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A Short, Unexpected History of the Wine Glass

How we went from drinking bowls to universal glasses, where one size fits all

Janice Williams By August 9, 2021
photo illustration of Zalto Universal Glass
Zalto Universal Glass; photo courtesy of Magdalena Weiss. Photo illustration by Allison Kahler.

What’s the first thing you do after opening a bottle of wine? The answer is likely simple: You pour some wine into a glass. The glass is bowl shaped and often, but not always, clear and colorless. But beyond these basic commonalities, there are countless variations on wine glass shapes and sizes. 

Some people prefer to stick to varietal-specific glassware. Larger, wider-mouthed, and stemmed Bordeaux glasses are used for heavier-bodied red wines, while petite, smaller bowl glasses are used for the whites. Others prefer stemless tumblers, and these have gained popularity over the last two decades with wine lovers opting for more casual sipping experiences. And for those less interested in adhering to traditional wine rules, mason jars have become go-to wine drinking vessels.

The Drop spoke with glassware historians and makers to get a handle on how glassware has changed over the years, and how we landed on the latest trend, the one-size-fits-all universal glass. 

History of glass

The idea of using glass as a wine vessel dates as far back as ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. In 500 B.C.E., people used vessels with a slightly curved, flat bottom and flared rim — almost like a cereal bowl — to drink wine. By the 4th century C.E., the style of drinkware evolved thanks to the introduction of the glass blowpipe, a useful tool invented by the Phoenicians around 200 B.C.E. 

Though glass can occur naturally, thanks to lightning striking a beach or a volcanic eruption, people have historically used fire to produce molten glass from sand. The introduction of the blowpipe gave people an easier and safer way to make various shapes and sizes of glassware intended for drinking. It also served as a means for glassmakers to better showcase their creativity with more innovative styles, shapes, and colors of glassware. 

According to Katherine Larson, a curator at the Corning Museum of Glass in New York, goblets like the stemmed glasses we recognize as today’s wine glasses started to appear in the 3rd and 4th centuries. “Sometimes they have handles; sometimes, they don’t,” she says. “They start popping up during that era in the area that is now Israel, Lebanon, Syria — that area of the Eastern Mediterranean — and then that style of glass expands throughout the ancient Roman world and beyond.”

The museum is currently showcasing Fire and Vine: The Story of Glass and Wine, an exhibition that explores the impact glass has on wine, how they intertwine, and how glassware for wine has changed over time. The oldest piece of wine drinkware featured in the exhibit is more than 2,500 years old. 

Glassware on display at Corning Museum of Glass, Fire and Vine exhibit. Photo courtesy of Corning Museum of Glass.

Centuries ago, glassware used for wine was reserved for royalty and the rich. It became a more domestic product during the Roman Empire. When the Roman Empire fell, glassmaking in Europe came to a halt, and people in the Middle East and Asia became the primary manufacturers. Glassmaking returned to Europe throughout the 1200s with Venice as the hotspot for production until Bohemia — an area of Central Europe that covered what’s now known as Austria, Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia — emerged as the frontrunners of the industry, according to a 2019 GuildSomm report. 

As society progressed, so did glassmaking standards. The discovery of lead oxide in 1675 enabled glassmakers to create items with incredible clarity. The creation of the coal furnace, which burned hotter, provided for thicker, more durable glass. Glass production sped up when the continuous furnace was invented in 1867, allowing glassmakers to run ovens all day and night. And the industry was kicked into overdrive when automated glass blowing was invented in America in 1903, which resulted in glassmakers using a machine to assemble their designs instead of the traditional mouth-blowing or hand-crafting methods. The automated glass blowing machine, created by Owens Bottle Machine Company, revolutionized glassmaking, allowing for faster production and higher quantities of glassware. Automated glass blowing lowered the cost of glass production, making glass more accessible for everyday people.

“Riedel really capitalized on this phenomenon and kind of invented this idea of all these different styles of glassware. That was a product of the mid-20th century consumer culture.” 

Variety-specific wine glasses 

Though the progression of glassmaking production is clear, the shapes and sizes of glassware people have used to drink their wine aren’t so linear. Throughout history, and as depicted in the Corning Museum of Glass’ newest exhibit, glassware style is heavily dependent on the culture and customs of the moment. 

