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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.

Comments (15)

08.06.04 at 3:36 PM

What a coincidence. Just last night I sent back a bottle for the first time (Melissa and I don't eat out all that often). It never would have occurred to me _to_ pay for the bad wine. It's not the restaurant's fault that it was bad, but I'm inclined to agree with Gillberti. (Of course my dad was treating; I hope they didn't charge him...)

The irony was poignant on ours however. We had ordered the 2001 Le Cigare Volant, which of course was screw-capped (the server started by saying "Now this is an unusual bottle" and I said, "Don't worry; I'm a big fan of screw caps"). We still had some food when the bottle was gone, so the waitress brought us a half-bottle of the 2000 LCV, which had a cork and was corked.

Incidentally, there's a hilarious story in Kermit Lynch's Adventures along the Wine Route where they get a bottle at a French (literally) restaurant, the waiter takes off the foil, and there's no cork. The waiter raises his eyebrows, but pours some anyway. Needless to say, it was oxidized, but the chef was admant that it was okay.

Alicia wrote:
08.06.04 at 4:01 PM

I've sent back a couple of bottles and never been charged. Like Derrick, it wouldn't occur to me that I might be charged for something that was damaged when I received it (and I'm sure I'd be indignant if they didn't take it off the bill). It's not like you drank it, after all.

Alder wrote:
08.06.04 at 4:05 PM

Yes, but did they make you pay for the replacement bottle?

Derek wrote:
08.06.04 at 4:16 PM

I would only expect this sort of treatment at very
high end restaurants that have sommeliers. i wouldn't hold my breath for my local pizza joint to buy me the second served bottle. However, if I was eating at Gary Danko or Mille Fleurs then maybe. Either way, I don't think I would have the balls to suggest it

enoch choi wrote:
08.07.04 at 3:50 PM

it's all about customer retention, if you don't provide a good experience, i won't come back.

eating the cost of the 2nd bottle would likely be worth the repeat business most of the time...

08.16.04 at 8:14 AM

Hmm. I just read a bit more of the article. I didn't understand what he was saying before, so let me amend my stance. The customer shouldn't have to pay for the corked bottle, but I didn't realize he wanted no charge for _either_ bottle. That strikes me as wrong. I ordered wine with the expectation of paying for it, and if I have to get a second bottle because the first one is corked, I should still be paying for it.

Alder wrote:
08.16.04 at 9:07 AM

Ah yes, that is exactly the point. But I will make my analogy again -- if you were served a salad that had some caterpillars crawling around in it, wouldn't you expect to not even to have to pay for the replacement salad?

Robert wrote:
08.17.04 at 9:10 AM

The analogy of a bad bottle of wine being tantamount to being served a salad with moldy vegetables etc. is pretty tenuous. The restaurant "prepared" the dish. That means they purchased, examined, cleaned, prepared and presented the items on the plate. In stark contrast to this process, a purveyor is given a bottle with a cork in it which can not be opened prior to serving. There isn't any culpability on the part of the restauranteur. Of course, you should get a new bottle of wine and you should expect to pay for it.

Alder wrote:
08.17.04 at 10:54 AM

That's a fair point. The author of the article seems to think that the restaurant bears as much responsibility for buying good wine and cellaring it well, and should assume the risk inherent in buying a product which might be bad before it even gets into the restaurant. I think ultimately it comes down to an argument for restaurants going beyond what is "fair" and providing a level of service which says "we take full accountability for your dining experience" even at the loss of the cost of a bottle of wine.

I'm not sure if I completely agree that this is necessary, but, like many of the other commenters, if a restaurant DIDN'T charge me for the replacement bottle, I would certainly be more likely to patronize it in the future.

Luis Martini wrote:
09.04.04 at 3:14 PM

Mr. Ben Giribeli: I´m from Argentina and I need to talk you about our wines and your proffessional opinion.

Please, I´m waiting for your answer.
Thank you
Luis Martini

Alder wrote:
09.06.04 at 8:41 PM

Mr. Martini,

Ben Giliberti has no connection to my web site. I have simply written a short article about his writing in the Washington Post. If you would like to contact Mr. Giliberti, you should attempt to do so through that newspaper.

Regards,

Alder Yarrow

tmd wrote:
09.20.04 at 1:49 AM

A restaurant cannot possibly argue with a customer who refuses a bottle on the premise that it is corked, although it may actually be fine--and some people do send back wine that is just as it should be. Introducing a custom of giving the next bottle for free suggests an opportunity for people to basically steal wine; all you have to do is say the first bottle is corked!

And come on: holding the restaurant responsible for a bad bottle to the extent that you actually will never eat there again sounds rather extreme. Anyone who is that finicky probably would not be missed by the waitstaff, anyhow.

Christian wrote:
09.23.04 at 12:13 PM

I agree 100% with tmd. This is a license to steal.

If I remember correctly, Matt Kramer (WS) posed a similar scenario where the 'sommelier' at Trotter's or somewhere had 'approved' the wine before it got to table. He went on to say that this act put the consumer in an uncomfortable position. Having the sommelier pre-taste the wine would make it more unlikely, in the event that the wine was flawed, the customer would not say anything for fear of standing up the sommelier.

I seem to remember letters being written from people saying that if they were paying $300 K for a bottle of Turley, they sure as hell wanted to drink all of it, not have some clown with a tin cup around his neck getting a free drink.

Sounds like a 'have your cake and eat it too' situation.

Jamie wrote:
11.18.06 at 10:12 AM

My husband and I had a unexpected expereince last night in high-end local resturant. Our wine selection was terrible and corked. We did not drink the wine and ordered a different more expensive bottle (an excellent alternative). Our waitress was very gracious at trying to resolve the situation. However despite our insistance, the manager refused to take the bad bottle of wine off the check. In fact, he tried to encourage us to take the bottle home. My husband, a chef, said that he would not even cook with the wine. After half-an-hour of getting nowhere with the manager, we politely paid for both bottles of wine and our food. We left the full bottle of bad wine at the establishment. Today, we have called the owner and requested a refund (we are still waiting on a response). I have never seen or heard of anything like this in my ten years in the service industry. Any thoughts?

Alder wrote:
11.18.06 at 10:35 AM

Jamie,

That sucks. Did the restaurant agree that the wine was corked and still not refund your money, or was there a contention that the bottle was not corked? Even if they did not agree that the first wine was spoiled they should have taken it back and not charged you. There's no way you should have had to go through what you did. Writing the owner is a good step, you might also write a letter to the editor of the local paper. Or to the food section. And you must certainly never go back to that restaurant and warn your friends away too.

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