Anyone who’s ordered a bottle of wine at a restaurant knows the ritual. The server brings the wine to the table, displays it for the customer’s inspection, then uncorks it with a flourish. A small portion is poured for the diner to sniff, taste and evaluate. If there’s something wrong with the wine, this is the moment for the taster to send it back.
But few do …
Natalie MacLean, editor of one of the largest online wine newsletters, at www.nataliemaclean.com, said 5 percent to 10 percent of wines are “corked,” or tainted by a chemical compound introduced by a faulty natural cork. Yet restaurants and sommeliers say that consumers send back less than 1 percent of wine they order.
Why are people so hesitant to speak up?
“People assume ‘It must be my palate,’ ” said Ms. MacLean.
Paul Tebbets, co-owner and wine director of Toast! Kitchen and Wine Bar in Shadyside, agrees. “People are afraid because they’re going to be deemed unknowledgeable or unruly.”
When a server gives you a moment to examine the bottle and then taste the wine you’ve selected it’s not a ceremonial offer; that’s your opportunity to see if the wine is palatable.
“A lot of people actually waive tasting bottles,” said Mr. Tebbets, “particularly when they’re having a second bottle of the same [wine].”
When a server presents you with a bottle of wine, check to make sure it’s the one you ordered. The server may have misheard or misunderstood your order. Then carefully smell and taste the wine. Wine making is a complicated business, and a lot can go wrong. Ms. MacLean suggested that diners primarily look out for corked wine and oxidized wine, which together account for about 95 percent of flawed wines
Corked wine should be relatively easy to identify.
“The wine smells like old, musty or wet cardboard,” she said. “You won’t get any fresh fruity smells. It really dampens the wine. … It’s not a pleasant smell. You should get a lot of pleasure from smelling your wine.”
If you’re hesitant to declare a wine “corked” on your own, ask for help. “When it comes down to it, a guest just needs to say, ‘Will you please smell this. I don’t think it smells appropriate,’ ” Mr. Tebbets said.
To catch corked wine, he’s trained his servers to sniff the bottle as they open it. “When the cork is removed, the aromas kind of waft right out of the bottle at them,” he said. Typically a server will replace the faulty wine before guests even have to smell it.
The growing popularity of artificial corks or screw tops is reducing the number of wine bottles that have the problem.
Sometimes there are larger issues …
Another issue, oxidation, is usually a problem when ordering wine by the glass. If opened wine is stored too long, the exposure to oxygen slowly alters taste and aroma. Ms. MacLean described the taste as “flat and tired.”
There’s an easy way to check on the quality of wines by the glass — just ask for a taste. If the bottle is already open, a restaurant shouldn’t blink at pouring you a one-ounce portion. Even if it’s not, many restaurants will oblige (and if they’re opening the bottle for your glass, at least you know it’s not oxidized). If you think a bottle’s been open for too long, ask for a fresh one or pick another wine.
What if there’s nothing wrong with the wine, but you just don’t like it? Ideally, you’ll realize this while tasting it. If you’ve picked the wine without help, especially at a restaurant that doesn’t have an extensive wine program, you might be stuck with your decision. But if you’ve picked a wine based on the sommelier’s suggestion or at a restaurant that emphasizes its wine program, you can politely ask for a replacement bottle. The worst that can happen is the restaurant will say no.
Both Mr. Tebbets and Ms. MacLean said people should feel comfortable sending back wine they don’t like. “If it’s not quite what they’re looking for, I’m happy to take it back and move them into another bottle of wine,” Mr. Tebbets said.
While he considers every wine on Toast’s list to be good, he said people have different tastes and experience wines differently. Mr. Tebbets has a few options other than just eating the cost of the rejected bottle. He can temporarily sell it by the glass, or he can take advantage of Toast’s flexible tasting menu. The four-course menu with wine pairings ($60 total) is popular, and because the specific dishes and pairings are always a surprise, Mr. Tebbets can bring a bottle of wine to chef Chet Garland and ask him to come up with a course to pair with it.
Not every restaurant has as much flexibility, and it would hurt a bottom line if diners started sending back less-than-amazing bottles frequently. But the average wine drinker deserves to know about practices that are standard among wine experts. Restaurants also stand to benefit from giving consumers the confidence to take more risks, try more interesting wines, and even spend a little more money.
Turn an average wine-drinker into an enthusiast and an accommodating restaurant will likely benefit in the long term.