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Jan 6, 2007 11:25 PM

Reasons to reject a bottle

[[ Note: This thread was split from a discussion of how a second same bottle should be presented in a restaurant: -- The Chowhound Team ]]

There are dozens of reasons why one bottle of wine may vary from another bottle of the very same wine. As you say, variation in and of itself is not automatically a bad thing, and should not automatically lead to rejection.

That said, there are plenty of reasons to reject a bottle, but "I don't like it" isn't one of them.

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  1. It would be good to expand on this in a separate thread, as many folk are unconscious of, or oblivious to valid reasons for rejecting a bottle of wine in a restaurant. As you so well state, “I don’t like it,” is only valid if the waitperson/sommelier has made a recommendation of a wine to go with X. This should be based on some discussion between the restaurant staff and the diner. If the suggestion is NOT a good one, in that one circumstance, could one logically reject a bottle. Were I the sommelier, I’d ask myself some questions (in private, and not in front of the client) and then try to come up with something else on my list to please them. At this point, I’d ask more questions, than make suggestions. Too many diners think that they can return a bottle, just because they made a wrong choice - it should not be so!

    If I encounter a bad bottle (for whatever reason, but TCA is #1), and I reject it, what I want is a replacement bottle of THAT wine. I’ve had a few haughty sommeliers who bothered to ask, “ and what would you like this replaced with?” The answer should be obvious - the same wine, but a good bottle. I usually whisper this, but maybe it should be stated loud enough for the rest of the diners to hear. However, in these instances, the choice was mine. This was the wine that I ordered, but THIS bottle was bad and needs to be replaced. Heck, they’ll get credit from their supplier, who will get credit from the producer, so it’s not that big a deal - it happens. It happens between 4 - 10% of the time, depending on which source you choose to look at. My rough estimate from my cellar is about 5%, but then there are the older wines, that may, one day, give me a bad surprise.

    If I order a bottle of wine, without the staff’s suggestion, and I do not like it, it’s mine, unless there is a flaw in that wine! No if’s, and’s or but’s - it’s mine.

    I ordered a btl. of Cal Cab from a producer, who did both a Chard and a Cab from the same-named property. The sommelier brought the Chard, showed me the bottle (I was in deep conversation and just looked at the label and NOT at the bottle). I waved OK. He opened it, and poured me a taste - “hey, this is white,” I thought. “But I ordered the Cab... “ It was all my mistake and I was given the opportunity to catch the mistake from the cellar. I insisted that the table keep the Chard, but that he bring the Cab. The mistake was mine. Yes, he brought the wrong wine, maybe because of the noise level of the restaurant, but he “presented” the bottle to me, and I just blew it all off, and said OK. My mistake - my purchase. He tried to talk me out of it, but I would not hear of it. Besides, this Chard was a good one, and there were a few “white only” drinkers at the table, AND the Bâtard-Montrachet was almost out. I know full well the difference between a Chard bottle and a Cab bottle and I just missed it. Too bad for me.

    Thanks for bringing up the point, as I feel too many people have a very bad misunderstanding of what is proper, regarding sending a bottle back.

    As stated above, poor storage, and not TCA, is a good reason to reject a bottle. This is another chance to ask for a replacement of THAT bottle. Considering the volume of a single wine, that a restaurant is likely to purchase, poor storage should be an almost insignificant factor - though not unheard of. As for bottle variations, most are so sublime that only an A-B comparison will likely point it out. Though, think about it. If one bottle came from the start of the bottling, and another came near the end, then it is likely that they might be different. However, most bottling lines fill cases in order, so this will not happen too often - only when different cases are cellared. TCA, OTOH, is likely to affect one bottle out of a case.


    6 Replies
    1. re: Bill Hunt

      One caveat regarding the sommelier showing the bottle: don't just LOOK but also TOUCH it. It's amazing how many (even high brow) places keep their bottles not just at room temperature, but even worst, in high shelves immersed in the heat of the dining room. I've even seen them next to the kitchen. And definitely no, if it's too hot, it'll be useless to get an ice bucket...

