When is it acceptable to reject a wine in a restaurant? How to manage the 'taste'

There has been a lot of chat on twitter about a food blogger who had a bad experience in a restaurant in Manchester. He began by ordering a bottle of Tondonia Blanco (a stunning, but distinctive white Rioja that I and most of my right-thinking friends adore), and then rejecting it because it wasn’t to his tastes. You can imagine the fall out.

But I think there is widespread confusion about the protocol of ordering a wine in a restaurant. The person who orders the wine gets to taste a small amount before it is poured. However, this assumes a lot of knowledge on the part of the customer. It’s perhaps a bit unfair to assume that most guests know exactly what the ‘taste’ is for.

So let me explain. First, you order the wine. The sommelier fetches the wine, brings it to your table, and shows you the bottle so you can check what you have ordered. Then, one of two things happen. In most places, they will open it table side and pour a small amount for the person who ordered it. [I know wine can be sexist, but if a male orders the wine, that male will do the taste. If a female orders the wine and a male is given the taste, the sommelier has failed.]

In some places (and I like this procedure) the sommelier will open the wine at a station distant from the table and taste it first. Then, if it is faulty, they can discretely change the bottle. They will then bring the open bottle to the table and let whoever ordered the wine taste it, and there shouldn’t be a problem.

So, if you are given the wine to taste, what are you looking for? You are looking for an obvious wine fault, and usually this means cork taint. Theoretically, you could reject the wine if it was heavily bretty or reduced, but it would have to be pretty far gone for this to be appropriate. Mousiness? I would reject a wine for this, but it would take an accepting and skilled sommelier for this not to be a potential problem. If a wine was completely oxidised, then I’d also reject it, but for a very old wine this could be tricky.

What you are not doing is tasting the wine to see if it is just right for you tonight. The only acceptable reason to reject a wine is faultiness. Full stop.

The big issue here is what happens if you think the wine is cork tainted, but the sommelier disagrees. This should never happen: if you think it is cork tainted, the wine is cork tainted. Sommeliers: you can only lose if you start entering into a negotiation over cork taint or not. You have ruined your guests’ evening. Don’t do it.

This has only happened to me twice. Once I was in Sancerre and I got a bottle that was horridly corked. I mentioned this to the sommelier. He took the bottle away. Good, I thought. He’ll bring another. He didn’t: he brought a colleague and both began trying to tell me the wine was fine. Young French guys with challenged egos. Bring a replacement, I said, and we’ll taste them together. They brought a replacement under duress, but refused to try the two together. For the sake of a 30 € bottle of wine they were prepared to fight and alienate a customer, even though they were wrong.

The second time was in one of my favourite London restaurants. I ordered a wine I know. It was slightly corky. I sent it back. Member of staff tells me the wine is a bit reduced, that’s the style. I said, I know the wine, this is also a bit corky as well as being reduced. She wasn’t happy (she’d opened three that night and they all tasted the same), so I said bring another and if they are the same I will buy both. She says: wouldn’t you rather another wine, because you clearly don’t like this one. I stood my ground very politely. I didn’t at any point say, I know what I’m talking about. But that’s not the point: even if I was wrong and the wine was the wine, I’m a customer, and as a guest of a restaurant how can it ever benefit the restaurant to get into an endless negotiation about wine faults where the guest is left feeling stupid?

So I feel some clarity is needed on the restaurant ‘taste’. It is done routinely, and no one really knows the correct protocol, or the rules. This is an attempt to provide some clearer understanding.

  • The person ordering tastes the wine
  • In an ideal world the sommelier or server also tastes the wine, away from the table
  • If the wine has a clear fault, it can be rejected
  • Otherwise, the wine is then poured for the guests
  • If the customer rejects the wine, then the wine is replaced. It is not the beginning of a negotiation: this cannot end well

What do you think? Have you had any good or bad experiences with the ‘taste’?

[Added later: on Twitter, someone has asked – I wonder how you feel about the case where the sommelier has recommended a specific wine based on the expressed preferences of the customer and has badly missed the mark? My response: That’s a very good point: I think in these cases you just have to run with it. Or the sommelier could say: do you like it? And if you say, not really, then if they offer to change it, that’s cool – it’s then their initiative.]

[Added later (2): Some wines are a bit weird. So If I was listing them, I’d discretely and sensitively make customers who were ordering them aware of this: do you realize this is actually a slightly unusual but wonderful wine?]

10 comments to When is it acceptable to reject a wine in a restaurant? How to manage the ‘taste’

  • Travis

    Great piece. As always it’s thought provoking. If it’s Brett, it’s always been in the wine. I consider this faulty wine but true to the wine and will taste the same to varying degrees across a case. If it’s a bad cork, then it’s faulty packaging, and one in a case in most cases . You should be able to swap a corked botte for another to experience the wine as the maker intended.

    I’m pretty sensitive to TCA. I can smell it before the cork is fully drawn. I’m always amazed by how many people cannot smell it. I see this in people with ‘ Som’ ’ as title. Especially at low levels where there is an aroma, but where it mostly makes the wine taste and smell flat.

    The other challenge is that many soms do not get the chance to taste or know the wine they serve. They do not now how a good bottle should taste.

    Your approach for the som to taste the wine first is good on QA and wine knowledge fronts and I completely support it. If they are professional about it, and let the client know/have it as known house policy, then it will work. For expensive bottles there might be kick back to taking 30mls, so a way to get around this is to decant and smell from the decanter. Most faults are detectable by nose. This should always be done. If a som cannot smell TCA then they shouid not have the job. If they have a cold they should not be on the som duties that sitting.

    Premox is another league of discussion, and this is where the Som really needs to know the wine and style. Much more of a gray area. Wine/maker/vintage/stock knowledge will overcome this.

