‘We lost a year’s worth of production in two years,’ admits Daniel Primack, UK distributor for Zalto. He is recalling the time during the pandemic when lockdown and a pre-planned furnace reconstruction combined to severely curtail production of all Zalto’s glassware.
As a result, placing an order in the pandemic years became impossible. Zalto’s reputation is built on word of mouth, rather than advertising or PR, and as demand exceeded supply, the brand only became more aspirational. Zalto already had a loyal following among wine professionals but as demand from the hospitality industry decreased due to lockdowns, the increasing clamour from private individuals more than made up for it. It has stayed that way. ‘Supply has pretty much returned now,’ Primack points out, ‘and yet we are at capacity for orders.’
That period of scarcity appears to have cemented Zalto as the cult glass for the everyday wine lover, transcending the line between the trade and the public. One might wonder: why not crank up production?
The answer has much to do with the seven years required to become a master glassblower. Each Zalto glass takes, on average, 15 minutes of labour (excluding the cooling stage), during which eight people will handle the glass, from the initial molten lump from a kiln to the finished product. The extensive training is just one of the reasons that the glassblowing community at this elite level is small. Primack explains, ‘there are 50 people glassblowing currently [at Zalto] and it’s extremely difficult to attract new talent. Young people would rather go work in Prague in AI than in a tiny community in the forest to train for years and get their hands burned.’
A disputed history
For such a universally revered glassware brand, Zalto’s conception is far from crystal clear. The Zalto name refers to the family business of glassblowers going back six generations in Austria, with roots in Venice. The company took investment and was sold in 2009. Kurt Zalto moved on – unable to use his family name on professional projects – to launch a new line of high-end stemware. His Josephinenhütte wine glasses took the aesthetic associated with Zalto to the next level but ushered in a unique shape. Going without the straight walls of the Zalto glass, the Josephinenhütte glasses have an unusual form that facilitates the swirling motion, and the bend in the bowl is designed to enhance aeration of the wine.
For such a universally revered glassware brand, Zalto’s conception is far from crystal clear
The Denk’Art logo on Zalto’s stems is the clue to the controversy. The story the current owners of Zalto maintain is that an Austrian priest and beloved wine connoisseur, Hans Denk, is the designer of the Zalto glasses. The story goes that he used his appreciation for the arts and sciences to influence the design; the angles in the glasses (24, 48, and 72 degrees) match the earth’s tilt. Meanwhile, they say, Kurt Zalto’s role was simply to produce Denk’s designs, a version that is hotly disputed by Kurt himself. Despite this unsolved mystery, it’s clear that Zalto was a gamechanger, priming the industry and consumers for a new wave of glassware.
WHY ARE ZALTO GLASSES BETTER?
The Zalto brand arrived 20 years ago, introducing a lighter, thinner, straighter, sleeker glass design. And, despite feeling terrifyingly fragile, the glass was dishwasher safe.
What was most remarkable about Zalto was its bold claim to have a single glass for all wines: the Universal. ‘It became very desired by wine professionals because it put its neck out and said it could handle anything,’ explains Jan Konetzki, director of wine at Four Seasons, ‘like the Jancis Robinson x Richard Brendon glass [launched later, in 2018].’
‘I really feel Zalto upped the level of glassware; there was nothing like that at the time, so I was one of the first sommeliers to put Zalto in at Gordon Ramsay,’ continues Konetzki. ‘Its flat base doesn’t allow any faults to hide; it’s a very direct presentation of aromatics and flavours. The oak comes through more strongly and the core is more enhanced, making it ideal for modern wine styles.’ Praise from top sommeliers and wine critics began pouring in from all over the world.
It became very desired by wine professionals because it put its neck out and said it could handle anything – Jan Konetzki
In addition to the beloved Universal, Zalto rolled out a range of shapes for different wine styles. Today, there are six wine glasses available, from largest by volume to smallest: Burgundy, Bordeaux, Universal, White Wine, Sweet Wine and Champagne. Primack assures that the names of the glasses should not restrict wine drinkers. ‘The convention was to name glasses after regions’, says Primack, ‘but the glass names are misnomers; they could just be shape 1, shape 2, shape 3 etc. My advice is to try the same wine from the different glass shapes and decide for yourself.’
THE PRICE OF PERFECTION
With prestigious clients like Harvey Nichols, 67 Pall Mall, Hedonism, top Michelin-star restaurants and many top wineries around the world, respect within the industry for Zalto’s glasperfektion is still strong. There is certainly no disputing the reputation the brand has developed but is Zalto always considered the gold standard by wine professionals?
‘I really like Zalto Universal but mostly to taste,’ says Pascaline Lepeltier MOF (Meilleur Ouvrier de France). ‘For my perceptions, it is a great glass to decipher the wine and analyse it but it does not forgive any edge – this is why I don’t use it in the restaurant [Chambers, NY]. Zaltos were for sure a revolution when they arrived, yet today we have more choice, with great design, less fragility and better prices. At the restaurant, I work with Sophienwald.’
Moving out of a restaurant setting and into a vineyard, the wine glass criteria has even more practical considerations. Speaking of glass selection for Gusbourne’s vineyard tastings, global brand ambassador Laura Rhys MS lists her requirements: ‘Budget, shape, thickness of glass, how the wine ultimately tastes in the glass, ease of cleaning and storage are all important. But also, the size of the glassware and the bowl are key. Our tasting pours aren’t measured but they are not full glasses and we must be mindful that smaller measures don’t look too small. We use Lehmann at Gusbourne and we picked them mostly for the shape. We can put them on the back of a buggy and drive them across the vineyard and they will not smash.’
It’s clear when searching for a new wine glass, whether for business or personal pleasure, that there are more options to suit settings, palates, and budgets than ever. Zalto has undoubtedly played its part in that and consequently finds itself in a much more crowded market than the one it first entered two decades ago. It will be intriguing to see what’s next for the brand as its glasses finally find their way to the consumers that covet them.