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08.06.2004

Should Restaurants "Pay" You For Their Bad Wine?

The waiter pops the cork. He looks like he knows what he's doing. The cork is set in front of you for inspection as he pours an ounce or so in your glass. You swirl, swig, and swallow. The moment of truth....

Stop. Freeze the action mid-swallow. Time stands still. Nothing in the restaurant moves. We need to talk about what happens next.

Specifically, what happens if it's bad wine? I mean really bad -- it's "corked" or tainted with TCA; maybe it's got overwhelming VA (volatile acidity), or maybe it's even just highly oxidized.

Most people have never found themselves in this situation. Mostly because few people have the knowledge let alone the temerity to tell the waiter that the wine is ruined. Yet we know that anywhere from 3% to 12% of all bottles are ruined from cork taint before they even leave the winery.

So if you do think the wine is bad and want the restaurant to do something about it, what should happen next? That's precisely the question asked by a recent piece by Ben Giliberti in the Washington Post.
Without a doubt the restaurant should immediately bring a new bottle of wine, but should you have to pay for the first one? Most people would agree, of course not. But what about the new (replacement) one? Giliberti doesn't think so. The message: serve me bad wine, and I should get a free bottle because of it.

Giliberti points out correctly that the finest restaurants generally have a full time sommelier on duty, and it is really THEIR job to taste the wine before they serve it to you (hence the reason you'll sometimes see them wearing a tiny silver cup on a chain). In theory their superior palates and sensitivity will allow them to identify (and prevent from being served) a wine that even you might not have noticed was flawed. But most of the restaurants that we eat at on a daily basis don't have the benefit of such service. In fact, we're lucky if the people working at the restaurant (no knock on waitstaff intended) even know what the wine should taste like, let alone be able to identify TCA.

Giliberti's opinion in a nutshell is this: just like we would expect to get a new plate and not have to pay for our entree if we noticed (god forbid) some of the fresh vegetables on the plate were moldy, we should have a bad bottle replaced by a good one and not have to pay for either.

I must admit I was a little shocked when I first read this -- I have sent back a total of about 3 bottles of wine in my life and it's never even occurred to me to not pay for the replacement bottle -- but the more I think about it, the more it makes total sense. Ben says, "The risk of assessing the soundness of a wine should fall first on the restaurant, before the wine ever hits your glass." This, I believe, is totally true. Just like it's the restaurant's responsibility to make sure that every vegetable that gets on the plate is fresh and clean, their job is to provide you with a quality, defect free wine.

A bad bottle of wine can ruin a meal, and shouldn't the restaurant want to prevent that? After all, you might not come back. "A policy that offers a replacement bottle for free sends an important message to the customer -- you are a valued patron; we want to know if there is a problem, and we don't want to lose your loyalty over a bad bottle of wine" writes Giliberti. Those restaurants that abdicate control over the quality of the wine by not having someone on staff who can guarantee what will be served to the customer is defect free should not complain about the cost of making amends for a flawed product.

OK. Resume the action. The bustle of the restaurant resumes. Finish your swallow. Hopefully there's nothing wrong, and this is the beginning of a great dinner. But if there is something wrong, who do you think should pay the price?

Read the whole article here.

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