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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.

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