Thursday 1 August 2013

Wine in tumblers – in the grip of a trend…

Everywhere I look now, wine is being presented in tumblers. It’s the fashion. So naturally, with my buttoned-up collar and bare ankles to the fore, I’m on the case.

There’s a notion that wine in tumblers reflects something of European simplicity, of cucina povera and down-to-earth authenticity. Most photography of “simple” food, shot against weathered boards or zinc tabletops, now has to be accompanied by wine in tumblers. The Observer Food Monthly (than which one cannot get more fashionable) is full of them. Nigel Slater has fallen prey. 

Our local designer pizza restaurant (for yes, we live in the kind of locale which has one) provides tumblers for its challenging organic wine. And perhaps the biggest influence of all has been Polpo, a small and of course fashionable chain of London restaurants based on Venetian bacaros. 

Some time ago now, CJ wrote a post extolling the virtues of drinking wine from Duralex tumblers. He certainly didn’t claim that drinking wine from tumblers was fashionable. Not because it was or wasn’t, but because CJ does not concern himself with fashion. Nobody looking at CJ would say, now there’s a slave to the catwalk.

So I ignored his enthusiasm, with the magisterial aloofness for which I am renowned. CJ, after all, is a chap for whom a tumbler represents the lesser of wine receptacle evils, descending from a Paris goblet to a mug.

And surely a tumbler is a rubbish glass from which to properly appreciate wine? It is too open, so you don’t get a proper sense of the bouquet. It is too thick for subtle sipping. Its shape means that you can’t really swirl with it; and the lack of a stem means you’re forced to clutch it inelegantly in your fist like a grenade.

Polpo’s owner, Russell Norman, says that serving wine in tumblers reflects a presentation which has “no pretentious flourishes”. Of course, if everyone else uses wine glasses, if a wine glass is the norm, then a tumbler is a pretentious flourish, n'est ce pas? As is trying to pretend that an Amarone Classico, La Giaretta 2008, which Polpo list at £67, is everyday drinking, a wine to be slugged from tumblers.

But Norman goes further in proselytising the use of tumblers. “I strongly recommend you try this at home, too,” he says in his Polpo cookbook

“It gives the wine a lower status than perhaps you are used to if you dine in tableclothed restaurants, but I feel that this is right with humble food shared amongst friends. There is also something tactile and homely about a small peasant glass that you don’t get with an expensive balloon.”

Try this at home, eh?. Well, a few issues first. Point one; it is hard to give our wine at home “a lower status” than it already has. Otherwise Mr Sainsbury would be giving it away.

Point two – can our table still be “tableclothed”, please? Or is it important for a “homely” feel to expose its old stains, and that bit where the veneer got busted off?

Point three – could the food we share with friends not be described as “humble”? I have found that phrases like “terrific” are much more conducive to marital harmony.

I’m afraid I struggle with the idea of laying our dinner-party table with tumblers for wine. If anything, I am trying to raise the status of our wine when we share it with friends, not lower it. And fashionable our friends undoubtedly are, but presented with tumblers, half will have filled them with water before you could say bacaro. No, this “small peasant glass” business only works if your friends are small peasants.

But what if it’s just me and Mrs K, drinking young, bright wine with a simple supper? Suddenly, it begins to make sense.

We do not have the Duralex design classic tumblers. No, we have Pokal tumblers, which are like Duralex tumblers, in that way that things from Ikea are often like something else. But they are squarer, chunkier – more like Nigel Slater's! – and they are 6 for £2. That’s 33p a glass, surely a very povera price. I don’t know if it’s a factor in Polpo, but it’s probably cheaper to smash them than to wash them up.

I fill them politely, halfway. This is not a lot of wine, and means you have to replenish it frequently, but that is itself a satisfying act. And the whole exercise seems to suit a simple lunch with simple wine, at home, with no guests.

And Mrs K agrees. She feels it is “relaxed”, that it’s “a sign that we know what we’re doing”. It reflects, she thinks, the “everydayness” of drinking simple wine at home. All things of which I am in favour.

There is a satisfying degree of purpose about drinking wine from a tumbler. It lowers expectation, it promotes function over form. There is wine which does its job, but doesn’t deserve a wine glass, in the way that a hot dog satisfies a hunger but doesn’t deserve a plate. It seems somehow right to drink it from a tumbler.

And drinking wine out of tumblers gives you one further thing. A talking point.



  1. This summer we've taken to drinking rose with lots of ice out of old Bonne Maman jars but then again we do live in fashionable Lewisham.

    1. That does sound impressively nouveau pauvre chic…

  2. Years ago all my friends had the same wine glasses, that were almost Paris goblet. Between us we had dozens of them.

    They all came from a wine bar in Kensington that at closing time swept everything off the tables. Bottles, glasses, ashtrays all ended up on the stone floor in a thick stew of broken glass, dregs and fag ash.

    Having seen this once we all took our glasses home with us every night.

    1. Never mind taking glasses from a place like that - my inclination would have been to take my own glass TO it!

  3. Never had you down as a chap who had to buy his own glassware.

    1. Ouch!

      (I suspect that Mr Sellen is referencing the late Alan Clark MP. In his Diaries, Clark discussed the Tory leadership candidate Michael Heseltine thus: "An arriviste, certainly, who can't shoot straight and in [MP Michael] Jopling's damning phrase 'bought all his own furniture'.")

  4. We have the Duralex lookalikes from Ikea (which is one downnmanship for you) and I occasionally use them for red - never white - especially if mixing with Gaseosa, because that's where I encountered it in Spanish pensiones in the '70s. For years I have been on the lookout for glasses in the charity shop and have assembled an eclectic collection of German glasses with coloured stems, fine champagne flutes, old Dartingtons and all sorts of other curiosities. You can get quite attached to your current verre du jour.


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