.1 million for Vinum.)

If Riedel Restaurant has been a success, then “O” is a runaway success. Maximilian Riedel openly admits that it’s “O,” which sells for between $10 and $13 per glass, that is largely responsible for pushing domestic sales toward an estimated $30 million in 2004. That figure is up from the approximate $18 million the company was earning annually when Riedel took over the business in January 2001. “Our goal is $40 million by the end of 2006,” he says.

Out on the street the chatter about “O” couldn’t be more positive. In fact, it’s a challenge for leading retailers to keep the glasses in stock.

A Career Born in the USA
As America’s appreciation for fine wine increased during the 1980s and ’90s, Riedel’s business in the U.S. grew. Nonetheless, by the time the millennium came and went things were not what they could or should have been, according to Maximilian Riedel. “Our warehouse was in Long Island, a terrible place to be geographically. And it was run like a flea market, with no order. And our sales force lacked motivation. That is why I was sent here in 2001, to improve the operations and the administration of the business.”

Immediately Riedel realized that Long Island was no place to run a shipping-based organization. And personally he wasn’t enamored with life on the Island. “I was bored, living on a golf course with balls bouncing off my roof. I knew immediately that I wanted to move things,” he recalls. It took Riedel two full years of looking for new space, “with an Austrian [real estate] broker, of course,” but just this year all business operations and merchandise was transferred to Edison, New Jersey, to a modern office park “where we can reach 60 percent of the United States within 24 hours,” he explains.

Riedel also cleaned house in terms of personnel. Many of the long-term employees were let go upon his arrival, and many others who did stay on did not go with the company when it moved to Edison. Today Riedel Crystal USA employs 32 full-time employees, nine of whom are sales managers. Nationwide, Riedel has 60 sales representatives and 37 wine distributors selling its glasses. The fortune of the business has never rested in more hands than it does now.

Using distributors to sell Riedel glassware looks to be one of Max Riedel’s best proprietary ideas. “Distributors like Southern Wine & Spirits employ 3,000 sales reps; Lauber Imports has 1,000 reps just in New York and New Jersey. These people are going into the wine shops, the country clubs and the restaurants. They spread the word and share in the business. They sell thousands of cases of fine wine to retailers, and they sell a lot of Riedel, too,” he says.

Today, Maximilian Riedel would be the first person to admit that both his professional and personal lives are moving along swimmingly; but not before he endured another of life’s harsh lessons. In March of this year, Claus Riedel died of a heart attack at the age of 79 while vacationing in Italy. Max Riedel loved his grandfather dearly, and he recalls with sadness the loss he felt. Yet, one interaction he had with the Professor in February has helped him get over his grief.

“At his birthday party about a
month before he died, I lined up my new line of ‘O’ glasses [see sidebar-editors] as well as my new Coronetto decanter. These were my first true designs, and he seemed totally shocked that I’d come up with them on my own. Tears came to his eyes and he said that it was at that point that he knew the company’s future was safe for another generation. A month later he was gone.”

At Claus Riedel’s funeral, which was attended by no fewer than 25 German Harley-Davidson riders who came to pay their respects to the chopper-loving Professor, Riedel recalls another heart-to-heart conversation he had, this one with his father. “Papa came up to me and said, ‘Close your eyes for a moment and smile because you may never experience such good times again.’ He didn’t really explain what he meant, but I took it to mean that he was proud of me and felt that we had achieved the peak of acceptance and success. We try to remember that things weren’t as good as they are today.”

And with that anecdote Maximilian Riedel informs me that he will soon be going to Japan, his first trip to Asia since that fateful one nine years ago. He’s going, he says, to market an “O” saké glass. One can only wonder how a snake blood and gin cocktail might taste from such a glass.

Published on November 1, 2004

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