In the big VINUM glass test in the issue from last December, the universal glass No 2 from Josephinenhütte came in clearly at 1st place. This glass was created by Kurt Josef Zalto, one of the most famous glass designers of our time. VINUM spoke with the 61-year-old Austrian about his vision for the perfect wine glass and his plans for the future.
Your new Josephinenhütte collection was launched about three years ago. How would you assess the response to it from the professional community?
I have found the response to have been overwhelming. When you’ve spent years perfecting a new glass that’s quite different in design from existing ones, it’s a huge relief when things work out. Incidentally, the positive response continues to this day.
Can you give an example?
Recently, Domaine de la Romanée Conti told us that they would like to present their wines at their next event in New York in our universal glass, the Josephinenhütte No 2. Of course, that pleased me hugely. I do think that the most innovative glass in our collection is the No 3, though.
Well, for generations of glass designers, Bordeaux and Burgundy were considered incompatible in terms of the ideal glass. There was the classic red wine glass, or rather the Bordeaux glass and the very bulbous Burgundy glass. Our No 3 aspires to allow these legendary varieties of wine to unfurl their flavour on an equally optimum basis.
What are your earliest memories of wine?
My earliest recollections are the times when I would ride along in my father’s VW Beetle when he went to buy wine in the Kamptal or the Wachau valleys which weren’t far from us - about an hour's drive away. I found the winemakers to be very sociable and, above all, fun to hang out with right from the start. Their doors were always open and people would walk in and have a great time. That was quite an experience for a boy from the Waldviertel region, where things were quite a bit quieter.
Yes, Brand-Nagelberg, where you grew up and are still at home, is situated near the Czech border in the northernmost tip of Austria, isn’t exactly the centre of the world, is it?
No, it isn’t. But there is a lot of wood and quartz there, which are the most important resources for making high-quality glass. That’s one of the reasons why my family settled there and has been producing various forms of glass since the 18th century. Socially, it was a typical glass-works village, characterised by its hard-working people.
Was it clear to you from an early age that you would also go into the glass business?
Not necessarily. But I had decided that I wanted to do something artistic, and I could also have gone in the direction of interior design. At home we played a lot of music and did a lot of drawing. I was an only child and can remember sitting at the table with my father on those long winter evenings, drawing.
Not glasses back then though, right?
No, we mainly drew portraits of people.
“The less wine that is poured, the better the glass is able to demonstrate its qualities.”
Kurt Josef Zalto
You joined the family business at an early age, though. Nevertheless, it was half a working lifetime until you stirred up the wine scene with your design of the Zalto Denk'Art...
We manufactured the classic assortment of a glass-works. That included glasses, but we were more known for vases, other accessories, including elaborate one-of-a-kind pieces such as portraits of people, engraved on glass and refined with transparency painting, for which the colours were blended from scratch each time. It wasn’t until I was approaching 40 that I began to work on the development of wine glasses on a systematic basis.
At that time, the market was firmly in the hands of a few suppliers. It can’t have been easy for newcomers like you to get in on the action with your first Zalto Denk'Art collection, right?
Yes, it was almost impossible at the time. We had some quick successes with private customers, but winemakers and restaurateurs didn’t want to know about a new glass. They all told me that they already had the best glass. In the end, our Christmas tree baubles helped out.
Christmas tree baubles?
One of the most important people in the wine business at that time was the winemaker and priest Hans Denk, to whom we donated Christmas tree baubles each Christmas that were then painted by the children in his parish. It was through our dealings with these Christmas tree baubles that I asked him to try our new glass. He loved it.
Looking back, your memories of this project aren’t all positive though, right?
Until 2006 we made the Zalto glasses in our factory. Then things got bigger, new investors joined as partners, and everything got more complicated. I dropped out in 2009, but unfortunately, my name remained part of the brand. I don't talk about this anymore today and have closed the book on the unpleasant course which that partnership took.
Five years later, you began to develop the Josephinenhütte collection...
I never stopped searching for the most perfect wine glass possible.
What has been the key to being successful in your search?
You have to be able to see how the wine moves in the glass. And not just when you pour the wine, but also when you drink it.
Do you lean towards Riesling or Gewürztraminer?
I am a fan of fresh, invigorating wines, so I naturally go for the Riesling varieties.
Does that mean invigorating wines taste best in your wine glasses?
Personal preferences don’t play any role in the development of the glasses. It is more a matter of angles and diameters, the decanting effect in the goblet, the flow rate of the wine in the glass, and several other factors. Mathematics is as useful as knowledge of wine... Ultimately, it is the absolute enthusiasm for glass, handicraft and wine that brings success.
