Are We Clear ? Getting Crystal Clarity On Glass, Totalitarianism, The Cathode Ray Tube, WW II And The Story of Wine !
As humans we have been surrounding ourselves with melted silica or as we prefer to cal in glass, in one form or another for centuries, though drinking out it is a relatively late development.
Certainly glass blades and spearhead, beads and broaches were old hat by the time Roman society became obsessed with the new fangled glass replacement for gold, sliver, pottery and bone goblets and cups that they had been drinking wine from up until then.
The traditional goblet or strong metal flask or beaker remained a favourite for centuries after the Roman dalliance with glass however and you have to wait until the Renaissance to see many paintings of toasts or table scenes with anything resembling a glass rather than a pitcher and goblet.
Today our society is the most glass obsessed and surrounded in human history, Windows, cars, traffic lights and bus-shelters, electric lights, fluorescent tubes, cables, wall fillings and every type of container and yes that iphone. We are in a word, surrounded.
The origins of glass making are highly controversial, at least amongst the glass obsessed one must add. The accepted view is that apart from some passing cave dwellers happening upon sand transformed to glass by a rogue lightening strike, the Babylonians were there first. The secret art of glass making seeped westward eventually reaching Rome. Not Italian Rome, but Rome’s northern regions, occupying what today we call Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic.
Centuries passed, Empires and Kingdoms rose and fell, but the memory of glass making carried on. By the early 20th century European had its effective large scale commercial and even industrial centre in and around the German, Czech and Austrian borders.
There is a more dangerous historical word for this area, Sudentenland.
Radar, Totalitarianism and The Cathode Ray Tube
The Sudetenland Glass industries were at the leading edge of the scientific, economic, industrial and military developments in the early 20th century.
Sites for bombers, components for what would become radar, cathode ray tubes, devices of every kind were made here. They were made mainly by ethnic Germans, whoever was legally in charge of what national identity this area was called at the time.
Adolf Hitler wanted the Sudentenland and 800,000 ethnic German workers many owning glass industries or working in them wanted to be within the Greater Germany. After the annexation of Austria it was only a matter of time. The Peace Negotiations with British Prime Minister Chamberlain and Hitler were specifically about giving the Sudentenland to Hitler, which the British and the French did in October 1938.
Not everyone was happy and some of the most famous glassmaking firms like Riedel found themselves suddenly thrust into the heart of the Nazi war effort.
Riedel had been one of the most famous pre World War II glass makers in the region and had been famous for their beautiful highly engraved ornaments, coloured glass and a huge line in elaborate perfume bottles as well as specialist glass. During World War II they found themselves wrestling with how to make large thin tubes of glass for radars and of course rocket and space bound hi-tech weapons systems.
They succeeded in this delicate endeavour to the interest of the victorious Allied Powers.
Leading Riedel at the time was Walter Riedel, the seventh generation of the family in the glass business.
Soviet intelligence officers, just like their British and US counterparts were personally interested in all the hi-tech weaponary the Nazis were developing from V2 missiles, rockets and even nuclear capabilities. The ultra hi-tech cathode ray tubes, radar screens and so forth they found were it seems far ahead of the Allies and they began a grab of leading scientists and inventors.
Walter Riedel was captured by the Soviet Army and was subsequently made sign a work ‘contract’ to aid the Soviets for 5 years, which thrust him as a captive into Soviet camps and facilities for the next 10 years.
When he finally managed to get home in 1955, he found himself in Austria, all his property and that of the Riedel family had been nationalised by the Soviet satellite state of Czechoslovakia.
Happily there were other glass families in this region, now in various new states. The Swarkovski Family, of the diamond encrusting fame today, helped Riedel and his family back on their feet, giving them a disused factory from which to start again.
Many Czechs to avoid Nazi and the Soviet persecution left for other parts of the world and took their glass cutting and glass blowing experience with them.
In Ireland this meant the arrival of Edward Bacik and Miroslav Havel who almost single handily re-ignited the Irish Glass making tradition with Czech ingenuity, by reviving the Waterford Glass brand and factory in the late 1940s.
Irish Glass, Venice and The Triumph Of Emptiness
The history of glass making may have originated in the cradle of civilisation that is now the Gulf, but as we see Germany and Mittel-Europe brought it to a technical peak.
There is however so much more to glass than technical brilliance, lenses, tubes and purity.
In the Levant, the corner of the world now made up by Israel, Lebanon and their many neighbours, another glass tradition grew up, something approaching the fired earth joys of ceramics and the exotic pattern creation of the Muslim world’s art and architecture.
This tradition found its way to Europe, partly via the Jewish Diaspora to Venice in the 1400s where glass making became a rich artistic experience, with a name today like Murano glass and colourful, organic shapes and jewel and diamond like cutting.
The arrival of the addition of crystal and lead to the mix of potash and other materials to melt and manipulate the final glass allowed weight and diamond like refractions to be cut into glass.
This cutting and polishing in the tradition of jewellery found its way to Ireland and with tax breaks, it was ever thus, from the British Government in the late 1700s. Ireland began a golden period of glass making.
