When Should You Send Wine Back at a Restaurant?

I hate sending wine back at a restaurant. Of course I will do this when a bottle is flawed, but there’s always the potential for some disagreement or unpleasantness. My working rule is that this is appropriate only when the wine is clearly flawed, not merely because I don’t like it. Usually this is because the bottle is corked, and in the vast majority of cases the sommelier accepts immediately that the bottle is defective, but occasionally there is a sommelier who doesn’t recognize the taint and is awkward about it. But I was brought to a new question this week by a wine that was so poor – although technically it was not flawed by being corked or oxidized or having any other single identifiable defect – that I wondered whether being completely atypical should count as a reason for rejection.

Increasing problems with premature oxidation of white Burgundy have made this, my staple when I want a white wine in a restaurant, more of a risky venture when the wine is more than a year or so old. Once again, most sommeliers will recognize madeirization as a flaw, but from time to time I’ve had difficulties with this, especially in France. “These are the typical aromas of the vintage,” a sommelier explained patronizingly to me at a grand restaurant in Provence when a white Burgundy was madeirized. As politely as I could, I said that I had a cellar full of that vintage and none had this problem. With very bad grace, he agreed to take the bottle back, but warned me to order a different vintage, because all his wines of that vintage had the same problem. The storage conditions must have been terrible. These days I have taken whenever ordering a white Burgundy to asking at the outset whether it has any problem with oxidation. Often enough a sommelier will say there have been problems, and advises me to choose something else. But having asked the question, at least I then feel free to send the bottle back if there is any taint by oxidation.

Given the erratic nature of cork taint, there would not be much point in asking whether a wine is likely to be corked, but even with this most easily recognizable flaw, there can be doubt. When a bottle is well and truly tainted, it’s a fairly easy decision to reject, but this can be more difficult when there’s a subthreshhold level of taint, enough to suppress the fruits but not enough to show any clear evidence of TCA on the nose. Actually, I think this is a killer for the producer: if you don’t know this particular producer, you can easily conclude that he’s no good rather than that the wine is flawed. In such cases I have usually felt obliged to stay with the bottle. When you have a clear expectation for the wine, you may be able to say fairly that it is flawed. But given people’s widely varying sensitivities to cork taint, there can be problems in marginal cases. My most amusing incident was at the restaurant Les Bacchanales in Vence, where a bottle of a recent vintage white Burgundy was suspiciously lacking in fruits. When I expressed concern, the waiter took it over to the diner at the next table, who was a local dignitary on the wine and food scene. We could hear him saying, “no, I do not see any problem here,” which the waiter duly came back to report. As the taint was slowly becoming more evident, I stood my ground, and indeed a substitute bottle was vastly better, A few minutes later the chef came out. “I do apologize,” he said, that bottle is terribly tainted. “I would not even cook with it.” So here we had a living demonstration of variation in sensitivity, increasing from the food writer to the chef, where I was uncomfortably the piggy in the middle. That’s why it can be so difficult.

This week I am visiting producers of Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley as part of the research for my next book, Claret & Cabs. My usual habit is to try to perform a reality check at dinner by having a wine that we have tasted at a producer, to see whether experiencing a whole bottle with food gives me the same impression as a tasting. However, having dinner at the Auberge du Soleil, I was so offended by the markups on the Napa Cabernets that I decided to try something else. My usual experience in wine regions is that restaurants showcase the local producers, and while it would be naive to expect to find bargains on the wine list, often there is some wine, perhaps an older vintage that hasn’t been terribly marked up, that offers an interesting experience without completely breaking the bank. Slowly I have become adjusted to markups moving from two fold to more than three fold, but at over four times retail prices, I draw the line. One example makes the point. The Spottswoode Napa Cabernet 2000 is $360 on the list at Auberge – but the restaurant at Domaine Chandon has it at $160. Now I’m prepared to believe that expenses are higher at Auberge, but not that they justify a price of more than double compared to another good local restaurant. The wine averages around $80 at retail, so the markup at Auberge is well over my line.

So I did something I have not done before and ordered a wine from another region altogether, in fact from Burgundy, as  I thought a lighter style anyway would fit better with our particular meal. This was the Nuits St. Georges 2005 from Confuron-Cotetidot. I think it’s a reasonable expectation that in 2005 any decent producer should have been able to make an acceptable wine at communal level. But this was a throwback to the old days of Nuits St. Georges, and I do not mean that as a compliment. It had no nose at all and no fruit could be detected on the palate. If this had been a Bourgogne AOC, I would have shrugged and said that I expected a better result in this vintage. But this tasted (if the word taste can be used at all in conjunction with this wine) as though it had been overcropped to hell. I hesitated, but decided that as it had no detectable flaw, it would be unfair to send it back. However, when the wine deteriorated in the glass to the point that all you could taste was a medicinal acidity, I called over the sommelier and asked her to taste it. “Ah it has racy acidity, a bit surprising for 2005,” she said. I explained that my problem was more with the lack of fruit, and she wondered whether decanting would help. I did not feel that decanting could bring out nonexistent fruit, however. She offered to bring another wine, but I did not feel like starting another bottle at this point (and I had somewhat lost confidence in the selection of Burgundy), but we ended up with a couple of glasses of the Beaux Frères Willamette Pinot Noir from 2008 (surprisingly taut for this producer and vintage), but definitely wine as opposed to the previous mix of acid and water.

