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02.13.2008

Oops, I Ordered Screaming Eagle.

Have you ever ordered the wrong wine accidentally at a restaurant and ended up paying the price? If you eat out enough and order wine off the list, chances are this has happened to you at least once. However it takes a certain amount of carelessness to accidentally order a $2000 bottle of wine accidentally instead of one that costs $110. But that's precisely what a New York diner did a while back, and they recently wrote to the New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni, to ask what was the appropriate thing to do in this situation. Specifically, what they should do when, after having drunk the wine and finished their meal, someone realized that they had spent more on the wine than they might on their monthly mortgage payment.

The question to Bruni, was simply whether the restaurant bore any responsibility for this having happened and therefore whether the diner was justified in seeking any restitution from the restaurant.

It's a tricky question. On its face, clearly the restaurant cannot take responsibility for what customers order. Thinking that they should police whether people can actually afford the wine they are ordering is akin to suggesting that they should police whether people who have peanut allergies are ordering things that contain nuts. Caveat emptor, I believe is the operative phrase.

Yet at the same time, restaurants, in the interest of avoiding such mishaps, which make for unhappy folks on both sides of the transaction might certainly be able to cautiously and tactfully try to avoid such occurrences. The trick, of course, involves how to make sure a customer knows the price of the wine they're ordering without questioning their judgment or their solvency.

It's not an easy thing to do. Of course, for a lot of diners, stopping a sommelier or waiter from opening a bottle they've brought to the table isn't easy either. Many people are intimidated by even the ceremony of a bottle being presented to them before opening that they don't bother to really read the label to make sure it's the wine they've ordered. Even experienced wine lovers can gloss over that step. I was recently on a business trip and eating in a very dimly lit restaurant and didn't notice that the Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc that I ordered was the same winery's red until it hit my glass.

Is a restaurant at all to blame for serving one of the worlds most expensive wines to a customer who clearly didn't really want to drink it? In my mind, not at all. But check out the full story and see what Bruni and more than a hundred New Yorkers had to say about it.

Comments (45)

michael wrote:
02.14.08 at 5:40 AM

i believe the word you're looking for is "sommelier," as this is most certainly part of their job -- informing the purchase decision.

seriously, how hard is it to hold the wine list so nobody but the ordering party can see, place a finger conspicuoulsy over the 4-digit number and say somthing like, "begging your pardon, sir / ma'am, but you did mean this lot number, correct?"

no, it's probably not the restaurant's legal fault if / when the "wrong" bottle is served as you describe. but it is the establishments fault, nonetheless, to ensure proper wine service ... including selection. and certainly any place offering screaming eagle, or vertical selections, or vintage bubbly, or anything else damned well ought to know that.

1WineDude wrote:
02.14.08 at 8:12 AM

I can't imagine any wine director or server worth their own salt wouldn't confirm an order like that at least once with the customer... Also, you've got the option to check once again once they present the bottle to you. Assuming those things were done, I'd say the restaurant would've done due diligence in making sure it was the wine that the customer actually wanted.

Otherwise, I'd be ordering Ch. Petrus every other night and then complaining once it's drained that it wasn't the wine I actually wanted...!

Alder wrote:
02.14.08 at 10:40 AM

Wine Dude,

I think you point out precisely the problem that prevents the restaurant from having more than just a sliver of responsibility for this situation. People can (and often do, as any restaurateur will tell you) take advantage of service policies as far as they possibly can get away with it.

Lindsay wrote:
02.14.08 at 3:03 PM

After reading all the comments on the original article, I'm amazed at the attitude of "caveat emptor" that seems to pervade the on-line dining public. Obviously, most of these people have no idea of the financial situations of most Americans (not to speak of the rest of the world). For most people, a $2000 hit, or even a $500 if a party of 4 split the tab, is a serious problem. It's ($2000) on the order of most mortgage payments or net monthly paychecks.

And even fine dining establishments (2 and 3 star) don't sell these bottles every day. And it isn't like most purchases, the prices are only listed on the wine list, and they can be misread (usually by not lining up the proper bottle/price). Showing the bottle to the customer only assures the wine steward brought what was ordered, not that the customer read it properly. There's no price on the bottle.

No one has to imply that the diner doesn't look like he can "afford" the wine. Just be straightforward. Something like: "That is a truely exceptional bottle of wine. With such wines we have a policy of specifically confirming the order (show the wine list, maybe indicating the price with a finger) to avoid mistakes."

Bottom line is that restaurants are service establishments. Good ones should do everything necessary to give the customer a good experience. It isn't their "responsibility" to try to avoid expensive mistakes on the customer's part; it's their job.

Arthur wrote:
02.14.08 at 3:15 PM

Maybe I'm naive, cheap or just plain overly cautious, but when I order wine in a restaurant and the server asks a clarifying question (which means that there is going to be a difference in the price) I always ask for the wine list to make it clear to me and the server what exactly I am asking for.

I can understand that some customers feel intimidated by their lack of wine knowledge. I also understand that an establishment may not want to appear haughty or in some way offend the customer. As far as I'm concerned, there is no reason to get huffy and awkward when not checking could cost you far more than you expect. That goes for diners and restaurants.

02.14.08 at 3:25 PM

One thing to point out: the article states that they were at "a very fine" NYC restaurant. That tells me that the wines on the list are already going to be expensive. Why should the sommelier assume that the diners didn't know what they were ordering?? I don't think the restaurant is in any way at fault. They probably get big spenders all the time and wouldn't think twice if someone ordered Screaming Eagle.

