This article was originally published in Noble Rot Magazine, issue 22
What is it with natural wine bars and their miniature glassware?
Head to any of the world’s temples for minimal intervention vino – Aux Deux Amis in Paris, Amsterdam’s Glou Glou, the Lower East Side’s Ten Bells, Terroirs in London to name just a few – and your drinking receptacle for the night will be a mean-sized bastard son of the INAO/ISO tasting glass. Some call it a bistro glass, I call it a shrunken tulip. Or to be less polite, an abomination designed to prevent full appreciation of the liquid within. Notice that term “tasting glass”? It is specifically not designed to facilitate the pleasure of drinking.
An acceptable glass possesses various properties: It should allow the drinker to smell the wine and enjoy the aromas without getting a wet nose. It should be possible to effect a debonair swirl to accentuate all the marvellous sulphite-free aromatics, without fellow guests getting drenched in the crossfire. And it should make the user feel like an adult, not a guest at the mad hatter’s tea party. Bonus marks are available for thinner, more elegant glassware. The shrunken tulip scores nul points on all of these.
It also tempts restaurateurs or servers to be mean on the pour. Polite society now acknowledges that wine glasses should be filled to one third full at most, to allow the necessary headroom for swirling, sniffing and generally letting the wine do its thing. But the cut-down bistro glass needs to be filled to 50% or more to reach even 125ml. Given that no natural wine venue worth its salt would ever do anything as establishment as measuring their pours, the risk of being short changed is considerable.
No-one expects Zalto Denk Art or Riedel Vinum in the stripped down nouveau-punk environs of their favourite sans souffre watering hole, but the other extreme of drinking out of a sparsely-filled thimble is no less risible. And why is it that the more French-themed the venue, the more likely it is that the teeny tulip will prevail?
The French are acknowledged masters when it comes to the provision of terrible glassware – an evening spent drinking in the overly-touristed town of St. Emilion will provide ample proof. Classed growth clarets never tasted worse. There is a studied irony about the greatest wine nation on earth apparently not caring about the delivery mechanism for its liquid treats.
Perhaps French insouciance is tolerable as part of the terroir of Parisian caves au vins naturelles. It pairs effortlessly with the shabby-chic décor and rude service. But transplant this experience outside France and the joke wears off pretty fast. Dear all-natural-wine-bars-anywhere-else: your choice of glassware is not ironic, or revolutionary. It’s just annoying.
Dear all natural wine bars: your choice of glassware is not ironic, or revolutionary. It’s just annoying.
Context is all. There are certain situations where basic glassware is consistent with the experience. For example, the wonderful French tradition of la formule déjeuner, still alive and well in many provincial towns and villages – three courses, inclusive coffee and house wine, for 10-12 Euros. When the wine comes to the table in an unidentified glass jug, drinking it out of a tumbler is absolutely fine. This is wine as beverage, not as high art. Stems are not required.
Anywhere that might be described as rustic, bucolic, rural, getting away from it all, jaw-droppingly scenic also gets a free pass. Few would agonise over the new world Pinot balloon or the aged Chardonnay glass at a picnic in the Provençal countryside.
But urban natural wine bars cannot get away with this kind of romanticism. They are fundamentally places where wine – and good or exceptional wine at that – is supposed to be celebrated and to take centre stage. And they are rarely cheap. As soon as a glass of wine reaches double-digits in price (quadruple digits for Japan), expectations rise.
This is redoubled in spades if the owner/lackey/sommelier just gave The Speech about how natural wines have so much more terroir character/purity/health-giving properties than their mainstream brethren. A glass of Radikon, Overnoy or Jean Foillard will leave a bigger hole in the bank balance than the entire afore-mentioned lunch. It deserves a little ceremony, or at least a glass that does the wine justice.
Basic glassware isn’t exclusively the preserve of hip new natural wine bars. The Michelin starred St. John Restaurant in Clerkenwell has long pioneered its use of a basic “salon glass”, as co-owner and wine director Trevor Gulliver terms it. The short-stemmed, wide-lipped glass is frequently derided by the restaurant’s more wine-savvy customers – hardly surprising, given that St. John offers an excellent wine list where bottle prices edge up to £200 and beyond. A small stash of Mouton-Rothschild 2000 is available for special occasions or customers with fat wallets.
Gulliver insists that the simplistic glass is about “removing the layers of froth and unnecessariness” and instilling a sense of comfort into the restaurant’s guests. He argues the case well – by his own admission it’s not the first time he’s mounted this defence – but when pushed about the Mouton, he concedes that alternative glassware would “probably” be made available. He also admits to a slight hypocrisy: “Fergus [Henderson, co-owner of St. John] and I had dinner at the Ritz recently, and we fully enjoyed the wines and the stemware”.
It’s understandable that the natural wine world, like St. John, wants to turn its back on pomp and pretentiousness, and to show that it has different ethics and different (or no) rules. But wine-themed establishments where the wine cannot be optimally enjoyed are as conceptually baffling as noisy hotels where it isn’t possible to get a good nights’ sleep, or confused taxi drivers with no sense of direction.
Thus the shrunken tulip glass joins the shortlist of other punishable offences in the hospitality industry: serving cocktails (or absolutely any beverage) in a jam jar, serving food on a slate or anything else that is a non-plate, not taking reservations, not providing cutlery because “the owner wants to stay true to our street-food concept”, deconstructing anything.
There is a glimmer of hope: Terroirs are reportedly switching to superior Chef+Sommelier glassware, having decided that the current cheap branded glasses “were rubbish for anything half way decent”. Don’t expect the Parisians to take a blind bit of notice.
Postscript: since this article was originally published in March 2020, Terroirs unfortunately closed both its central London and Dulwich locations permanently. To the best of my knowledge, this had nothing to do with their change in glass size policy.