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Is good glassware worth the expense?

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Glassware can become a pricey investment – so when should you splurge, and when should you hold off?

The world of wine can be a baffling place, where contrasting opinions are never hard to find.

How many types of glasses should I buy? How much should I spend on a glass? Will my customers be able to tell the difference? Will they really be worth the investment?

At Popolo in Rushcutters Bay, Co-owner Flavio Carnevale says choosing ‘the right’ wine glasses is all about matching the glass with the flavour of the wine.

“We always love to accentuate the wine with the different glasses because I think it makes an enormous difference to how you taste the wine,” he says.

“The right glass is for the right wine; it’s about the taste. Each bottle is different from the other and it should be treated in that way, it can’t be too generic.”

Similarly, head sommelier at Vue de Monde, Matthew Lamb, says that every glass at Vue de Monde “is there for a reason: to showcase and maximise the potential of the wine and the dining experience.”

“Wine is a very versatile product, it’s something that can be quite lean and fresh, right through to big, rich oak driven styles, whites, reds, dessert wines and the different glassware is able to showcase and highlight the different features within those wines.

“The lighter aromatic styles lend themselves to a tight, close glass that can help accentuate some of the more delicate aromas that you see and then the larger surface areas help to accentuate the bigger flavours that you see and can showcase the fruit profile, the oak work that may be in there, and all the different elements of the wine working in conjunction with each other.”

Depending on the restaurant, glassware can have a significant impact on the dining experience.

“I think today the consumer is a lot more aware of the different glassware that is in the market and the different styles of glass,” Lamb says. “Being able to showcase those different types of glassware and applying that glassware to what they’ve been ordering, people are greatly receptive to it.”

Above: head sommelier at Vue de Monde, Matthew Lamb.

Chris Morrison, sommelier at Guillaume in Paddington says the role glassware plays is dependent on the style of the venue.

“I think the further up you go, the higher the expectation is … So if you’ve got the fine dining, people’s expectation is ‘the price I’m paying means every part of this restaurant experience has to be the very best’, so they’ll look at glassware with great scrutiny. The idea of a restaurant experience where theatre is involved, where expectation is high, I think people do look at glassware.”

Carnevale says quite a lot of Popolo’s customers can tell when wine is served in an appropriate glass.

“Some of them we tell, or some of them already know because a lot of our customers go to Italy and they travel a lot so they’re very into wine.”

Like everything else on the restaurant scene, glassware follows trends, he says.

“There’s been an interesting trend in the past five or six years, where people are starting to use a lot of their standard glasses for everything, or they’re back into the vintage glasses, probably 50 percent of places are doing it. A lot of the new places are back to using one type of glass,” Carnevale says.

But Morrison believes things are moving in the opposite direction. “In terms of glassware’s place in the restaurant experience over the last 10 years or so, it’s changed significantly as restaurants become a little bit of a theatre, some have become very grandiose.”

The newly opened Guillaume has decided not to go down the path of matching each grape to a glass, sticking to only three glasses: one for white, one for red and one for pinot.

“It can become a bit of a ball of string, you can keep pulling at it and there’s actually no end to it, because the idea really about glassware in restaurants for most people is about finding one good glass and one good glass is your benchmark. It could sell off every wine equally as well.”

Above: Chris Morrison, sommelier at Guillaume in Paddington.

Although these three establishments sit at different points of the spectrum when it comes to the complexity of their glassware, they all base their decisions on a similar formula.

First and foremost is budget.

“I start with a budget. I start with the restaurant concept, and then I look for glassware last,” Morrison says.

“I think largely where people lose money in the restaurant setup process is when they get carried away with glassware, they find something that they love but then they’ll lose 30 percent in breakages in the first two or three months. So they’re purchasing those again, the costs go up and basically in six months’ time they’ll change their glasses because they can’t afford to keep it.

“If you are looking to save money, go to hospitality auction sites. Basically restaurants, when they’re closing down, will sell off all their stock holding, and it may be as low as a dollar a glass. If you’re okay taking second-hand and you’ve got a casual diner, that’s perfect. Obviously if you’ve got something a little more upmarket, where the concept’s a little more sophisticated, new glassware’s the only way to go.”

The next step for choosing glasses is to consider the restaurant concept.

“It’s all about your wine program. A wine program is kind of your paradigm in restaurants because what it means is you’re looking at your total design concept; you’re looking at the actual space you have to work with. I look at everything around the glass, so the walls, the colours, the size and dimension of the room, the style and service, all that will come down to what kind of glassware is right for the restaurant,” Morrison says.

“We work with Riedel because our space in this restaurant is very elegant, it’s very sophisticated, it’s very stylish and timeless and that kind of reflects Riedel. But for a casual diner it could be completely different, for a casual diner you want to serve your champagne out of old fashioned cuvettes and have really stock standard glasses because that’s the style of service they have.”

When starting out, Carnevale suggests going with three glasses.

“If someone is opening a restaurant and they have a medium budget, they probably need a standard glass, a red wine glass and a Prosecco glass; with these three they can cover all the varieties. If you’ve got limited funds that will be good enough to do it until your establishment makes some money and you can afford to buy extra glasses,” he says.

The overall restaurant concept will also reveal what the restaurant wants to achieve with their wine glasses.

Lamb says that glassware choices are influenced by “where you see your beverage versus food revenue coming in and the overall element of the restaurant is a large factor. Do you want to showcase and solely focus on a food offering and have wine as a secondary element or do you want to have both on level pegging? If you want them to be both on level pegging, then premium variety of glassware is the biggest one.”

Morrison says that the longevity of glassware is dependent on many factors, including the style of glass, if it’s sturdy, back of house processes and the speed of service.

“You have to take care of your glassware; it’s a big expenditure, and an ongoing one, too. Cutlery you replace maybe once every few years, glassware you’re constantly replacing, so it’s something you have to be really wary of. In terms of strength, there’s no way you can really test it but you have to make sure your protocols around glassware are such that any glass can survive.

Glasses can take to the stage and help tell the story of your venue, or fade into the backdrop, but regardless of their impact, it’s important to find a balance between theatre and profit.

A business purchase that is not sustainable is not worthwhile.

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