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Sending it Back: What's the Ettiquette?
By W. Blake Gray
Feb 5, 2013
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This might be a first:  I sent a wine back for being too high in alcohol.

That's not the whole story, but the incident offers an opportunity to examine the etiquette of when to send a wine back after ordering in a restaurant.

For many people, this is a weighty decision.  We know we can send a wine back if it's flawed.  But what exactly constitutes a flaw?  What if the sommelier disagrees?

I still remember the first wine I ever sent back.  I have never taken a wine education course and at the time I didn't know what TCA smells like.  But I knew something was off about the Cabernet we ordered:  It smelled like wet cardboard.  Fortunately for me it was outrageously corked, not subtly corked -- an 80-year-old with a headcold could have called it right.

But nobody else at the table did, and one woman tried to talk me out of sending it back, saying, "It isn't that bad, we can drink it."  The manager asked if I was sure.  My heart was pounding; I wasn't sure.  I asked him to taste it.  He said, "I'll take it back if you insist," and brought another bottle -- and that wine smelled the same.  This was a wine from the '90s; maybe the problem was TCA in the winery, because wineries didn't know then not to clean with chlorine products.  Maybe it was a bad batch.  Ultimately, we ordered something else.

I would remember this story differently if the bartender hadn't come over to tell me I was right.  The manager took both rejected bottles to the bar, intending to sell them by the glass.  I'm grateful to that bartender, because my adrenaline was spiking, I felt ashamed, and my meal was rushing by unenjoyed.

I was operating under the assumption that the wine had to actually be flawed -- infected, spoiled, ruined -- to be rejected.  I read that somewhere in an article about restaurant etiquette.  But there are additional legitimate reasons, and it was under one of those that I sent back a bottle of Gigondas last month.

Price shouldn't have anything to do with the decision, if one of these four reasons applies:

1) It's not what you ordered:  This happens more often than you'd think.  The server flashes the bottle at you, and you approve it -- but after it's open, you notice it's the winery’s Sonoma Valley instead of the Sonoma Coast bottling, or the 2008 instead of the '07.  Sometimes I accept the change in vintage, but sometimes I don't.  If the wine list says '07, the sommelier didn't mention it, and you didn't notice the '08 until the bottle was open, you have leeway for about 1/3 of a glass to make a no-fault rejection, based purely on whether you like it or not.

2) It's oxidized or flawed in some other way (by TCA, or bacteria):  Don't ignore oxidation as a flaw.  I reject more wines for being oxidized than for TCA.  Beware of a supposedly dry wine that tastes like tawny Port.  Sometimes this actually tastes pretty good for a couple of sips -- I like tawny Port -- but it's not the way the wine is supposed to be and your palate will tire of it.  Note that brett (short for brettanomyces), especially for wines from Europe, may not actually be a flaw.  I won't send back a European wine for being bretty unless it also qualifies on points 3 or 4.

3) The wine was inaccurately described:  This is the tricky one.  I still resent a server in Mendocino who steered me toward an oak-aged Sauvignon Blanc by telling me it was her favorite, the best Sauvignon Blanc on the list, much better than the one I planned to order.  I'll never go back to that restaurant.  But I didn't send the wine back, because nothing she said was inaccurate, and I didn't ask if it was oak-aged.  For her, I'm sure it was the best Sauvignon Blanc on the list.  You'll note that I spoiled my own meal rather than send the wine back.  That's because I hadn't yet grasped the following point.

4) The server or sommelier strongly recommended it, but you hate it:  I choose the word "hate" carefully.  I'm a grownup; I can say no to a recommendation, even a pushy one.  So I have to take some responsibility.

If the sommelier recommends a wine and I think, meh, I would have liked the one I was thinking of ordering better, I will share that information if she asks.  Maybe she will whisk the wine away and bring my intended choice instead, and maybe she won't.  If not, I'll drink it and not take her advice again.

You'll note that "Too high in alcohol" isn't on this list.

Last month I was at Aziza in San Francisco enjoying a fabulous tasting menu.  We liked a Grüner Veltliner and a sake the server recommended, and were ready for a red wine to go with the last three savory courses:  Duck confit basteeya; lamb belly with lettuce, pear and goji berry; and beef cheek with black garlic, kohlrabi, matsutake and yuzu.

I had my eye on a half-bottle of Montmirail Cuvée de Beuachamp Gigondas 2010 ($30).  The server, a certified sommelier, tried to steer me from it, recommending Inman Family Olivet Grange Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2006 ($44).  He said the Pinot's extra bottle age meant it was silky smooth and drinking beautifully.  And he said the Gigondas was a richer wine with a bigger mouthfeel.
I had a Russian River Pinot the night before and was in a Rhône mood.  I asked about the alcohol percentages.  He said the Inman Pinot was 14.5; the Gigondas, he said, was 13.  "Oh hell, bring me the Gigondas," I said.

He was right about the way the Gigondas tasted: it was big, fruity and boring.  And 15% alcohol.  He had described its taste accurately and disrecommended it.  I wrung my hands for 1/3 of a glass.  Then I motioned him over.

He took it very well; he brought me two by-the-glass wines (Catherine et Pierre Breton Bourgueil Trinch and D.  Ventura Ribeira Sacra), which I was much happier with.

If the wine had actually been 13% alcohol and tasted as it did -- boring -- I would have been stuck with it.  Or if I hadn't asked the question, I would have drunk it.  Turns out I was lucky.  But we will happily go back to Aziza, so maybe everybody wins.