Wine historian Ted Murphy in his County Cork home has one of the largest and most important collections of Irish glass, particularly wine ware, in the world and it shows the huge range and scope of the Irish glass industry at that time. Of particular interest are literally “unputdownable glasses to encourage conspicuous consumption” said Ted Murphy, “Glasses with a long stem but no base, it meant that you had no option but to finish the contents if you wanted to eat or rest.”
In this collection we find many of the cross hatching patterns, made to make the glass sparkle and adorn the rather thick and heavy glass.
Weight was the single most apprized element in a glass at the time. Weight was how glass was taxed as a luxury, by the pound.
That idea of weight and quality fostered by 18th century taxation is still with us today when we pick up a bottle and dismiss it as being in a paper thin, cheap bottle or move a hefty 1970s classic piece of Wedding Gift Waterford up and down in a seesaw movement to assess its, ‘weighty value’.
In Germany, Austria and the Czech glass heartlands, weight was outpaced by outrageously technical slenderness in the years after World War II. Leading the drive for austerity and clean lines was Claus Josef Riedel.
After his father Walter was released from Soviet captivity in 1955 and they recommenced their glass making business with a dig-out from the Swarovski Family, the Riedels took a radical turn in production.
The colourful jewellery, boxes, perfume bottles, dressing table ware and engraved ware was abandoned as they strove for clean, empty lines. Pure geometric forms and functionality over patterns and designs.
Claus Josef Riedel eventually designing a set of shapes and styles of glass that fitted each of the functions that it was being asked to do, in almost engineering lead single-mindedness.
The glasses he produced under the Sommelier name were a revolution, large, incredibly light, ultra thin, especially at the lip and of course shaped to accentuate the idiosyncrasies of each and every wine he encountered.
The wine world and every serious restaurant on the planet went Riedel mad. Within a decade, although they were acknowledged as the leaders, crystal glass production and fashion had now become a chic, lean, function-lead business.
Just because it was plain, patternless and uncut did not mean it was cheap, quite the contrary the glasses became the ultimate symbol of modernist luxury.
Irish brands it seems failed to really understand that weight and patterns were sliding into a fashion side line, never a good idea for a luxury brand.
In Ireland, it was Frenchman and restaurant doyen Patrick Guilbaud that seemed to really understand what was required and the pure forms of his range of lean, chic crystal glasses and decanters from Tipperary Crystal remains a modern Irish benchmark.
Function is King
What modern wine lovers wanted it seemed was to be able to see, smell and deliver wine to their palate with single-mindedness.
A crisp Sauvignon Blanc, chilled in the glass wants to hit the tongue in a lively express fashion, the bouquet is light, floral and yet piercing, the bowl of the glass should focus and project that as intensely as it can. We need it to remain as cool as possible so a narrow glass with a long stem away from warming hands is needed.
A beefy Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is pungent but needs to be aerated or decanted, a large glass with a generous bowl will allow the swishing and breathing, without spillage that will help, while that large bowl will contain the enormous bouquet ready for a heady sniff of its dark fruits.
This kind of analysis is at the heart of modern glass making. George Riedel, the present leading generation of Riedel winemakers travels the world holding masterclasses on his glassware and how it can he believes enhance almost every grape, and wine style, individually.
Now, my own feeling on glasses and wine is that, undoubtedly in a sensory experience like wine tasting eliminating distractions for technical tasting and reflection is indeed a real advantage. What is going on I feel is predominantly allowing your senses to concentrate deeply on the tastes, think about the taste memories that are being evoked and get the wine to your lips without setting off your tennis elbow.
Ford Fiesta or Masserati ?
Spending huge amounts on specialist wine glasses is however I believe unnecessary to enjoy wine with an eye on sensory experience. A good, plain glass with a nice thin rim, a not over narrow bowl and a depth long enough to catch a bit of the bouquet before it spills over into the world is all that is really required.
Something that you can handle without fearing for your mortgage repayments if it gets knocked over by you or children and perhaps even safe for the dishwasher, are also amongst my priorities.
Technical wine tasting aside, the whole of wine is about pleasure and fun, so to demand that wine lovers only enjoy the austerity of a pure form is as wrong as saying now that we have had modernism only a Corbusier style white box is fit for living in, so lets pull down all those fussy Georgian and Victorian houses and villas.
I have had good wines in coloured glass, Wedding Waterford and bistro beakers.
Personally my favourite tasting glasses are ISO €20 for six tasting glasses. The International Standard Organisation glasses are widely available in most wine shops, department stores and I spotted a few boxes in Woodies.
This eliminates supercharging of bouquets and gives each wine an identical set up.
You do not need to spend large sums of money on glassware to find the greatness in great wine.
I am not saying that wine glass shapes and form do not influence perception, they do, like cars. drive over the Wicklow Mountains in a clapped out Ford Fiesta or a Masserati Quatreporte and you will feel differently about the experience, but walk it for free and there is another set of pleasures entirely.