Stemless glasses seem to be everywhere — they’re filled with water and wine at restaurants and covered with booze-centric sayings in Etsy shops. The stemless glass provides a kind of immediacy and ease: You can have your wine, this instant, with less fear of breaking or tipping over a delicate, stemmed glass.
According to Tanya Morning Star Darling, a certified wine scholar and teacher at Northwest Wine College, the modern craze for stemless glassware comes from the notion “that anybody should be able to drink good wine in any kind of setting.” Darling says the idea that wine should be democratic has gained traction over the past few decades, but the stemless glass isn’t exactly new.
“It’s interesting to note that most ancient [drinking vessels] didn’t have a stem,” says Darling. Wine glasses grew up from the bowls of antiquity to the delicate stemware we see today, and that evolution was purposeful. According to Darling, by the 1700s each part of the modern, stemmed glass was designed to enhance the drinking experience: a bowl shaped for the purpose of “directing the aromas to your nose and aerating the wine properly,” and a stem to prevent the hands’ body heat from altering the temperature.
So is it wrong to ignore glassware innovation and give in to the stemless trend? According to some sommeliers, it all depends on what you’re looking to get from the wine drinking experience.
The case for stems
“Stemmed glasses should be viewed as a tool for having a better quality wine experience,” says Cha McCoy, sommelier and founder of consulting company Cha Squared LLC and the Communion dinner series. According to sommeliers, pouring wine at the right temperature is key to letting its nuances shine through. Having your hand directly on the bowl of a wine glass (the only possibility with stemless glasses) will increase the temperature of the wine and potentially interfere with the flavor.
“If you’re spending more than $30 on a bottle of wine, it should really go in a nice glass,” says Carlin Karr, a sommelier and wine director at Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder. “It makes all the difference.” While trends in glassware have shifted over time, a “nice glass” these days likely has a bowl that’s wider at the bottom than the top (to push the aroma toward your nose), a thin lip (to avoid “distracting” from the wine) and a stem (to keep the wine at the correct temperature).
If you’re drinking a $10 bottle of wine, using a glass with a stem isn’t going to markedly enhance the taste, but for higher-quality wine, Karr says having a set of two nice glasses is worth it for everyday drinking. She also notes that glass technology has improved in the past decade, so while it might seem frivolous to spend $60 on a single Zalto glass, they are less fragile than they used to be (although still far from unbreakable). Some high-end glasses can even be put in the dishwasher. Karr says this is a better idea than hand washing, which is “where things go awry.”
The case for stemless
Stemless glasses are by definition less formal than glasses with stems, and some sommeliers argue that less formality isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If the point of your evening is to relax or socialize, having stems might not be an advantage. In fact, if drinking out of the expensive glasses is going cause you stress over potential breakage or if you’re having a group of friends over for a dinner party, which have become casual by nature, sturdy stemless glasses may be preferable.
June Rodil, a master sommelier and partner at Goodnight Hospitality in Houston and June’s All Day in Austin, chooses glassware for her bars and restaurants to match the atmosphere. “For us it’s really concept-driven,” she says. “We actually do only [use] stemless glasses at our honky-tonk, because it’s super casual.” This means guests will sometimes drink $200 bottles of Champagne out of 10-ounce Libby Gibraltar glasses. She says that same bottle would likely cost $400 in a restaurant with more formal service. There’s an understanding that the glassware will fit the space and the price point.
When Stacey Khoury-Diaz opened Dio, a natural wine bar in Washington, D.C. she decided to serve wine in a Duralex tumbler. “I grew up in Sonoma County, California and my family makes wine out there,” she says. “We actually use the exact same glassware [at Dio] that my family uses at home.”
Part of serving wine in stemless Duralex was a way to bring some of her agricultural background into the space, pulling an aspect of rural life into the city. “The difference [between stemware and stemless glasses], I think, is very minimal in terms of a person’s experience,” she says. “I don’t want to force people to have a very thoughtful and professional experience around wine. I’d rather them think first about just drinking and enjoying themselves.” While patrons at Dio have the option of a stemmed glass, Khoury-Diaz says people have been “very receptive” to the tumblers.
Ultimately, stemless glasses do have their place
“I think a lot of it is personal preference,” says Sarah O’Kelley, a sommelier and wine director for Edmund’s Oast in Charleston, South Carolina, on whether or not to use stemmed versus stemless glasses at home. She notes that on a celebratory occasion, it can be nice to serve wine in a stemmed glass. (The clinking of stemless glasses just doesn’t have the same ring.) Stemware might also be the right choice for a bottle that you want to truly appreciate at the correct temperature. “I’m just thinking of a Cru Beaujolais, for example,” she says. “A lot of them aren’t even that expensive but can be really complex.”
But stemless vessels do have their place, even in the cabinets of some sommeliers. Karr keeps “indestructible” plastic Govino cups around for drinking wine at the beach or the park. O’Kelley has “a stash of inexpensive stemless glasses in case I am having a crowd over,” and she uses insulated stemless wine tumblers for the beach or boating in South Carolina.
Once you’ve decided to go stemless, the design elements, like the contours of the bowl and thickness of the glass, matter a lot less. Many affordable stemless vessels mirror the shape of a modern wine glass, like Crate and Barrel’s set of 12 stemless glasses, while the popular Duralex tumblers have a similar outline to some mid-century wine goblets. Darling says she uses “apple-shaped” 8-ounce mason jars for garden parties, as they’re less likely to get knocked over.
At Rodil’s house, the glass style depends on who’s sipping. “When we’re at home… if I’m feeling fancy, I drink out of a Zalto glass and my husband will literally drink out of a jelly jar,” says Rodil. “And we’re drinking out of the same bottle. So in the end, it has to do with comfort level.” (Either way, she says the cleanliness of glasses can have a huge impact on your wine: “Sometimes you’ll have that kind of like funky, sweaty smell in glassware and it’s really disheartening because it’ll affect the aromas and flavors of the wines.” Stemless or not, washing glasses in hot water and using a microfiber towel to sop up any leftover moisture can help.)
For drinkers concerned with festivity, formality, or precise temperatures, stemware is likely best. For everyone else, there’s no need to be embarrassed about drinking from a stemless glass — unless you buy ones with embarrassing phrases emblazoned on them.