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Sep 17, 2007 12:31 PM

Wine ordering confusion

Interesting question posed on Michael Bauer's blog (link below): restaurant customer finds a bottle of Stoller Willamette Valley Pinot Noir listed for $50, tells the server "we'll have the Stoller pinot." Server presents the bottle, customers sees Stoller, accepts and drinks it. Next day, he finds he's been charged $85. Calls the restaurant, turns out he'd been served a different Stoller pinot that was also on the list.

Is the customer right to ask for a $35 refund? On the one hand, the server should have said, "we have several, which would you like?" On the other, the customer looked at the bottle and accepted it.

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  1. IMO if there was only one pinot noir from this winery on the winelist then the restaurant should honor the $50 price. Without reading the blog it certainly sounds that way inasmuch as the guy simply orders 'the Stoller pinot", as though there's only one.

    It's not up to the customer to verify that a single wine listed on the menu is the vintage listed. And, btw, if there's more than one Stoller pinot for cr*ssakes it's up to the waiter to ask the customer which one he wants.

    I had a not-exactly-similar situation occur at Emeril's steakhouse in Vegas several years ago... They had a 2001 Late Harvest Mosel riesling on the winelist which I ordered. When the bottle arrived it was actually a 2000 or '99, from a dramatically worse vintage....

    Most customers wouldn't have caught that, and IMO it's not my duty as the diner to catch these errors anyway...

    It's very irritating for the winelist not to be up to date, or the restaurant do a bait and switch with a different wine or a different vintage...

    After reading the blog I'm even more sympathetic with this diner. He says "it's the diner's fault because the sommellier presented the bottle..." COME ON, how many diners really know a pinot from a merlot anyway ? Yet they're out there ordering wine all the time. This guy clearly ordered "The Stoller Pinot"... now if there's more than one pinot it's up to the waiter to ask which one. Somebody along the line just made the decision (incorrectly) for the diner that they wanted the more expensive bottle. What if there were two rib-eyes or two filets or (as often is the case) 3 cuts of prime rib on the menu, would the waiter just assume the guy is ordering the biggest cut ?

    And to say "the sommelier presented it"... by the time the sommelier presents it, the winelist is probably no longer on the table and unless the guy memorized the year, the vineyard and appelation the grapes were harvested from, whether or not it was a reserve or not, etc. etc., how is he in the dark supposed to verify it's the wine he ordered ???

    6 Replies
    1. re: Chicago Mike

      * After reading the blog I'm even more sympathetic with this diner. He says "it's the diner's fault because the sommellier presented the bottle..." *

      Actually that's not how Bauer responded. What he said was:
      "After several more emails, the writer told me that both bottles were from the Dundee Hills; the difference was the vintage. Because the type was small, and the restaurant was dark, he didn't notice.
      Technically, the diner is responsible. The sommelier presented the bottle, and the customer accepted it. However, I think that when taking the order, the waiter should have clarified which wine the diner wanted.
      I'm not sure it's a bait and switch, but I think the restaurant was lax in its responsibility, and I think the reader was correct to protest and get the money refunded."

      I think that's exactly right. Technically, the diner is responsible - there is a reason that part of the "ritual" of wine tasting is that they present the bottle to you to look at before opening. It's so that you can inspect it and make sure it's what you ordered. Any time I'm paying $50+ for a bottle I will look at it and make sure it's right. The world is full of incompetent waitstaff and occasionally even unscrupulous ones. Plus, my wife says I mumble. 95% of the time it's the right wine, but sometimes it'll be a different vintage, and very rarely not the right wine. Plus, if you see on the wine list that there are multiple vintages of the same wine, it'd be a wise thing to be more specific than to say "the Stoller Pinot."

      Notwithstanding all of the above, it was irresponsible and bad service on the part of the restaurant not to request more clarity - and I agree w/ the columnist that "the reader was correct to protest and get the money refunded" (which the restaurant did).

      1. re: Chicago Mike

        Chicago Mike,
        For the first time, I think, I have to disagree with you. The bottle is presented for a very good reason. The producer, the vintage, the vineyard, etc., should be checked. That is also where the tradition of presenting the cork came from - producer and vintage "switches," which seem to have died out, except maybe at auction with old, rare wines. (Note: it does seem to be rearing its ugly head again).

