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"Wine is at the head of all medicines; where wine is lacking, drugs are necessary."

Babylonian Talmud: Baba Bathra

History of the Wine Glass

Winery Insight Featured Article - November 2005 by Timothy O. Rice

For perhaps 80 centuries, humans have been drinking wine - but what did they drink it from?


The answer runs from clay to wood and bronze, from gold and silver to glass and that final indignity: plastic.


In the earliest days, clay goblets were the norm.  Later traders like the Phoenicians brought the making of bronze to cultures throughout the Mediterranean and Europe and places East, so bronze goblets and tankards began to appear, along with wooden ones.  In Rome, the silver and pottery were introduced.  Rich cultures even used gold for the high and mighty.


Imagine that!  Wine from a wooden mug, a bronze goblet, a cup of clay.  Silver and gold if you were among the elite.  How would that taste.


For most of that period, the art of glassmaking was unknown or so poor that other material was used to hold the wine, in an amazing variety of shapes and choices.  The wine glass, as we know it, is a relative newcomer.


About 50 B.C., Romans were beginning to use glass instead of these other materials.  The writings of Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) mention Romans adopting the newer wine glasses for those who had plenty of money.  This switch was occurring even though the glasses were often as expensive as the gold and silver cups they replaced among the wealthy.  Obviously, the old Romans were epicures who appreciated the taste difference!


The collapse of the Roman Empire, the Dark Ages, and the climb back to the Renaissance disrupted the European glass industry.  As the barbarians swept into the remains of the Roman Empire, they brought with them much of their own custom, which included drinking from horns -- which had no legs and had to be finished before setting them down.


About 800 AD, the Church had done away with the use of horns for communion wine.  Wooden tankards were common by the 900s, and before 1100 AD glass tumblers were common in England and northern Europe.  The Viking threat began to recede.  Nation-states began to form again in Europe, and trade began to proper once more.


By the 1300s, the "black jack" was commonly used in England, commonly used for centuries thereafter, even into the 1800s.  This was sewn from leather, lined with black pitch to make it watertight.  Imagine drinking your wine from that!


By the late 1500s we see evidence of "modern" wine glasses.  The 16th century "Last Supper" of Bonifacio Veronese shows wine glasses with a stem and foot.  By late in the 18th century, cordial glasses holding about an ounce were known.  Regular wine glasses and crystal had been developed with various stem types: straight, air twisted, incised twists.


In the 1800s, wine glasses began to be sold in sets, usually of a dozen, for the type of wine you would drink with them: port, sherry, burgundy, claret, champagne and liqueur glasses.  Not by coincidence, 19th century fine dining involved a prodigious amount of drinking, with different wines served with each course.


Through all this history, an industry grew up to sell the glassware people wanted, from fine crystal to common goblets and glasses.  Nothing unusual developed until after the Second World War, when a stunning revolution arose from the Reidel company.  The head of this well-established glassware company was a man with a mission, sure of his purpose.  He believed that the size and shape of the glass itself could enhance the wine tasting experience and set out to prove it.


People - even winemakers - were skeptical, of course.  Reidel assured them that his glasses would make individual varieties taste better.  The concentrated the aroma, they let the wine breathe better, they guided the different varieties to the areas of the tongue most suitable to their attributes.  Over time, they acknowledged that Reidel had the right of it.  The Reidel glass (and its competitors who followed the trend) became the way to drink wine, with glasses shaped especially for Burgundy/Pinot Noir type wines, another for Cabernet/Merlot/Bordeaux, a third for Chardonnay/Pinot Grigio/Sauvignon Blanc and so on.


I wonder what they will think of next!

 Last modified: August 07, 2007