Okay folks, like it or not, the holiday season is upon us so it is time to start throwing out some holiday gift suggestions. So, if you have to give one wine-related gift, what should it be? While many might say wine, the answer is…stemware.

Why stemware? Good wine in poor stemware is nothing short of ruined. The affect of stemware upon the experience of a wine is profound. To emphasize this point, I have put many a friend through what I call “Stemware School.” This is an easy exercise that you can do at home if you have the right equipment. First, take a normal water glass and pour a small amount of wine into it. Next, take a standard goblet-style wine glass – the kind you often see in restaurants – and pour an equal amount of wine into it. Finally, pour an equal amount of wine into a tulip-shaped red wine glass. The fluted shape of the glass is essential here.

Does stemware make a difference? Swirl, sniff, taste and see for yourself. The nose and taste of the wine in each of these circumstances will be markedly different. The difference in different types of stemware is so notable that friends and I have often noticed subtle but significant differences across different brands of stemware when drinking the same wine. I feel so strongly about stemware that when a dear friend of mine (you know who you are) recently started buying some fine wine but drank it from inferior stemware, I ordered her a set of glasses. Was this for her? Was this for me? Nay, it was for the wine. Just as I was happy to buy these glasses for her, this is the gift you should give someone who is interested in wine if they do not already have a set of good glasses.

So, what type of glasses should you buy? You will note that the main wine glass producers –

Riedel, Spiegelau , and Schott Zwiesel to name a few – produce different glasses for different varietals of wine. Drinking a pinot? Drink from the pinot glass. Drinking a merlot? Drink from the merlot glass. Most of us do not have the cash let along the shelf space to buy glasses for all of the varietals out there. So my recommendation is to buy glasses for what you normally drink. In my case, this is red wine, specifically a Cabernet/Bordeaux-style glass. However, if your friend or loved one is more of a white wine drinker, go with a white wine glass.

You would think that this would limit your options down. You would be wrong. The next choice is across brands. Here there is considerable variation in style, shape, and price. One thing to keep in mind about stemware is that it breaks. Frequently. So while you might be inclined to buy your loved one the Riedel Sommelier Series Bordeaux glass at $100, unless you are committing to buying this person another one when they break it (or you do), perhaps on the first sip, think again.

In terms of good, reasonably inexpensive wine glasses, there are four that I will recommend. Keep in mind there are many others out there. I will list them in no particular order:

Schott Zweisel’s Forte Tritan Crystal Red Wine Glass: These glasses are highly resistant to chipping and breaking. The lines on the bowl are sharp and angled. Cost per glass is around $10.

Spiegelau Authentis Bordeaux Wine Glass: These are reasonably elegant glasses. The lines on the bowl are sharp but wider than the Schott Zweisel’s. Cost per glass is around $8.

Riedel Ouverture Collection Red Wine Glass: These are nice, inexpensive glasses although some find the shorter stem to be a detraction. The lines on the bowl are curved and tapered at the top. Cost per glass is around $8.

Riedel Vinum Classic Bordeaux Red Wine Glass: These are beautiful wine glasses but are easily broken when cleaning because of the thinner lip. The lines on the bowl are about as wide as the Ouverture but not as tapered.Cost per glass is around $25.

What is the difference between these glasses? Many things. Cost, style, thickness of the glass, center of balance, the number of pieces of glass composing the piece to name a few. If you are interested in getting someone (or yourself for that matter) stemware for the holidays, ideally go and check them out at a local retailer and see what you find most appealing. Keep in mind that any of these glasses or the others out there will be a big improvement over a water glass or non-tulip shaped glass.

What is the difference between these glasses and the 4 for $10 glasses at a store like Target? First off, let me say that many stemware makers like Riedel and Spiegelau offer a different line of glasses at stores like Target. These glasses are perfectly fine and are often less expensive than the ones I listed above. In comparison, the “store brand” is typically going to be a much thicker, heavier glass, especially at the lip. The balance won’t be the same etc. That said, if this is what your budget calls for, it is still often an improvement.

How many glasses should you buy? I generally like to buy at least a set of two. However, four or six is nice for hosting parties.

In terms of other glasses available, the Riedel O Series has been very popular of late. Personally, I do not favor these glasses for the following reasons. First, when you are holding the glass you are warming up the wine which ultimately affects the taste. The effect of temperature on wine is a story for another day. Second, when you are holding the glass you are getting your grubby little fingerprints all over it which makes the experience so much less appealing. But perhaps that is just me. Friends, feel free to comment on my obsession with clean stemware.

Another item that has come out lately are so-called “breathable wine glasses” by Eisch. Supposedly these glasses are more breathable and therefore open up the wine more quickly. I have not tried these glasses so I cannot state how much of a difference it makes. A number of reviews are out there. This is a fun, different gift. Personally, I am not fond of the shape of them which is part of the reason I haven’t tried them.

One final thing I will throw out there as a stocking stuffer is Go Vino’s plastic wine glass. These are in the style of the Riedel O with an impression for your thumb. These are perfect for picnics and other occasions where carting stemware around is not practical.

So where can you find these glasses? I can’t do it all for you folks! A quick search will produce a variety of vendors at a variety of prices. As always, I encourage buying locally where possible.

Have an opinion or a favorite wine glass? Leave a comment and let me know what you think.