However one trend is crystal clear: Over time, wine glasses have gotten bigger. A 2017 British Medical Journal report found that the capacity of the average wine glass increased seven times between 1700 and 2017, with the biggest jumps in size occurring in the 1980s and 1990s.

Looking back to the 1800s, wine glasses were already differentiated between red and white glasses, with red wine glasses larger and white wine glasses smaller. But more often than not, a single wine goblet for both wine styles was used, Larson says. “There were other changes in forms and styles, other things like cordial, water glasses, and liquor glasses. But the wine glass goblet is really just the wine glass for a lot of history.”

A key moment in wine glass history came when glassware manufacturer Riedel introduced the idea of using specific styles of glassware to enjoy specific types of wine. “Riedel really capitalized on this phenomenon and kind of invented this idea of all these different styles of glassware,” Larson says. “That was a product of the mid-20th century consumer culture.” 

In 1973, ninth-generation Austrian glassmaker Claus Riedel emerged with a series of elegant and refined glassware designed to highlight specific grape varieties’ nuances and character. Suddenly wine lovers had a specific glass to use for their Cabernet Sauvignon, and it was different from the glass Riedel made for Chardonnay or Merlot drinking. 

To say that Riedel’s differentiation of wine glasses by variety was a hit would be an understatement. It brought the glass company immense success and essentially led it to be one of the top dominating glassmakers on the market. With more than 700 glasses under its umbrella, Riedel now claims to be the third-largest wine glass manufacturer in the world. Its glassware has resulted in study after study of scientists dissecting Claus Riedel’s claim that a wine glass’s shape and size impact the drinker’s ability to pinpoint a wine’s aroma, flavor, and complexity. 

Under the leadership of Claus Riedel’s son George Riedel, varietal-specific glassware advanced. George Riedel launched the Vinum crystal glassware series in the mid-1980s. The collection featured machine-made glassware that brought Riedel stemware to a wider, newer audience thanks to its lower price point. Riedel’s current CEO and President Maximilian Riedel brought in even more consumers by introducing the “O” series, which consists of stemless glassware.

Then there’s Riedel’s “Overture” series. Though the line is separated by red and white glassware, the glass is the company’s signature “all-purpose” design, which aren’t necessarily varietal-specific. It’s perhaps the all-purpose red and white glasses that paved the way for an increasingly popular style of stemware: the universal glass.

One glass for all 

Scroll through the wine glassware on any housing goods website, and you’ll find a variety of stemware dubbed as universal glasses, a wine glass designed to bring out the best in many wines, without the fuss of varietal specifics. Another Austrian glassware company, Zalto, is largely responsible for making the universal stemware style more mainstream following the release of its ultra-thin Denk’Art universal glasses in the early 2000s.

Glassware companies like Gabriel-Glas, Mark Thomas, and Schott Zwiesel have also released universal glasses aimed at making wine more approachable and enjoyable for any style of wine. And a variety of wine professionals have gotten in on the trend. Jancis Robinson MW released a universal glass in collaboration with glassware designer Richard Brendon in 2018. 

“I have spent 42 years trying to make wine as approachable and as pleasurable as possible and sincerely believe that just one glass for all wines makes perfect practical sense,” Robinson has said

Master Sommelier and wine educator Andrea Robinson also created a universal wine glass. However, she wasn’t necessarily planning on releasing a one-for-all glass when she first started sketching designs for her glass, dubbed The One

Andrea Robinson’s “The One” wine glass. Photo courtesy of John McJunkin.

Andrea Robinson’s “The One” wine glass. Photo courtesy of John McJunkin.

“I didn’t start out with the thought of a universal glass,” Robinson says. “Like everyone else, I was prepared to accept that grape-specific shapes were necessary for the very best wine experience. What emerged for me more so than the idea of a universal glass, which I think of as a simplification, was the idea that precision equals optimal shape. It just happened to be true that the [universal wine glass] shape optimizes all wines.” 

Considering the dozens of wine glasses spanning thousands of years and various countries currently on display at the Corning Museum of Glass, the idea of a universal glass seems to hearken back to the past. 

“This whole universal glass phenomenon is almost like going back to what things were before, and, actually, not so long ago — before we all got caught up in all the consumerism of the 20th century where we had to have different things for everything,” Larson says.