St. Vini wrote:
02.14.08 at 4:27 PM

If it was a "very fine" restaurant, the waiter presumably presented the bottle before opening it (thus giving the patron anothe chance to fix a potential problem). If they said "yes, that's the bottle I ordered, then they're pretty well screwed".

Further, many wine lists have the really high-end gear sorted in a separate part of the list, making it really stand out that you're ordering the pricy stuff. Maybe not in this case, but I find it hard to find potential fault for the restaurant here...

javier wrote:
02.15.08 at 1:53 PM

I can't help it but considering the following obscure hipotesis of what happened at the "very fine" NY restaurant where this person drank the unwanted Screaming Eagle by mistake: He or she got to order the wine, saw the SE on the menu and thought: "it's now or never, i get to taste this wine and we all share the bill, then I claim it was all a big mistake, we pay the bill, my dining companions -friends?- will resent me forever, but who cares, that's a dream-come-true. I will always claim it was a mistake and the restaurant's fault. I will even write a (very mild) letter to the NYT to reinforce how all this was an accident". Sorry for the twisted version but given the pieces of the story we know I can't think of this as a simple mistake.

Kate wrote:
10.16.08 at 1:55 AM

I read this and my first thought was: Oh. Great. This person, instead of taking responsibility for his actions, he whined instead. He dramatized an issue in the NYT that had the potential to dissuade people from playing the wine game. Regular folks don't realize this is a unique situation, they see evidence that even in a restaurant, no one will guide them, that wine is scary and not knowing could cost you - big time - more evidence that wine should be left to the sophisticated and the rich.
Of course, we would not be in this mess if some greedy bastard were not charging $2K a bottle. No recent wines should sell for that amount. It is. Not. Worth it. I do not care who picked the fruit, fondled the bottle or blessed the mailing list; Screaming Eagle will not ensure eternal life, bestow a sense of humor or grant you a good palate. Cheers!

Drew wrote:
05.08.09 at 2:05 PM

My family had a somewhat similar experience at the Four Seasons while celebrating my brothers graduation. My father had ordered two bottles of red, both around a hundred dollars. My father accepted both bottles when our waiter presented them but noticed after they had both been opened that one was a proprietary red as opposed to some zin he had ordered. My father had been presented with the wrong bottle and accepted it because he he wasn't paying attention. I guess he assumed that such issues didn't exist in such a fine restaurant. At that point, I felt that it was mostly my father's fault for accepting the wrong bottle. We all agreed it was no big deal and would just enjoy the wine he hadn't ordered until my father asked our waiter how much this bottle cost. It was about 500 dollars. We all felt intensely uncomfortable as we drank this phenomenal mistake, until our waiter returned to the table with the wine list in his hand. He laughed as he pointed out an interesting discovery he had just made. The wines were accessed by the waitstaff by a designated number and not the name. The wine list contained a typo and both bottles had the same number. Blame for the mistake fell on the person who was responsible for the printing or proofing of the wine list and we got a stunning bottle of wine for 100 bucks.

Joyce Wynn-Rick wrote:
02.27.10 at 9:46 AM

So my question is how many wines are named Screaming Eagle??? Not the restaurants fault at all, really people.

Chopper man wrote:
04.07.12 at 9:39 AM

Pay the bill loser, next time if you can't afford an expensive wine, look further up the list, or buy by the glass.

Kevin wrote:
05.01.12 at 4:38 PM

This same exact thing happened at a restaurant in the phoenix area and I think the restaurant was very much to blame. Here is why, every wine list I have seen has ascending prices, cheapest at the top and they get more expensive the farther down you go. This place decided to put screaming eagle as the first wine on the list !? I have never ever seen that done, but that was only the first mistake. The second was how the price was typed out on the menu. The price of the screaming eagle was listed as

$1800

now that is pretty clear, but it didnt have a comma in there as in

$1,800

now that is more clear, so it could have been mistaken for

$18.00

and for a dimly lit place and some people with poor vision might just assume there was a decimal place in there and they couldnt see it. I think that with both of these combined issues of putting the most expensive wine at the top of the wine list and not putting a comma in there to note it is 1,800 leads to a recipe for disaster because people who just glance at the wine list and pick the cheapest bottle at the top of the list and glance at the price you are going to get people who dont realize what they just ordered. There are people who dont know anything about wine and dont care what it tastes like and just order the cheapest thing on the menu, so they arent spending alot of time looking over the wine list, they may glance at it, just pick the wine at the top of the list and assume its the cheapest and then order it, spending about 10 seconds looking at the wine list.

On a side note, I wonder and I would almost pay money to know what these idiots that mistakingly order a bottle of screaming eagle think of the wine they are drinking ?? Do they just drink it and completely ignore the fact that there is something odd about the taste of the wine ? do they have any clue at all ? believe me, if I was drinking an exceptional bottle of wine, I would know it instantly, you could even disguise it in a bottle of 2 buck chuck and I would know it wasnt 2 buck chuck. I would know it was something special. But these people, they order a bottle thinking it was 18.00 and just drink it and be completely clueless the whole time about what they are drinking ? In a way I have a bit of resentment for these people as they are drinking down a bottle of wine I may never have in my life and they are just sucking it down completely oblivious to what they are drinking, it kind of makes me sick. and perhaps its karma to have to pay thousands for a bottle because you didnt enjoy it !

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