We live in wine-obsessed times. So obsessed we are turning things that are not wine into it.
That's one way to look at the new Coca-Cola glass from Riedel, which purports to offer the ideal way to enjoy the Real Thing. Unveiled in Atlanta last month and set for a Canadian roll-out in April, the co-branded item looks as though it was made by a glassblower obsessed with Marilyn Monroe in a mermaid evening gown. Let's just say it's curvy, in a good way.
Riedel's first product to enhance a non-alcoholic beverage joins an extensive lineup of "functional" glasses designed to optimize the enjoyment of numerous wine styles, from Grand Cru Burgundy to sauvignon blanc.
More than most other Riedel product launches, it has been causing a stir, with coverage by such outlets as The New York Times, Forbes and Fox TV. Company owner Georg Riedel concedes the attention has been "not all positive," with a few wine bloggers in particular sensing betrayal by the 300-year-old Austrian firm, which pioneered varietal-specific stemware in the 1950s.
The accusation is amusing. I consume almost nothing in the way of soft drinks, unless you count club soda and the occasional pinot grigio. But I have sipped my share to know that Coke possesses more aromatic nuances than many a bland industrial wine flavoured with oak chips. Why deny cola nuts their snobby glassware rights?
The project got its start in February, 2013, Georg Riedel told me over the phone from California last week. Brad Fields, Coke's global drinkware manager, approached him at a consumer goods fair in Frankfurt to create a double-walled glass specifically for Coke Classic that would retain an icy chill longer than plain glass. Riedel declined, saying he lacked the technical capacity. But the pair established a relationship and Riedel eventually suggested they follow his tried-and-true sensory-workshop approach, testing various bowl shapes using an expert panel.
Present at the sessions were three Riedel employees and about two dozen Coke marketing and sensory experts. (With sales of 1.8 billion servings a day, Coke can afford to keep more than a few suits on the head-office payroll.) Among the latter was one of just two men who – according to legend – possess access to the secret formula. Out of 18 bowl shapes, the panel unanimously settled on one, which became the upper half of the final design. That was then "integrated into the DNA of Coca-Cola," Riedel said, with the lower half echoing, for purely aesthetic effect, the wavy contour of the iconic 1915 Coke bottle.
At a suggested $19.90 ($29.90 for two), it will be the most expensive Coke-branded glass on the market. I sourced one of just three brought to Canada from Riedel's Miami sales conference two weeks ago and tested it against an assorted field: a thick-walled glass similar to the wide mouth Coke-branded glasses available at Target; a Stella Artois-branded tulip-shaped beer stem; a large-bowl Riedel Vinum Bordeaux stem; and a bottle of Coke from which I took direct gulps. The first two dispersed the liquid directly to the sides of the tongue, which, to my taste, overaccentuated the caramel flavour as well as the effervescence. The Bordeaux model performed well. Straight from the bottle yielded an unpleasant mouthful of foam (I have never been a fan of soft drinks from a bottle).
The new "Coca-Cola + Riedel Glass," made from lead-free crystal and designed to hold the contents of a standard 355-millilitre can with room for ice, directs the flow to the centre and back of the tongue. It made a discernible and pleasant difference, bringing the malt-caramel notes into balance with crisp citrus. If you really, really like Coke and can afford to blow serious coin, there would be more frivolous ways to spend your money.
"The real art of the new glass is how it is able to manage the effervescence," Riedel said. "It reduces the size of the carbonation as you feel it on your mouth. It doesn't fill your mouth with foam. You can almost count the individual bubbles."
There will be skeptics. I've written in the past about the differences that I and many other wine critics detect when tasting various wines out of assorted glasses. I've heard the guffaws. Let me put it this way: To a home-repair amateur, all hammers are equal; to an experienced carpenter, there is a world of difference between, say, a $10 piece of corner-store dreck, which rattles your bones and takes 20 strikes to drive in a one-inch nail, and a perfectly balanced, $100 jewel that gets the job done in one stroke with minimal effort. No, I would not advocate everyone spend $100. But I would submit there is nothing to learn about $100 hammers from people who reject $100 hammers out of mere principle.
Who will buy the Coke glass? Riedel concedes it's a "very big question mark." He speculates it could make sense as a host or hostess gift. "It costs less than flowers." And, he adds, it may find traction in the fine-dining restaurant trade, where alcohol-abstaining patrons can feel at home next to wine geeks with their fine Riedel crystal.
And to the bloggers who think Riedel is selling out by expanding into soft drinks I'd say a history lesson is in order. Coca-Cola was developed by pharmacist John Pemberton in 1886 – prompted by passage of a Georgia temperance law – as a non-alcoholic twist on French Wine Coca, a medicinal mix of wine, coca, kola nut and an aromatic shrub called damiana. Coke was never that far from wine in the first place.
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