I still hold to the position that you can’t send a wine back just because you don’t quite like it, and  I cringe at the thought of imagining flaws because a wine fails to come up to expectation. But in retrospect, I think perhaps I should have rejected this wine at the outset, without crossing the line, on the grounds that it was so far from the typicity of Nuits St. Georges that it was unreasonable for it to be presented on the wine list. Here is the tasting note

J.Confuron-Cotetidot, Nuits St. Georges, 2005

No nose at all. Rather characterless and lacking fruit on the palate, seems dilute and overcropped. No obvious flaws, but only a thin somewhat medicinal, slightly acid, quality to the palate. Only fruit character is an amorphous somewhat flat medicinal note. Would not be a credit to the Bourgogne AOC. 75 points.

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8 thoughts on “When Should You Send Wine Back at a Restaurant?

  1. Well, I am not really sure that any score below 80 is significant on a 100 point scale: I suppose strictly speaking something in the low 80s would be a fair score, indicating that it is recognizably wine but of rather poor quality. I was so disgusted with the quality that perhaps I over reacted in marking down the wine. On reflection, I think it would be fair to reserve scores below 80 for wines that have actual flaws, such as taint, oxidation, contamination, etc.

  2. The wine gave you no pleasure. I would have given it a 55, maybe – in my book 75 would be a drinkable vin ordinaire, or maybe something out of a box.

    We the nonexpert public look to scores as a guide to buying. If the scale starts at 50 and any wine gets an 80 by showing up, that’s a lot of lost information. And it leaves in reality a 20-point scoring system, but less informative because of the emotive effect of the scaling.

    Or is wine rating, like undergraduate education, just another case of grade inflation?

  3. The wine gave me no pleasure, certainly.but it was not flawed, it did not have any objectionable qualities. It was just a rather poor wine, and in the context of a Nuits St. George a disgrace. If it had been a Bourgogne AOC from a poor year, I’d have said: well they didn’t do very well this year. If it had been a vin ordinaire, I’d probably have said: well, it’s not very good, but what can you expect? But objectively speaking, the score should be an absolute reflection of quality: it should be the same irrespective of the label. This was perhaps better than something out of a box from a cool climate – there were still some remnants of Pinot character around – so a score around 75-80 doesn’t seem unreasonable.

    But you raise an interesting question about the nature of the 100 point scale. Clearly it’s not really 100 points – only the upper part of the scale is used. And unless you use it as a twenty point scale from 80-100, it’s not really linear. It would hardly be worth the bother of trying to distinguish wines by one point differences between 50 and 60! So it’s not grade inflation, but the scale is a bit distorted.

  4. A log scale, perhaps? I can see the blogosphere roiling now: “What is the fractal exponent for wine ratings?”

    Wine quality is most likely a long-tail distribution but I can’t think of a scale that accurately reflects that fact.

  5. Dear Benjamin Lewin

    I would invite you to make your judgments by seasoning them with perhaps a little more context before swinging the writers axe.

    Your observations about the Confuron-Cotetidot Nuits Saint Georges 2005, do not include the possibility that this wine was tightly closed and withdrawn into its shell, in a manner that pinot noir can perplexingly exhibit during the period when it has shed its initial fruitfullness and becomes dormant, before re-emerging some years later to exhibit more complex secondary aromas and flavours.

    Many 2005’s have gone into a deep Siberian sleep from 2009. This is well recognised by many Burgundians who prefer the 2006 vintage for drinking, as they believe the 2005’s may take a considerable period to re-emerge. The high vine age of the Confuron-Cotetidot parcels in Nuits Saint Georges ( 50-60 years old) is one of the best in the Cotes de Nuits and from tasting older vintages, I would state that the wines are built for long ageing.

    It may be that their whole cluster fermentation style has shut down so completely in this closed stage of the 2005 vintage, that all you experienced were the characteristics you described.

    If this is a legitimate explanation for your less than bucolic experience, how would you view the way you have written your piece? It doesn’t alter the reality of your experience, but it certainly affects your conclusions.

    We are all on a learning journey with complex single varietals such as pinot noir, with much to gain if we can remain open minded enough to consider all the evidence.

    Kind regards

    Greg Love

    • It’s always difficult to exclude completely the possibility that a tight wine showing little fruit is passing through a dumb phase. Granted I did not taste this particular wine immediately after the vintage, so I don’t have a measure of what fruit was there at bottling. But generally speaking, there’s a difference between a closed phase, where you can see the fruits in the underlying texture, even though they don’t overtly release much aroma and flavor, and an absence of fruit where you can’t see anything below the surface. I have not had any other 2005s with this apparent sense of dilution, so I’m more inclined to think the wine is poor: I did of course consider the possibility of a flawed bottle, but I am not aware of a flaw that would produce these results. Personally in the reds I prefer 2005 to 2006, although in the whites I am very much afraid that those who argued the 2005s would be short lived may be right. The risk of wines closing down is that they may not open up again: many 1996 red Burgundies seem unfortunately to have fall into this pattern. I would be happy to be wrong about Confuron-Cotetidot’s Nuits Saint Georges 2005, but in my experience to date, I have yet to see a wine close down to this extreme and then open up, so I’m not hopeful.

  6. I echo many of your comments here and recently ordered odd bottle on the “cali cab” list of a notable NY restaurant (often “top 5”). The bottle was not tainted, maybe poorly stored, only tasted of acid and quite light red. It was an older vintage made by a top producer, from the “beckenstoffer to kalon” vineyard.

    It was a business meeting, so no trouble was made. However upon thinking further… this was truly an atrocious wine. I would never reserve it in my own home (or really find any other use for it… I would not sell it. I might cook with it.)

    One simple customer service email, noting the details… and the wine was refunded. Customer service in the USA truly is wonderful

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