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A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I am often treated disparagingly by sommeliers in fine-dining restaurants. It's sad, but it's true.
A week before last, while in Atlanta to deliver a talk at a conference, I was a guest at the organizer's dinner table in one of the city's top dining destinations. He handed me the wine list and said, "Order whatever you like."
I kid you not: The waiter refused to bring me not just one, but two of the bottles that I ordered.
"You won't like that wine," he said of the first, an oxidative white from Puffeney, a top producer in Jura, France. The second, he told me, wasn't ready to drink. It was the current vintage of Barbaresco Rabajà by Produttori del Barbaresco, the label best represented in my own personal wine cellar.
After much cajoling, I finally convinced him that I knew both of the wines well, and he acquiesced.
On one level, I thought to myself at the time, he was doing what a lot of cocksure sommeliers do these days: He assumed that I was a wine idiot and that I would enjoy his selections more than mine (he wasn't trying to up-sell me, either; both of the wines he recommended cost less).
But in retrospect, it occurred to me that he was also trying to avoid an ugly situation that occurs all too often when restaurant-goers order wines with which they're not familiar. In my own work as a sommelier, I've seen it, too. Guests will taste a wine and want to send it back, not because it's defective or corky, but because they don't like it. When that happens, it leaves the restaurateur and sometimes even the waiter with an open bottle for which they haven't been paid (and which they cannot return to the distributor).
Sending back a bottle of wine in any situation is always a delicate and often contentious issue.
Here are a few rules-of-thumb for sending back a bottle of wine at a restaurant.
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Make sure that the wine is truly defective or corked before you send it back.
Here's our "how-to wine" post on "How to Tell if a Wine is Corked."
Make sure that it's not a dirty glass that's giving the wine a foul aroma or flavor. And give the wine some time to breath. Unpleasant aromas, cause by volatile acidity or reduction, may "blow off" after a minute or so.
Even if you're sure that the wine is flawed, ask the waiter to evaluate the wine before you mention that you want to send it back.
I always approach the subject gingerly. If you open with a snarly "Send this back! It's corked!" you're probably not going to get the same results you would if opening with a more diplomatic "Could you smell this wine and tell me if you think it's corked?"
If you're not sure it's corked, ask a professional.
If you're not 100 percent sure that the wine is flawed and your server can't give you a definitive answer, don't hesitate to ask for the sommelier or manager to evaluate the wine. As long as you do it politely, it's one of your rights as a patron.
In many cases, even if the wine isn't corked or otherwise flawed, the proprietor will simply offer to give you a different bottle or glass of wine. Sometimes an owner will do this out of pure, unfettered hospitality. Sometimes, she/he will do it because they know they can repurpose the wine.
I'll never forget watching one of the top sommeliers in the U.S. send a maderized bottle of 1985 Tignanello to the bar of one of the highest-profile Italian restaurants in New York.
"Sell this by the glass at the bar. They'll love it," he barked.
Be polite and remember that your server and the restaurateur are people, too.
You can never go wrong by being polite. There's always a lot of ego splashing around on the floor of any restaurant, and politeness is a good way to keep things from getting out of hand.
As I've written before, think of your sommelier as your dance partner. Treat her/him with the same respect and courtesy that you expect.
If a wine director or proprietor decides to be a hard-ass and dismiss your claim that a given bottle has gone bad, that person really has no business being in the restaurant trade.
But if you don't give her/him a chance to be polite, it's much more likely that the conflict won't have a happy ending.
Remember that there are no guarantees in wine.
Wine is a product made from fruit, an organic substance, and it evolves over time in the bottle. Even the best wine can have a "bad day."
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Some people believe that wine is affected by humidity in the room. Some even believe that wine is affected by the orbit of the moon. (I'm one of them.)
Sometimes, a wine just won't perform its best, even under optimum circumstances.
Any visit to a restaurant is always a gamble, even when it's a restaurant that you go to all the time.
If this "risk" weren't involved, there wouldn't be such a thrill in finding that perfect bottle of wine paired with just the right dish.