The New Rules of Wine Glasses? There are No Rules.

Photos and animation by Tom Arena

Stephanie Summerson Hall’s earliest childhood memories are soaked in a kaleidoscope of color. Hall’s grandmother, Estelle, was an avid collector of Depression-era glassware. At her South Carolina home, Estelle’s heirlooms sat perched in two china cabinets until ripe for picking on holidays and Sunday dinners when she’d honor those who gathered with a feast served in sparkling emerald green- and amber-colored glassware.

“She’d serve her vegetables, her rice in those bowls,” says Hall. Colorful goblets would also be filled with iced tea. “Those were her special pieces.”

Hall began to build her own collection several years ago, soon after she became a homeowner. However, she found it difficult to source the colored pieces that she coveted. She launched Estelle Colored Glass, an artisanal glassware company that hand-blows an assortment of wine glasses in eye-catching jewel tones, pastels and more.

The pieces link Hall to her heritage and to memories of the treasures that once bedazzled her grandmother’s table. Hall’s wares are also a breath of colorful whimsy at a time when small indulgences mean so much. The glasses provide a rainbow of possibilities with which to reimagine how we drink.

Blue wine glasses
Glassware styles cycle in and out of fashion / Photo by Tom Arena

Last year, during the pandemic, a study claimed that Americans drank 14% more often. As regulars at the wine bars of our own homes, we’ve had time to reassess the wines we enjoy, the way we purchase them and our preferred drinking vessels, too.

We’ve been emboldened, motivated to go for it, whether it’s to splurge on a set of high-end stemware earmarked for everyday usage, or to find solace in meaningful, nontraditional pieces that evoke joy despite, perhaps, their lack of technical accuracy.

In The Psychology of Wine: Truths and Beauty by the Glass (Praeger, 2009), authors Evan and Brian Mitchell ask a provocative question: How much of what we perceive as taste is physiological, “and how much is psychological, given that beauty and grace of form possess an astonishingly emphatic power of suggestion?” By redefining traditional glassware rules, wine lovers give form, function and personal preference equal footing.

“I think anything can be a wine glass,” says sommelier Danielle Norris, a sales representative for Cream Wine and Spirits, and cofounder of the wine educational platform, Slik Wines. “In my house, I drink mostly out of small pint mason jars for wine.”

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The movement to widen our outlook on food and wine pairings beyond the dominant, Eurocentric lens had gained steam pre-pandemic. During shutdowns, our homes became casual, judgment-free spaces where our interpretations reshaped our connection to what and how we eat and drink.

“I think in the setting of hanging out with friends, I want to show something fun and interesting and different,” says Miguel de Leon, a sommelier, wine writer and wine director at Pinch Chinese. “So, maybe I’ll break out old McDonald’s glassware that I found at a thrift shop and that’s really fun to drink fun wine out of. Not everything has to be so serious.”

The influence of nostalgia shouldn’t be underestimated, says de Leon.

As regulars at the wine bars of our own homes, we’ve had time to reassess the wines we enjoy, the way we purchase them and our preferred drinking vessels, too.

Glassware styles cycle in and out of fashion. The 1920’s Champagne coupes with ornate etching or lavish gilt were replaced by long, slender flutes, which remain emblematic of celebrations and status in many circles. More recently, some wine experts began to serve bubbles in white wine glasses. They say it benefits the wine’s aromatics.

Alpana Singh, the esteemed sommelier, restaurateur, and host of Check, Please!, recalls several significant contemporary wine glassware shifts that were prominent in bars and restaurants.

“I do remember the wine glasses [of the 1990s] were kind of like this big, clunky, thick-lip, Libbey glasses,” says Singh.

The rise of fine dining gave way to luxe stemware. The ceremony of bringing out wine glasses was an essential part of the dining experience. “Everybody was clinking on it, and you could hear the chime,” she says.

Singh points to Chicago’s legendary Charlie Trotter’s restaurant as an early adopter, and she credits Larry Stone, a master sommelier, for his help to spearhead it.

By the late ’90s, high-end stemware was expected at fine-dining restaurants across the country. “It was sort of shocking if you went to a five-star restaurant and they didn’t have nice glassware that matched the grandeur of the bottle ordered,” says Singh.

Wine glasses pink
Many wine lovers are redefining traditional glassware rules / Photo by Tom Arena

Other standouts, according to Singh, include Riedel’s introduction of varietal-specific glasses, and of course, the then-eyebrow-raising introduction of stemless glassware.

“It’s been almost 20 years,” says Singh. “And now people don’t balk at screwcaps, and people don’t balk at stemless.”

In restaurants, fine glassware is often considered an extension of the brand, one that signals the dining experience ahead. It sets the tone for the diner. And it creates context.

“There’s how I drink at home, when I have people over—casual comfort,” says Norris. “And then there’s when I’m presenting to a class.”

When she teaches, Norris uses all-purpose stemware with a medium-sizes bowl. “I want to present in a wine glass because I think that that level of professionalism has to be.”

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De Leon considers academia an appropriate setting for traditional stemware. In other spaces, personal connections to the wine, and the ability to put your stamp on it, is far more powerful than so-called correctness.

“I think we’re really understanding that personal preference is going to be arbiter of taste, instead of anything else that is ‘correct,’ ” he says. “I always like challenging that question, like, ‘Correct for who?’ ”

As social drinking outside of our homes ramps up, Singh sees a through line.

“I think anything goes nowadays, and I think that as the lines get blurred between how we enjoy wine at home and how we enjoy wine at restaurants, customers are a lot more comfortable with it,” she says.

Wine glassware today is less about rules and more about joy. Your chosen vessel may bring forth memories of Grandma’s house, like Hall. It could offer an indulgent pop culture moment, à la Olivia Pope. Or it may transport you to a destination sorely missed, like the blue waves reminiscent of the beach that the late B. Smith hand-painted onto wine goblets for the cover of B. Smith: Rituals and Celebrations. Regardless, your wine moment belongs to you.

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Published on July 12, 2021
Topics: Glassware