Claus Josef Riedel, glass-maker

Born: 1925 in Polaun, Bohemia

Died: 17 March, 2004, in Genoa, Italy, aged 79

CLAUS Josef Riedel, the former president of Riedel Crystal, was one of the first in his age-old craft to realise that the design of a wine glass could alter the perception of how its contents tasted.

A ninth-generation glassmaker, he was president of the world-renowned Austrian family company from 1957 to 1994, when he was succeeded by his son Georg.

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Soon after taking control of the business, which was founded in 1756, he began experimenting with the shapes of wine glasses. He concluded that a wine could taste notably different in variously shaped and sized glasses. He spent 16 years studying the physics of wine delivery to the mouth and taste buds and experimenting with different glass configurations, matching them with wines of different regions, different grapes and different ages.

The size of a glass, its thickness, the shape of its bell and the diameter of its rim contributed materially to the taste of the wine drunk from it, Riedel came to believe. The wine’s balance, depth, harmony and complexity, he discovered, could, and often did, change from one glass to another.

The first wine-specific Riedel glasses, the Sommeliers collection, was introduced in 1973. Under his son Georg’s direction, the line eventually included special glasses for California zinfandel, tequila and single malt Scotch whisky.

At that point, Claus Riedel was already well known for his 1958 Burgundy Grand Cru glass, which is still said to be the world’s largest wine glass. It holds 37 ounces - about 50 per cent more than the standard wine bottle. It, along with 127 other Riedel glasses, is in the permanent design collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1959, his Exquisit Bordeaux glass was named the most beautiful in the world.

Riedel was born in Polaun, Bohemia, now the Czech Republic. In the Second World War, he was conscripted into the German army and sent to fight Italian partisans. Captured by US forces, he spent ten months in a prisoner-of-war camp near Pisa. Repatriated in January 1946, he jumped from a train as it entered Austria, where he found work with a glass-maker, Daniel Swarowski, who had once been apprenticed to his great-grandfather, Josef Riedel.

Riedel’s father, Walter, who had turned his glass-making skills to inventing a type of radar tube, was taken prisoner by Soviet soldiers at the end of the war and spent ten years in the Soviet Union. In 1955, with Swarowski’s help, Claus and his father bought a bankrupt glassmaking business in Kufstein, Austria, and resumed the family’s glassmaking tradition.

In his spare time, Riedel was an avid motorcycle fan, known for taking his Harley-Davidson through the Brenner Pass in good weather and bad. He was married five times, twice to his present wife, Ute.

Riedel is survived by two sons, a daughter and three grandchildren.


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