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Sending Wine Back In Restaurants
    ~~A Case Study or Two

By Charles Olken

The bottom line here is this: If you encounter a wine that you think is corked or has turned volatile because of bad storage, you should send it back and the restaurant should take it back with no questions asked.

I know experienced sommeliers who agree with this practice, and I know experienced sommeliers who have told customers that they do not know what they are talking about and refused to take the wine back—and have told customers that they should simply order something else if they don’t like the wine they ordered.

I do have sympathy with restaurant personnel who think they are being taken advantage of by someone trying to show off. Chances are that they are right and the customer is wrong in at least some of those occasions. But not all, and I have the proof. Most of the time, the restaurant has done the right thing, but not always. Here are a few stories from my years of ordering wine in restaurants.

Case Study No. 1. I was wrong, but the restaurant got it right. I was wrong for not sending the wine back immediately. Mrs. Olken and I were on vacation in Hawaii several decades ago having dinner at a very nice resort. We ordered a Louis Martini Zinfandel to go with our spit-roasted pork and the wine came to the table at about 80 degrees. I smelled it. Suspected it, but it was so warm that I asked for an ice bucket (no shame in that by the way as the wine, if clean, would have fit the bill). But even as it chilled down to a reasonable drinking temperature, it became clear that the wine has begun to pick up a volatile edge. And here is why I was wrong, ultimately, the wine was not saved by chilling it to the right temperature and I should have said so. But, I did not. Instead, we simply did not drink the wine. When asked by our waiter, we then noted that we found it to be shrill and not very pleasant. To our surprise, when the bill came, there was no charge for wine. Score wine for the restaurant, but chalk up one demerit in my column.

Case Study No. 2. OK, lesson learned. Some years later, Mrs. Olken and I went to Manresa, a very fine, exceptionally well-regarded restaurant in Los Gatos (near San Jose). I took along a bottle of very fine bubbly, but when it was opened, it was questionable. But it was cold and as it sat in the glass, the question turned to undrinkable. The wine was corked. It was sent away and a wine from the list was substituted. We were still charged corkage on the grounds that we had drunk some of the wine before rejecting it. My wine, my bad, but see below for a better way for the restaurant to react.

Case Study No. 3. Lesson No. 2 redux. A very fine bottle Schramsberg Reserve turned up corked at Commis, another highly regarded restaurant. Ordered a Pierre Peters Blanc de Blancs off the list as the replacement. This time, no corkage. And, when I related the story to Hugh Davies, owner of Schramsberg, he sent a replacement bottle even though I understand the risks of the occasional corked bottle and take them anyhow. By the way, I now take along a back up bottle just in case since Pierre Peters is now up to a couple of hundred dollars on wine lists locally.

Case Study No. 4. Having lunch with good friends in Lyon. Ordered a Rose’. Waiter/owner brought it to the table. Pulled the cork. Smelled the wine. Presented it for my approval. Wine was badly corked, overwhelmingly musty. I looked up and used my modest knowledge of French to indicate that there was something wrong with the cork. He agreed and took the wine away, bringing back a new bottle of same which turned out to be just what we had wanted. Not really sure how to score this one, but I do suspect that he might have knowingly let us drink the corked wine if we had not rejected it. On the other hand, maybe he just did the right thing and replaced the bottle with no fuss.

Case Study No. 5. Eating at one of those newly minted bistros that have taken Brooklyn by storm. The wine, in this case an Etna Rosso, with which I was familiar and like, was brought to the table by a very pleasant waitress. It was volatile. Sent it back and she returned with an odd, almost embarrassed look on her face. “The bartender smelled it and said it was fine. He said we would not open another bottle of the same wine as it also would get rejected. Please order something else.” In this case, the restaurant was way off base. We did not get charged for the returned wine and did order something else. But, why did the restaurant need to denigrate my tasting ability if it was doing the right thing otherwise?

I stated my bias in the first paragraph. The customer is always right. It matters not whether the customer is being a showoff jerk by sending the wine back or comes with the knowledge of having tasted thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of wine by this time.

Customers are not to be told they are wrong even when the restaurant thinks they are. Maybe the bartender was right; his entire batch of that wine has spoiled somehow—but chances are that he was not. I had to take my lumps when my cold-cellar aged bottles turned out to be corked. Restaurants have to take their lumps when they present bottles that are off in character.


