Wine and Plastic Cups: Not a Perfect Pairing

Editor's note: On Fridays Deb Harkness of Good Wine Under $20 joins us to talk some Serious Grape. Today, some advice for entertaining this weekend. Take it away, Deb!

"If you can't be bothered washing stemware or are worried about fragile stems breaking outside, get yourself some stemless wine glasses."

This weekend, at cookouts all over America, people will be drinking wine out of plastic cups.

Sometimes, you just have to. Between the breakage issues and the cleanup issues, we can all be forgiven for occasionally serving Chardonnay in plastic tumblers.

But the wine will suffer for it. It will have barely any taste, no discernible aromas, and seem tart and slightly vinegary. At a backyard cookout that may matter less than someone stepping on broken glass or facing a sink full of dishes. But before you pour your cult Cabernet into a plastic cup, here's what I found out about the importance of good stemware at a seminar led by Georg Riedel, the founder of the wineglass company Riedel.

I knew in a vague way that serving wine in proper glasses mattered. But I had no idea how much until Georg Riedel led more than a hundred of us through a tasting this spring at the Hospice du Rhône event in Paso Robles. We tasted some pretty superb wine in everything from plastic cups to handblown lead crystal. The results were convincing: what you put your wine into matters as much as the wine itself.

Take the 2005 E. Guigal Saint Joseph Syrah as an example. In a plastic cup, this $26 bottle of wine tasted like Welch's grape juice. In a glass specially shaped to accentuate Pinot Noir's aromas and flavors, it tasted very alcoholic and acidic, with a roughness in the mouth that was unpleasant. In a glass Riedel made for Syrah, however, the wine smelled of red and black fruits and chocolate, and was as smooth as satin in your mouth.

Riedel makes dozens of glasses that are specially crafted so that the shape of the glass determines the flow of the wine into your mouth. He sees his wineglasses as "instruments" that accentuate the best qualities of a particular grape or style of wine. Before you clean out all your cabinets to make room for a full set of every different glass Riedel makes, here are some tips on how to improve your wine drinking experience without putting on a kitchen addition and taking out a second mortgage.

Ditch the Plastic Cups

Whenever possible, drink wine out of glass. Many makers (including Riedel) make stemless wine glasses. While wine snobs may say this is no better than a plastic cup, I've had wine out of a plastic cup--there's no comparison. If you can't be bothered washing stemware or are worried about fragile stems breaking outside, get yourself some stemless wine glasses. If you entertain a lot, go to a local beverage market and buy a box of cheap wine glasses. I bought a set of 18 for $20 a few years ago and whenever I have a big party I pull them out.

Avoid Wineglasses with Thick, Rolled Edges

Most of us have some of these hanging around and I am appalled at the number of restaurants that serve wine out of them. Go look in your cabinet--you'll find them. Those thick edges protect against breakage. They also alter the flow of the wine into your mouth and make wine taste flat and acidic.

Spend About as Much on a Single Wineglass as You Do on a Bottle of Wine

Riedel suggested that your wine budget should guide your choice of glass. There's really no need to spend $100 on a single, hand-blown, crystal wineglass if you are going to put $10 wine in it. Instead, invest in glasses at a price level that makes sense for your wine-drinking habits. Riedel suggested that the amount you spend on a wineglass should be about the same as you spend on a single bottle of wine. I drink $15-$20 wine most of the time, so I spend $60-$80 on a set of four glasses. Most manufacturers (including Riedel) make glasses that are affordable as well as glasses that are extravagant. You know which category fits you.

You Don't Have to Own Every Shape of Glass Made

The sheer number of glasses that Riedel makes can cause you to throw up your hands in despair and decide that it's not worth starting down the road to better stemware. Don't get overwhelmed. My first Riedel glasses were the Vinum Zinfandel/Chianti glasses. They were recommended to me as good all-around wineglasses that would suit a variety of different wines, including most white wines. I loved them and used them so much that in a few months I went out and bought Riedel's Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc glasses. I chose those two shapes next because those are the grapes I gravitate towards and when I entertain I tend to serve Pinot Noir or Sauvignon Blanc. Though I find that wines do taste best in the glasses designed for them, when I'm tired I just reach for the Riedel Zinfandel glasses and enjoy every drop.

One word of warning: when you buy good wineglasses, you will find that the size of the bowl--the round part that holds the wine--is quite large. This is because the wine needs air to come to its full potential. Avoid the temptation to "fill" these wineglasses. In some cases, an entire bottle of wine will fit into a single glass. Instead, fill the glass just to the point where the the bowl reaches its widest point. That will give the wine plenty of room to breathe in all that oxygen.

I was surprised by my experiences at the seminar. I knew that wineglasses mattered, but had no idea how much. And one thing's for sure. My day's of serving wine in plastic cups are over.