    Thank you for the good read. It prompted my interest as I too have had a corked Tondonia Blanco. An old one. Was a real shame!

  • Ari-Heikki

    Natural wines as their oddest can be tricky.

  • Jean Vincent Ridon

    Very good piece, and I full agree with you. The client is king, and always right. The host, meaning the person ordering the wine is the wine to taste, and a double control by an efficient sommelier should garantee a flawless service. I agree that some super bloated ego sommeliers sometimes take it as a personal insult to return a faulty wine… and sometimes try to bully the client surfing on the host ignorance. But a client returning a wine must always be taken seriously and addressed adequately. You change the bottle and don’t argue. However two issues can arise, the client does not know wine well and mistake tertiary aromas for TCa or Brett, Therefore when I see the client is not confident about the fault and when I taste I find the wine Ok, my protocol is to offer another wine, and to sell the returned bottle by the glass if I am confident the wine is good. So I would not be so hard with your London somm because this is the way I train sommeliers… she just failed in recognizing you there you need more selfies on social media to make sure all sommeliers recognize you and avoid arguing with you… however you are right and some sommeliers tend to fail listening to their clients properly. This is a great mistake and it defies our profession because it is not about us (even if I have a huge ego) but about the client! As a last point I am always very careful when clients order “natural wines” that sometimes tend to prove uneven from bottle to bottle (basing this comment on your redux London wine comment) so I immediately offer a different wine as well, or offer a decanter to aerate it and see how the oxygen helps. If corky it will possibly make it worse, if juste reduced and stinky it will make it fruity again. Nevertheless sommeliers must listen and not argue! We are here to offer a flawless experience, not a pissing contest!

  • Martin

    It’s an interesting subject and one winemakers should think about more when choosing the quality of their closure and how customers will remember the experience. And whether they will re-order.
    A food blogger I read regularly posted this comment a few weeks back re a Stephane Ogier wine. At least there was argument – maybe because the restaurant knew him?

    The wine was exactly what we had yesterday, which I ordered because Colette liked it,but when we ordered second glasses, the ladies turned up their noses and said “this is not the same.” No charge.
    Return?: Nope, I’ve got better things to do.

    https://johntalbottsparis.typepad.com/john_talbotts_paris/2019/07/-in-the-2nd-in-my-head-id-written-the-subtitle-trad-food-what-a.html

  • The Sommelier should never fight with a. customers. Being able to take back wines that are flawed – or that the customer thinks is flawed – is part of the reason why restaurant have ENORMOUS markups on most of their wine list.

  • Michael Kwok

    I COMPLETELY agree with you. That is how I operate. If I order any wines that are a bit out of the ordinary, I will ask about them before I order. Generally speaking, I ask if available, the sommelier to taste the wine first for me and then I will do a quick taste just to validate. I have only gotten a bad bottle once and the sommelier immediately changed the bottle out. If I picked a wine to try and don’t like it, that is my fault and I accept the wine. If I picked a wine and it don’t match what was ultimately chosen for dinner, that is my fault, Generally speaking the more knowledgeable an establishment is on wine, the more adventurous I will get with my picks as I know they have been well vetted and I trust them to pick the wines just like I would trust the chefs in picking out the ingredients.

  • Brent Bessire

    Absolutely spot on. However – I would disagree slightly that it is one bottle per case and the thought that if this bottle tastes the same the others, then it can’t be corked. They all could be corked.

    Assuming the issue is with the cork, it comes in big bags where a section of the bag may have an issue and end up in bottles that are in the same case or a cluster of cases, and you have no or few issues with the rest of the lot. I have seen this personally while working in a tasting room (not our own) where I ended up opening multiple bottles that I felt were all corked. After 3 bottles, I grabbed another case and started over with no issue. I actually felt like I was losing my mind and taste buds at that point, but I am pretty sensitive to both TCA and Brett ( which – as pointed out can be regarded as a characteristic of the wine).

    Incidentally, while having the wine pairing at Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence several years ago, I was asked by the server how I was enjoying the final wine of the pairing. I mentioned I didn’t love it. He brought over the Som and we had a discussion of the wines I truly enjoyed at that point, after which he brought us at least two more wines to try ( which were much more expensive than the pairing we had ordered). Granted, this was an extraordinarily expensive meal, but they were much more concerned with our having a truly wonderful experience than a few Euros more in their pockets. The fact that I still remember this vividly 16 years later, having dined in some really great restaurants before and since then illustrates how one can take a mediocre customer experience and make it really memorable.

  • I’m a winegrower with 36 years in. I abondoned tree bark in ’92.
    I’ve worked as a wine steward( somm= pretentious ) at several establishments. I won’t work where satisfaction is NOT guaranteed.
    Should a “somm” try to argue about my view to a wine’s soundness, I’ll ask for his manager to explain why I’m about to walk, and give them a poor review.
    Satisfaction gauranteed or I don’t do business with you.
    If it is a “weird ” wine the wine steward should make sure the customer knows it’s idiosyncrasies. Brett is not a flaw, it’s a characteristic, I’m not fond of more than a trace.
    With typical markups of 300% or more there is no excuse for less than satisfaction guaranteed.

    Paul Vandenberg
    Paradisos del Sol
    A satisfaction guaranteed wine estate, producing ingredient labeled wine from certified organic grapes, some totally pesticide free.

  • Paul wagner

    There is one other situation where you might legitimately reject a bottle: when you explain your taste (or wishes) to a sommelier and he or she then recommends a bottle for you. If that recommendation is far off the mark, then you are within your rights to explain why it missed—and ask for something else. The restaurant can always sell the open bottle by the glass…

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