How did you develop the Josephinenhütte collection?
I ultimately worked on this glass design for almost five years, I started with initial thoughts of a modified goblet, what later came to be called a kink. Throughout the design phase, I was able to count on a well-coordinated team of five friends, who weren’t winemakers, but wine lovers with a keen interest in high-quality craftsmanship. I developed the first designs, which we then used to produce up to five glasses each. We then got together and saw how the wine tasted from these glasses, and the impressions and comments then served as the basis for the subsequent, optimised designs. That’s how things went on and on. In the end, several hundred designs were necessary until we had finished the four types of glass in the Josephinenhütte collection.
Did you interact with other glass designers during this process?
No, it was all top secret. Glass designers always work alone in a quiet room. Unfortunately, good ideas are never safe in this profession. Therefore, I even gave false information when ordering the prototypes. Instead of a “wine glass,” for example, I wrote “candlestick” or “distillation flask” on the order slip. And since Denk’Art by Zalto has been copied mercilessly by the industry, we also deliberately aimed for a design in the new collection that can’t be imitated so easily.
Your glasses are all characterised by their filigree and lightness...
When I think of a perfect wine glass, I always see a feather in front of me. Yes, for me, filigree is the epitome of the noble character of a wine glass which stands equally for beauty and functionality. That in itself is nothing new. During the cultural era of the Renaissance in Italy, and later in the Viennese workshops as well, extremely filigree drinking vessels were manufactured. I want to follow this tradition with the Josephinenhütte collection. But as I said: The glass shouldn’t just be delicate and noble in haptic terms, but the filigree character also has a function, especially when it comes to the rim of the mouth. The finer the glass in this range, the more precisely the wine can be sampled over the lips and ultimately enjoyed. The fineness of the rim is also the decisive factor in the perception of the carbonation in sparkling wines.
What things upset you the most when it comes to wine service and wine glasses
When too much wine is poured into the glass. There are now restaurants that have extra-large wine glasses so that the waiter can pour in two decilitres at a time. Then, of course, the role of the glass is reduced to the function of a mere container. After all, the less wine that is poured, the better the glass is able to demonstrate its qualities. The Josephinenhütte glasses work best when they are only filled to the kink.
Will you launch another, even better wine glass at some point?
If you ask me that kind of a question now, I would say that the Josephinenhütte collection is my perfect work. But you always have new ideas, and it doesn’t have to be wine.
What kind of enjoyable things are you thinking of, for example?
I am currently working in detail with beer and whisky, both of which are interesting elixirs. Let's see where that goes.
How do you work today? In a team or as an individual?
Now, at the age of 61, I have the great privilege of being able to freely pursue my design ideas in my studio in Brand-Nagelberg, which is also located in my home. I live alone, in a reduced environment, a few beautiful things are quite enough for me. And then I walk my dogs twice a day. That’s when I come up with the best ideas.
Has the success of the collection allowed you to invest in new production facilities?
Yes, we have recently put a new furnace into operation. Our vision is for Brand-Nagelberg to once again become a place for high-quality industrial hand-blown glass production. In recent decades, glass production here has been strongly linked to tourism. We welcomed up to 30,000 visitors a year, who also bought our products, of course. But what I’m aiming for is a professional, artisan-type manufacturing centre that produces hand-blown glass for which there is considerable demand worldwide. I already have daily requests for visits to Nagelberg from all over the world, but we want to finish the renovation of the works and our expansion first.
Glass production is very energy-intensive. Doesn’t that worry you, given the current developments surrounding the rapidly rising costs of energy?
We are in a strong position. The important thing is for us to get away from gas in the medium term and to now focus on electricity. And that we not only use electricity, but also generate it. We have plans for the construction of regional photovoltaic power plants. My dream is to operate the Josephinenhütte on a completely climate-neutral basis in the near future.
Kurt Josef Zalto
Raised in the Austrian glass-works village of Brand-Nagelberg in the Waldviertel region near the border with the Czech Republic, Kurt Josef Zalto completed his glass-making apprenticeship in Kramsach in Tyrol and then, in the sixth generation, ran his family business with a classic range of vases, bowls, glasses and accessories of all kinds. In the wine world, the now 61-year-old first caused a sensation in the year 2000 as the designer of the well-known Denk'Art collection from Zalto. He bade farewell to this project in 2009, only to make a new splash with the Josephinenhütte by Kurt Josef Zalto collection in 2019.