Maximilian J. Riedel still recalls the day that Robert Mondavi came to visit his father, Georg. It was back in the 1980s, and the legendary California vintner had already been making and tasting some of the world's finest wines for four decades. Even so, Mondavi was flushed with a new discovery.
"I have never tasted my wine in such a beautiful way," Mondavi said. Which meant: Mondavi had just tasted his wine in a piece of Riedel stemware.
"When people put their nose into a big glass," Maximilian Riedel explains, "it's like the key to the universe—like looking into a big telescope." Such talk might seem like marketing bluster, but in the wine world, it is gospel. Fifty-four years ago, Riedel Crystal revolutionized wine drinking with a radical approach to glassware and, because of that approach, has dominated the high end of the category ever since. As international wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. has written: "The effect of these [Riedel] glasses on fine wine is profound. I cannot emphasize enough what a difference they make."
The Riedels have worked a long time to get their brand to this point—nearly 300 years, in fact. The family's glassmaking dynasty dates back to 1756, when Johann Leopold Riedel opened the family's first glassmaking works in Bohemia (part of today's Czech Republic). By the 19th century, the Riedels were famed throughout Europe for glassware ranging from jewelry to lamps, but lost everything in WWII. Only in 1955, when ninth generation Claus Riedel rebuilt the factory did the company decide to focus, fatefully, on stemware.
Claus Riedel's lasting innovation was what's today called "wine-friendly stemware." Dispensing with the heavy, etched, ornate goblets that had characterized wineglasses up until that time, Claus Riedel opted instead for a simple, egg-shaped bowl—a design he debuted in 1958. The lightweight, slender design was the essence of form following function: It enclosed the wine's bouquet, focusing the aromas toward the nose and allowing oenophiles to savor the full flavor, depth and balance of the wine in a way that hadn't been possible before. Riedel was first to treat the wineglass not as an ornamental piece of tableware, but as a consumption tool.
Riedel didn't just revolutionize glass shape: In 1961 it introduced glasses specific to each varietal—chardonnay, Riesling, Bordeaux, Loire, and so on.
According to Maximilian Riedel (Claus Riedel's grandson and the 11th generation head of the family firm), it was the "wow moment" a drinker first experiences wine in a Riedel glass that turned both consumers and winemakers into exponents for the brand—which is today a $300 million firm that produces 55 million to 60 million pieces a year. "It all starts and ends with wine," Maximilian Riedel says. "Wine makes people happy."