Fine wine enters the mainstream via Target

  • Article by: TIM TEICHGRAEBER , Special To The Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 5, 2007 - 4:39 PM

As Riedel wine glasses arrive at the discount chain, Georg Riedel discusses why they've moved in that direction.

Once a niche product for only the most serious wine connoisseurs, Riedel wine glasses are now being sold at Target stores, showing just how mainstream fine wine has become and marking another coup for the family-owned Austrian glass company.

A well-designed glass can't make a bad wine taste better, but it can help a good wine express itself to the fullest.

"We can't change the wine, but we can change the perception," explains Georg Riedel of stemware titan Riedel Glassworks. "The wine is the music, and the glass is the loudspeaker. If the music is awful, the loudspeaker cannot make you dance, but if the combination between the music and the loudspeaker is great, it touches your emotions."

And just as some speakers are better tailored to rock music, others are better suited for classical. Riedel built his family's company into a formidable worldwide concern by developing a broad spectrum of function-driven wine-glass shapes that are intended to flatter the wide variety of wines in the world. Georg Riedel credits his father, Claus, with steering the company away from making frilly crystal and toward making the function-driven glasses that have become so popular with wine drinkers.

Georg Riedel, current majority owner and 10th-generation glass maker, joined the family business in 1973 and established Riedel America in 1979, just as the fledgling American wine business was beginning to spread its wings. In 2004 Riedel acquired Nachtmann Glass, a company that makes a broad array of high-end crystal products, from plates and glasses to candlesticks.

As part of that purchase, Riedel also acquired Spiegelau, a glass factory that had been competing against Riedel with excellent-quality, lower-priced knockoffs of Riedel's classic designs.

Georg Riedel says that at first he didn't know what to do with Spiegelau, but that it has turned out to be a good addition to the portfolio. "Riedel starts at $10 [per glass] and goes up, and the main part of Spiegelau is from $15 and down. Spiegelau covers the more modest segment, and I'm very happy with it."

Riedel recently scored a major hit with the introduction of its "O" line of glasses, stemless glass tumblers conceived by Georg's son Maximilian, head of Riedel's American division. The O glasses may have struck a chord with Americans because the squat, but well-designed shapes seems less pretentious.

"The consumer was looking for something that made his wine enjoyment easier, and having a glass that doesn't break as easily because there's no stem" worked, says Georg Riedel. The tendency of the O glass to roll instead of crash and shatter when bumped is certainly another perk of the design.

A move to Target

After years of offering its products primarily through wine-centric specialty retailers and mail-order catalogs, Riedel recently started selling its wine glasses at Target stores, an indication of the brand's mainstream appeal and also of the steadily growing popularity of wine in America. Georg Riedel said the venture was initiated by Target.

He was pleasantly surprised, as well as initially concerned, about how selling glasses through Target might impact the brand's cachet.

George Riedel said he did hear some complaints from other retailers who didn't appreciate the competition. "We made an offer available to Target that was made to other retailers in the same way. We are not doing anything different for Target -- we're maintaining the same price. We package the goods differently, and that's it."

Target is carrying a wide range of Riedel glasses, from several styles of wine stemware to martini, cognac and double old-fashioned glasses and decanters. Prices are about $10 apiece.

At least symbolically, the move into Target stores represents another big step for the Riedel family business, but Georg Riedel still sees his company's glass as a niche product for those who appreciate quality. "My approach is extremely modest. I believe that at the end of the day, the glass is only a small mosaic stone in the whole environment. It's my company and my life, but I understand the size and the importance of it."

Tim Teichgraeber is a San Francisco entertainment attorney and wine critic.

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