      1. re: RicRios

        Good point. I find that I choose a bucket of ice more for my reds, than for my whites. The old adage of "room temp" was coined in Europe, where "room temp" was just above what a good cellar would be. I find that too many whites are served in restaurants at ~45F, which is much too cold - then they want to plunge it into ice water!

        Thanks for mentioning the temp.


        1. re: RicRios

          So if it is too warm, icing it won't help? How come?

          1. re: troutpoint

            If they kept it at, say, 75-80F or thereabouts for quite a long time, it'll be "cooked", gone. Probably not vinegary to the point you can ostensibly return it, but dead, no flavors, no fruit. Icing will lower the temperature, but it won't bring life back.

            1. re: RicRios

              Oh. I get it. I thought that you meant that bringing the temperature down was't acceptable. (Assuming that it had been stored properly) I understand now.

              Thank you for your concise and informative answer. And for not making me feel stupid.... :)

        2. re: Bill Hunt

          The mixup is why I always state out loud the year, varietal, and winery when I'm serving wine at the restaurant... there have been a couple of times when someone gives me the bin number, I forget which is which, and I bring them the Pinot Grigio instead of the Pinot Noir they ordered.

        3. The original comment has been removed
          1. My wife, her sister (both Belgian) and I (American) ate at Le Siphon in Damme, Belgium for dinner about two years ago. Le Siphon can be best described as an ancient NYC steak-house in ambiance, but one that specializes in eel in green sauce, among other esoteric items.

            From the extensive wine list we ordered a bottle of Montrachet (Chassangne?) and all agreed it was corked. We ordered another one. Again, corked. A third, corked. We all have decent (or experienced) palates, but at this point I was getting a little concerned it was we that were off. The sommeleir removed each bottle with out a word that I recall.

            As we decided what to do next, I noticed the owner, an older, intimidating man, speaking with the (now undertandably agitated) sommelier and gesturing towards our table. He was soon on his way over. I began to slide down in my chair as the ladies stood their ground. After a quick (indecipherable) converstation in Flemmish, the owner (much to my consternation) retrieved all three rejected bottles. Tasting them in a row he pronounced each one off. He then opened a forth- off. The fifth, alas, we all pronounced to be right on, the difference in quality quite obvious in the end.

            Had I not been with natives at the time, I probably would not have been so bold as to send back multiple bottles, but it does go to show that whole cases can be spoiled and to be ready to stick to your guns.

            1 Reply
            1. re: tbear

              A bad batch of corks is a bad batch of corks, and you can have one bottle in a case be tainted, or -- theoretically -- all 12.

              I've never had an experience such as yours -- four in row! I have had two corked wines in a row, at which point the sommelier asked if I wouldn't prefer to try a different wine. He agreed the two bottles were corked, and I think he was a bit more fearful of a third bottle than I.

              Congratulations for sticking to your guns! That must have been difficult (at best!).

            2. So, for those of us not as experienced with wine, what should we look for? I agree you shouldn't send back a bottle just because you don't like it, or you made a bad choice, but how do you truly know if a bottle has gone "bad". Also at a wine shop for that matter, for those of us who only buy one bottle of a type at a time and wouldn't know any better if it was an off bottle.

              2 Replies
              1. re: greenyellow

                Let's put it this way: it's like dating.
                First few times around it's hit or miss, but later on you start getting the knack of it...

                1. re: greenyellow

                  Because TCA-contamination is probably #1 (too hot on the storage conditions #2) and different folk have a different level of sensitivity to TCA, it can be difficult. When ever I encounter a "corked" bottle in one of my dinners (not out at a restaurant), I'll give little pours of the off-wine, for others to taste, and we'll discuss the components. The best way to learn about "corked" wine, is, unfortunately, to experience it. If one can try a corked bottle, next to a good bottle, of the same wine, the differences are usually very clear.

                  To tbear: wow, I've never had anything like your experience. I've had four bad ones, at an event, where probably 10 cases of Merlot were being poured, but never, fortunately, four in a row (five, if you count the owner's experience) at a restaurant! Thanks for sharing that event. Glad that the owner stepped-up and did the right thing - great service!