        Now, it the wine list only had one, and a substitution was made, the server is obligated to inform the diner. As stated elsewhere, the server does have some culpability, regarding getting the order correct, but the client did accept the bottle.

        As for recalling what was ordered, I always make a mental note of what it was, even with a half-dozen different wines coming to the table. If there is a doubt, then consultation with the wine list - yes, I've had it brought back for verification on a few occasions - should answer the question.

        A good server should ask for specifics on a wine (and I like to give them the bin #'s, if printed to help), and then recite the specifics, when the bottle is presented.


        1. re: Bill Hunt

          I would agree, to a point, if there were more than one bottling from a particular vineyard on the winelist.... but it's not clear in this case that there is one.

          But further, how many diners really do scrutinize the wine that arrives. If you have 6 people at the table yucking it up, and they've had a couple cocktails prior to even sitting down, and the sommelier arrives with a bottle that's from the same vineyard they ordered, how many diners will scrutinize it any further ?? Honestly I'd think well less than half.... and even a fair number of "wine afficianados" could easily miss the vintage year if they're not concentrating.

          It seems to be the consensus of the board that if you order the 2000 Chateau Margaux and instead the sommelier brings out the 1990 Margaux, that it's on you to catch it, even if the sommelier just flashes the bottle then pulls it back to the decanting cart.... Now, if the sommelier says, "here you are sir, the exceptional 1990 Margaux", then that's a bit different to me...

          1. re: Chicago Mike

            I've had good servers who walk through each essential piece of information and even discretely point to the label to confirm. A bit patronizing but nonetheless shows a thorough effort to demonstrate it's the right wine. Even at restaurants without that kind of service, in my experience most will hold the bottle until you confirm it's what you want.

            From there it's probably legally cavaet emptor and the restaurant is not obligated to refund, but if they've delivered something the customer didn't order, the responsible thing is to refund the difference.

            1. re: Frodnesor

              Not patronizing at all to go over essential info. It's to make sure everyone's on the same page and that the server is presenting the correct wine. In places I've worked this was required, precisely to avoid the situation the OP talks about. BTW, it's the server's responsibility to present the correct wine or clarify if there's some confusion. The refund was entirely appropriate.

      2. Both the server and the customer made mistakes. But on the presumption that the server is/should be much more familiar with the restaurant's wine list than the customer, the customer is right to request a refund. If it were a sommelier who retrieved and presented the bottle, even more of the responsibility should fall on the restaurant.

        As an aside, a restaurant that would refuse such a request when the difference is $35 is one that probably needs new management. Most reasonable diners, realizing they had also made a mistake, would gladly take a gift certificate for the same amount.

        A more interesting question: what if the wholesale price of the more expensive bottle were much higher than that of the menu price of the less expensive bottle? I still think the restaurant needs to just bite the bullet and take the hit, but that may not be the best solution in terms of equity and fairness.

        3 Replies
        1. re: mengathon

          Oh, I think that's quite equitable and fair considering the onus is on restaurant management to adequately prepare servers about what is and isn't on the wine list. As was stated in the blog, " the restaurant was lax in it's responsibility."

          1. re: Gio

            I agree that the restaurant was lax in its responsibility, but the customer is not entirely without fault. And for the difference of $35, the restaurant should simply eat it for various reasons ranging from convenience to good will.

            But for the hypothetical difference of $135? Again, I think the restaurant still needs to eat it. But when both parties are in error, I don't think you can always place the entire costs of the mistakes on the restaurant and say it's equitable and fair.

          2. re: mengathon

            Whether it's good business for a restaurant to refuse the request is another question. There are lots of unreasonable or unjustified requests it would be foolish to deny.

            That's why I asked if the customer was right to ask fro a refund.

          3. Another likely mistake was that the two vintages presumably weren't right next to each other on the list. I've seen that at places where the wines are sorted by price.

            1. In the blog, it indicates tat the difference was the vintage, not a different wine from the same produceer. However, there is no information as to whether there were more than one vintage listed. If ther was only one listed on the carte, then it is clearly the restaurant's responsibility to notify the customer of the difference in both the vintage and the price. If there were more than one vintage on the list, I still believe that primary responsibility lies with the sommelier for not asking which one the customer wanted. The customer bears some responsibility under this scenario, as he should have looked at the vintage to make sure he was being poured the right one. Apparently the restaurant did recognize the better business practice and refunded the difference.