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No Subject
by Bob Rossi
Posted on:6/24/2017 9:29:39 AM

I first thought that No. 4 was perfect for the restaurant, and assuming that the server didn't realize the wine was corked when he/she smelled it. But then I realized that you said it was the waiter/owner, and it was France, so that's unlikely.

  No. 5 seems reprehensible by the restaurant.

  I've rejected wines at restaurants on many occasions, and only had one bad experience. It was lunch in Chateauneuf du Pape, and we ordered a white CDP. We both thought it was corked, so I told the server. She got the owner, who tried the wine, and then toild us, In French, that it was perfectly fine,a dn that we, as Americans, were clearly not used to a young white CDP. My French isn't good enough to argue, even assuming I wanted to. So I figured maybe I was wrong, and we poured another glass after he left. We both still thought it was corked, but I gave up.

  The first time I ever returned a corked bottle it was again in another country, this one Canada. It was a family outing at a small chef-owned restaurant,a dn our family members were good friends with the owners. The first wine I ordered was served to us, and I knew right away it was corked, so I called the server over (the chef's wife). Fellow family members were apprehensive, since they said the chef/owner was tempermental and you never could tell what he'd do. So he sniffed the wine, and said to take it away, as it was bad. And he allowed us to order another bottle of the same wine..

by AFK
Posted on:6/24/2017 12:52:34 PM

Nice to read your corkage/corked experiences. My approach, depending on the venue, is simply to ask the waitress or somm to smell and taste if he/she likes and ask "What do you think?" Often the server will whisk away the wine and bring another.


If there is a question, and even if not, I ask the server to leave the corked wine on the table and bring the new bottle, and together we'll sample both—nothing like taking advantage of an opportunity to educate both my guest and the server staff. 


In cases where the somm or bartender may not agree, with confidence I will say, if it's the same, then I'll buy the second bottle—but I'm always confident in my ability to identify a corked wine to make this bold offer. It usually works.



To Cry Out or Not
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:6/24/2017 1:22:58 PM

It is clear that obviously flawed bottles should be sent back. And it is clear that restaurants have an obligation to serve good wine and to know the difference. But not all restaurant staff are professional tasters, and clearly, the bartender/wine buyer in Brooklyn did not know a volatile wine when he smelled it. I accept the comment that the restaurant would rather have me choose another wine than to try the same wine again, and I also love the idea that AFK has suggested--although in this case, who knows if his inventory was poorly handled at some point. Corekd wines are clearly bottle variations for the most part and pretty obviously unacceptable. A rise in VA may be unaccpetable to me but not to the someone else, especially when the wine is a bigger red.

So, it is tricky, and most of us are not minute nit-pickers with restaurant wines. But, if the incidences of corked wines, once running as high as one bottle in fifteen accordimg to many sources, and now, to my nose, closer to one in forty or fifty, in our tastings are any indicatioin, any restaurant that serves fifty bottles of wine per night, is serving one that is clearly flawed. Yet, I am guessing that no restaurant ever gets one bottle in fifty rejected.

Lisa Perrotti-Brown finds corked wines in Sonoma tasting
by Bob Henry
Posted on:6/30/2017 3:00:12 AM

Excerpt from Lisa Perrotti-Brown's piece titled "Corked Wine Reality Check" at The Wine Advocate online:


"During a seven-day tasting of more than 900 Sonoma County wines last month, my helper and I had to discard around 7-8% of the wine samples because the wines were corked. This didn’t even include wines with other faults such as oxidation or volatile acidity, which accounted for another 1-2% of the wines. I can’t believe wine drinkers continue to put up with this level of spoilage."

Spoilage Levels
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:6/30/2017 9:29:20 AM

Her perceived levels of corked wines looks very high to me. Even the most sensitive and insistent of CA tasters, folks like Jim Laube and Ron Weigand, do not find levels that high.

Moreover, since CA wines use the same corks as the rest of the world, whatever her findings are, the situarion would be paralleled in other parts of the world.

We can all agree, however, that the cork industry, despite its best efforts, has not rid the world of cork taint. And that fact has led some parts of the world to use screwcaps, agglomerated corks and even glass stoppers as alternative closures to cork.

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