Yesterday we addressed the delicate subject of how to send back a bottle of flawed wine in a restaurant. If you are served a "corked" or otherwise defective bottle (perhaps "cooked" due to heat exposure or "oxidized" due to a clean but nonetheless faulty cork, for example), you have every right to send it back, provided you do so courteously. This is one of the stipulations of the inherent and intrinsic social compact between waiter/sommelier and guest. (Remember the Wine Lover's Bill of Rights?)
The subject -- we've said it over and over again -- is one of the most delicate when it comes to dining and service etiquette. And having sat on both sides of the table, so to speak, I've seen it go both ways. I've sent back wine that was obviously faulty even though the waiter didn't see it as so. And I've served wine to guests who have sent back perfectly "correct" wine simply because they didn't like it.
In my view, the customer is always right. That's part of the deal. Just ask one of the many great sommeliers that work in Houston and they'll tell you the same thing. They often have to deal with perfectly correct bottles that have been sent back. For the most part, they find other applications for the bottle once opened (like selling them by the glass or pouring them the next day during staff training).
(And for the record, restaurateurs regularly return corky, cooked or otherwise defective bottles to the distributors, who readily receive them and refund their cost.)
Fair enough: Part of the social compact of dining and restaurateurship is the delicate dialectic of what constitutes fitness in any given bottle.
But what do you do, as a guest in a restaurant, when you are served a correct bottle of wine that you simply cannot enjoy?
I can't tell you how many times a sommelier has insisted on serving me a buttery, oaky Chardonnay from Napa or Santa Barbara despite my gentle protestations. I've even been in situations where sommeliers were convinced that they could convert me to the religion of high-alcohol Zinfandel or cure me of my dislike of oaky, concentrated Cabernet Sauvignon. (I am from California, after all, and so I can understand how many would perceive my oenological orientation as an aberration.)
The following are my rules of thumb for avoiding and dealing with the situation. But the overarching dictum here is courtesy. You can never go wrong with courtesy, respect for others and personal dignity.
1. Don't ever hesitate to say "no, thanks" if you know a wine isn't right for you. You can always avoid the situation by saying simply, "No, that wine just isn't my speed" (that's my line but there are infinite other possibilities).
2. Don't overreach if you're not familiar with the wines on the list. It happens to me all the time. When I visit a restaurant where I'm unfamiliar with the wines (and I imagine that this happens to a lot of people), my rule of thumb is ask to taste wines by the glass. All the by-the-glass selections should be available by the bottle as well (ordering by the bottle is always your best value).
3. If you really can't drink the bottle (for whatever reason), don't be afraid to tell your server. Here's where courtesy -- from the moment you walk in the door of the venue -- is so key. If you've built that trust with the proprietor or server through mutual respect and politeness, she/he will respect your personal preference. If they insist on making you pay for the bottle, just politely pay but don't return. If they graciously offer you something else, just tip generously and let them know how much you appreciate it.
I was in Siena, Italy, the last time this happened to me (about a year ago). My colleague Francesco -- the president of the Italian wine shop association -- and I ordered a bottle by one of my all-time favorite producers of Chianti Classico, an icon in the field, Castell'in Villa.
The vintage was 1995, a great one for the appellation. As we ate our delicious tagliatelle ai funghi porcini, we realized that the wine had simply lost its life. It was good. It just wasn't what it could have been (and he and I had tasted it many times before). Something about it was just off.
When the restaurateur noticed that we had left three quarters of the bottle on the table, he immediately offered to open something else for us. We thanked him but declined. One glass of wine was enough that evening, however mediocre.
Francesco bought dinner that night and while I didn't see the bill, I'm sure that the proprietor didn't include the cost of the bottle of wine. Next time I'm in Siena, I wouldn't be surprised if Francesco and I go back to the same place. He eats there at least once a week.
In my view, this is a great parable about restaurant-going. The economics of fine dining are as much about relationships and human interaction as they are about good food, wine and service. A bad bottle of 1995 Castell'in Villa? Lupus in fabula...
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