What kind of hi fi system do you have? And how good is the radio in your car? Good enough for Mahler or Miles Davis?
For a friend of mine who’s passionate about hi fi, this is a question that really matters. His system set him back nearly $10,000 and the leads connecting his amplifier to the speakers cost more than many people’s complete set-up. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, this altar to sound has its own temple in the shape of a dedicated room where there are shelves full of vinyl albums which, my friend assures me, have an immeasurably finer, more ‘real’ sound than CDs. His opinion of music streamed digitally through computer speakers, or even ones bearing the Bose brand, is not repeatable.
I have some empathy with my friend. Among my most treasured possessions a couple of decades ago were a 1950s Garrard record deck and a Quad 22/202 valve amplifier of a similar vintage, on which I too, used to play a lot of vinyl. Then children arrived, we moved home, life got in the way of hi fi and the equipment found its way into the loft.
What didn’t change was my taste in music. I still listen to all the same stuff, but today I generally do so over Spotify and often through serviceable but far-from-special earbuds.
And so to wine glasses. I see a direct parallel between enjoying Smetana or the Stones on great hi fi and enjoying Beaune or Barolo from great wine glasses; it’s undeniably a better experience than hearing the music over the radio or drinking the wine from a tumbler. But does the wrong glass destroy the experience?
Over nearly half a century of wine drinking, I’ve imbibed from all sorts of receptacles. There have been grand tastings with Riedels galore, restaurants with glasses large enough to accommodate a shoal of goldfish, and blind tests of glasses designed to bring out the best in specific wine styles and of glasses that will help them to ‘breathe’. At home, I’ve owned and washed and broken a huge range of glassware and need no persuading of the contribution a great glass can make to the enjoyment of a really great wine.
But let’s keep a sense of proportion. Is the shape and size of the glass really more important than the temperature of the liquid it contains? I’d say it’s not, given the results of experiments in which experienced tasters imagined that the same wine chilled to varying degrees was made from different grape varieties.
Is the effect of a variation between glasses more discernible than the – often significantly – different flavours and oxidation levels associated with natural corks?
What about the ambience: a restaurant’s lighting or background music (both proven to affect perception), or the perfume or after-shave or stale sweat of the diners at the next table? I’ve memories of having my vinous experiences spoiled by all of these, as they were on another occasion by a fierce row between a married couple seated nearby.
I’m sure distractions like these have had a negative influence for as long as humans have been enjoying fermented grape juice, but until the mid 20th century, I doubt that many people have been as bothered about the receptacle out of which they did their drinking. Just walk around any gallery and look at the glasses in the old paintings. Most are little friendlier to wine than the ones we use for dry martinis today. I’ve not found any records of picky Champagne drinkers of the 1920s complaining about having to sip their Cristal from saucers modelled on Marie Antoinette’s breasts.
Of course top class restaurants should serve their wine in fine glasses, just as they should have good crockery and cutlery and well turned-out waiters; that’s part of what you are paying for. And I’m not going to defend the decision by hipstery bistro-owners’ to serve Jurançon in jam jars. But as for whether I’d order a good bottle in a place that expected me to drink it from basic glassware - that would depend on the price they were asking, my mood and whom I was going to enjoy it with.
All I know is that I’d no more decline the opportunity to experience an affordable great wine solely because of not having ‘good enough’ glasses than I‘d turn down the chance to watch Hamilton from the barely-affordable seats I was able to secure at the back of the theatre. Even while conceding that the songs will probably sound better when played from a record on my friend’s hi fi.