              2 Replies
              1. re: chazzerking

                "After several more emails, the writer told me that both bottles were from the Dundee Hills; the difference was the vintage. Because the type was small, and the restaurant was dark, he didn't notice."

                I have to assume from this that there were multiple vintages of the wine on the list - I don't think there's any suggestion that the restaurant simply substituted a different vintage and pulled a price out of thin air.

                RL, in response to your question - was the customer right to ask for a refund? I say yes. You don't have to be entirely blameless to be treated unfairly, and if you feel you have been, you should speak up. Though it would have been much better form to (1) notice it before the bottle was opened, or at a minimum (2) say something when you're paying the bill.

                The story reminds me a bit of one of my first (somewhat involuntary) high-end wine experiences about 10 years ago. My then S.O. (now wife) and I were on vacation in San Francisco and having dinner at the Grand Cafe. Both of us were relative neophytes as wine drinkers and it would be a splurge to spend more than $30 on a bottle (back in the days when you could actually find $30 bottles on restaurant wine lists!) Our waiter, after telling us the daily specials, added that they had a "wine special" as well - a 1/2 bottle of Ridge Monte Bello. Well, I didn't know Ridge Monte Bello from Ripple at this point, but I'm thinking "Hey, it's on special, and it's a half bottle - how expensive could it be?" (and I thought it would be uncouth to ask).

                Thankfully, both S.O. and I had one of those eye-opening, "wow that's good moments" when we tasted the wine, and knew we were in the presence of greatness. Nonetheless, I was absolutely floored when the bill came - $90 for our little doll-sized 1/2 bottle!

                I have learned to never order a "wine special" without asking the price - and at least got to try a great wine while learning that lesson.

                1. re: Frodnesor

                  I assume that the reference to type size referred to the vintage marking on the bottle ( although I cocede that it might have been in reference to the list, again illustrating the ease whith which we humans can miscommunicate information). A competent server who when faced with an order that is ambiguous, should have clarified at the time it was given; " Sir, which of the Stollers did you wish, we have several?" If he just made the selection for the customer or picked randomly, he should have remarked on it at the time of serving. I would assess resposibility at least 50% on the restaurant even if more than one vintage was listed.

              2. I'm not sure if "right" enters into it. Was he right to ask/wrong not to ask . . . neither one really applies, I think.

                He certainly can ASK for a refund of the difference between the price of the two bottles. Depending upon the restaurant, they have the option to refund the difference or to keep all of the money . . . But he has no right to it.

                Technically, since the server DID present the bottle, and -- presumably -- it was unopened at the time it was brought to the table, it was on the customer to say, "I'm sorry, I ordered the ____________." I presume the customer would not eat the filet mignon and, later, say, "I'm not paying for the filet -- I ordered the New York Strip steak."

                In the case at hand, he drank the wine . . . how is it any different?

                3 Replies
                1. re: zin1953

                  Were I about to try this in a court of law, I'd ask to see the wine list to determine how these wines were listed. Do we have a copy, say in a PDF?

                  Right now, I'm at about 80% responsibility of the diner, and 20% server/restaurant, but could change my mind with more data, say the wine list...


                  1. re: zin1953

                    The difference is that the average diner at a restaurant is able to distinguish between filet mignon and NY strip at sight. It's much more difficult to distinguish between the different vintages of the same wine in the glass, or even on the bottle if one is not looking carefully.

                    The more appropriate steak analogy might be the typical angus filet from Montana v. a kobe filet from Japan. If the diner ordered, "Filet, medium rare" intending to order the angus, and the server does not ask for a clarification and serves the more expensive Kobe, I don't think it's outside of the diner's right to pay only the listed price for the angus.

                    Nevertheless, I agree that the diner bears a good amount of responsibility for making sure the bottle opened is indeed the correct one he requested.

                    1. re: mengathon

                      I agree completely, and the printing of necessary info on wine labels was a recent mini-rant of mine. Trying to see the vineyards and vintages on Biale, or Turley, in a dark restaurant is a daunting task, and I have to turn the bottles opposite a broad, bright light source. Lovely labels to look at on the shelf of a wine shop, but heck, when in a restaurant. Still, I always take the time to look closely, especially as both those cited producers offer several different vineyards, and at wildly different price-points. Now, if the server wants to serve me a Hayne, and charge me for a lesser vineyard... nah, I'd tell them of their error.