                2. if a wine has gone off, there are several ways to tell, depending on its malady. it may smell moldy or like wet cardboard. it may smell like vinegar or sour. it may smell like nothing at all.

                  sensitivity to tca does vary widely, and i tend to whiff it out much moreso than others. if you're unsure, ask the sommelier. they should take it back politely.

                  to bill hunt: not every guest wants to bother trying a 2nd bottle if the 1st was bad. some seem to think the whole lot must be flawed. i do try to ask the question in as nuetral a way as possible to feel them out.

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: hotoynoodle

                    Unlike an earlier poster, with 4-5 bad bottles of the same wine, I have yet to encounter (knocking on wood here) two at the same sitting, that were corked. Considering the industry's guess of 4-10%, it is certainly possible, within the same case. In my cited case, the Shafer Red Shoulders Ranch Chard, was the wine, that I wanted. One of the guests (a candidate's wife) had expressed a love for bit, bold, CA Chardonnays, so that was my choice, even though many at the table were having a Corton-Charlamagne. In this particular case, the sommelier was from the UK and spoke with a decided, to my ears, British accent. When confronted with the corked bottle of CA-Chard, asked, in an affected French accent, "and JUST what would MONSIEUR like INSTEAD?" My whispered answer was, "the same wine, but not a corked one." I offered a taste to him, especially as his tastevin was prominently displayed, around his neck. He snatched the bottle from the table, and muttered, "zee chef will just cook with this." My comment stopped him in his tracks, "if chef xxx xxx is still at the helm he will not, and if he's not here, I do not want the sous-chef using THIS for any of my guests." By now, my voice was rising, and a waitperson came over and whispered, "chef xxx xxx is no longer with us, but our new chef yyy yyy will NOT use bad wine to cook with."

                    Had this server not copped an attitude (especially an affected one, repleat with a faked French accent) with me, regarding the wine, I would probably not have recalled the event. The wine would have been replaced and nothing more would have been said.

                    I agree that the question is a valid one, and thank you for bringing that fact to my attention. Were I in the role of wine steward, I would probably ask the same question, but in a proper tone. Also, with my sensitivity to TCA, just opening the bottle, would have alerted me to the problem. I've stopped servers, headed to other tables, and pointed out that a glass on their tray was corked, and that they should head back to the bar, before delivering it. Corked wine is a fact of life, Stelvin/similar not withstanding, and servers should be aware of it. OTOH, clients should be aware of THEIR responsibility, when ordering a bottle, or more, of wine. I've had server's recs., that just didn't suit my palate, but always tried to find the "match" with the dish, and kept the wine. I've rejected a few bottles, when the rec. was way, way out in left-field, and rejected a couple dozen, or so, that were bad - usually corked, though a few were definitely "maderized," or heavily oxidized.



                    1. re: Bill Hunt

                      Actually there has been some studies that show TCA breaks down with heat, and it's quite common for restaurants to cook with "corked" wine. Never done it myself, so I don't know if it works or not (i.e.: the taint disappears with heat).

                      1. re: zin1953

                        >>Never done it myself, so I don't know if it works or not (i.e.: the taint disappears with heat).<<

                        Neither have I (can't imagine cooking with something that vile) but the indefatigable Sue Courtney has and reports that it works. Must try this sometime, but only when I have a fallback handy.

                        1. re: zin1953

                          TCA, what an interesting substance. In several discussions with winemakers, many are of the opinion that heat, i.e. poor storage, actually contributes to the degree of TCA. This was one theory to account for more incidents of it in wines in Arizona vs Colorado. My general experience went from about 4% to 10%, when I moved south. Since I am not a chemist, I do not know. It might well be that I was experiencing more, because I was drinking more, and I did not keep an exact count of returned bottles, but it was getting to be about one/month, or even more often, while it was one/six months in a cooler clime.

                          As for cooking with TCA contaminated wine, I'll have to give it a go. I have a bottle of Chassange-Montrachet, that I plan on returning to the retailer in CA. Maybe I'll try a sauce with it instead and see what happens.

                          BTW, I have NEVER had any problem with a retailer taking back a bottle, especially if I had the invoice. That said, I'd dread having some of my older reds being tainted, as those receipts are long gone, though I do have the retailer in the database.

                          Thanks for the observation,