Fine wine deserves fine stemware, but sooner or later, we suffer breakage, need volume or are tempted by flea-market finds. But going second-hand or searching out volume value doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice quality, if you follow these steps.
First, look at a glass. Turn it carefully against the light. It should be gin-clear from bowl to foot. Any hint of green means low-grade bottle glass—move on. Colored stems are acceptable, if somewhat passé. Etching and engraving are for antiques only.
The lip should be flat—sheared, as if cut with scissors—for a crisp, clean pour. The too-common bulbous rim is sometimes labeled a “safety edge,” but that’s a marketing dodge used to disguise cheap manufacture. It’s a hallmark of cafeteria-grade glassware.
Next, hold an audition: literally listen to the glass. Rap the bowl sharply at the equator with a knuckle or a cork. (I use a felt hammer salvaged from a junked piano.) A pleasing bell-like tone should last several seconds—a lingering finish. My luckiest flea-market find, a Riedel Burgundy Grand Cru, emits a lovely low gong for 20 seconds. But if you hear a brief, metallic clink? Pass.
If the glass satisfies these absolutes, proceed to more subjective criteria like heft. The glass should be agreeably light and well balanced, not “bowl heavy.” Such glasses are spill-prone, as are those with small footprints. Stability requires a foot that’s nearly as wide as the bowl. Make sure the stem is elegantly slim, but not so skinny to be unduly fragile. Pulled-stem or “drawn” glasses are made in one elegant piece. “Pieced” glasses show a joint where the stem and bowl have been fused together, and they may equal pulled stems at significantly lower prices.
What and Where to Buy
Aside from the obvious, consider these brands that are obscure to consumers but well regarded by restaurant pros: Germany’s Stölzle (standard at Smith & Wollensky and Ruth’s Chris Steak House), Slovakia’s Rona (a relative newcomer, it stars at Del Posto); while Italian Luigi Bormioli and German Schott Zwiesel stems employ patented break-resistant glass.
Retail sources include wineenthusiast.com and any home store with “crate,” “pier” or “barrel” in its name. Major department chains like Macy’s often have sales, even on Riedel. At flea markets and thrift shops, carry cash and be ready to pounce—real finds won’t last.
I know this from painful experience. I once spotted an elegant set of 12 wheel-engraved 19th century Austrian crystal Champagne coupes—perfect as sherbet cups—offered at $1 apiece. But during my 10-minute trip to the nearest ATM, they were sold.