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Was the wine director OK to suggest a more expensive wine?

  • d

When I recently ate at a 4 star restaurant, I ordered a bottle of red of which they sold the last bottle earlier in the evening. When I asked the wine director for a recommendation for a different bottle, he made a recommendation that he felt was similar in style. When I looked at the wine list, I saw this bottle was almost 3 times the price of my original choice. I feel that was not right. Others I have asked have said his job was to find a substitute closest in style to my original choice regardless of price. I think that since I made a choice of a certain price, his job is to find a substitute of a similar style and price range. Thoughts?

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  1. I wholeheartedly agree...
    with you. He's pressuring you into an awkward spot offering you something 3x the price (unless it was $10, in which case, by all means move up). Perhaps if it was the only wine at that price level, he'd have a hard time, but otherwise, hope you have the type of relationship with your date/wife to tell the sommelier something point blank. Otherwise, always have a backup idea.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Icantread

      Let's assume that it WAS the only wine at that price-point. Then he/she did not do a good job constructing the list. That is the problem of the restaurant. I am often faced with having to pick wines for certain dishes, and work within a budget. It happens to all of us. A good wine list will have choices, especially when a particular wine is getting to be in short supply.

      However, we do agree completely on the situation. The above is just my additional input to the situation, and is not meant to counter anything that you posted.


    2. In your case I'd respond with some brutal statement, along the lines

      "Anybody knows a Chateau Mouton is good, I don't need a wine director for that.
      In my book, a good wine director is the one that can produce an outstanding bottle at an affordable price."

      The higher rated the restaurant, the savvier the sommelier needs to be.

      6 Replies
      1. re: RicRios

        Thanks for the responses. The restaurant was The French Laundry and the wine was $120 bottle of a Napa Merlot The wine he suggested was a $310 of the same. I told him I didn't feel comfortable spending that much and after a few moments thinking, and no suggestion, I suggested a Crozes Hermitage at $115. He suggested a $145 bottle of the same which he felt was a better wine. I had no problem doing that and we enjoyed that wine very much. So the replacement wine was completely different in style than the original choice, fruit bomb vs. terroir, old world vs. new, but comparable in price and enjoyable. Did he do a good job? The end result was fine but it was not what I expect of wine service from TFL.

        1. re: dock

          I have to laugh. Before you disclosed all this information, when I first read the originating post, my initial thought was that this sounds like something The French Laundry would try to pull. The two times I've eaten there, I've found the wine service to be woefully subpar.

          No other Merlot other than one at $310?! At a Napa Valley restaurant?! That's priceless.

          1. re: Brad Ballinger


            Your experiences, and those of the OP, are just the opposite of what we have experienced. We have had 3-star (Michelin) wine service there, without equivocation. They have always been highly professional and most accommodating, with regards to wine service.

            Sad to hear that things must have changed, and not for the better.


            1. re: Bill Hunt

              My two experiences were both in 1998. Maybe things have not changed. I'll pile on with non-wine related complaints. The servers on one of the two visits mumbled so poorly when presenting the dishes that multiple times, I had to call over our head server to have him explain the dish that was just presented. You would think he would tell the other staff after the first request.

            2. re: Brad Ballinger

              Totally agree Brad with the wine service to be subpar for a restaurant of French Laundry's caliber..

              "No other Merlot other than one at $310?! At a Napa Valley restaurant?! That's priceless."

            3. re: dock

              Whoa! We have had just the opposite at the FL. I am horribly surprised, and equally disappointed at the actions of the sommelier. It is totally unlike anything that we have experienced. That said, it is not the right thing to do, and this person should know well, that it is not.

              Sorry about this horrible experience. It should not happen anyplace, let alone the FL.


          2. dock,

            I agree with you. If I were at a nice restaurant and asked for a $95 wine and they were out, I wouldn' think twice if the wine director suggested a bottle that was $110 instead. But th idea would be to keep it in the ballpark. 3 times is absurd and, frankly, offensive.

            On a side note -- every time I can recall ever having ordered a wine off a list at a nice restaurant, only to find that wine no longer available, the wine director has offered me a more expensive bottle *at the same price* as the bottle that was no longer available. Granted, this has only happened to me about 4 times, but those are the only 4 times I can recall ordering a wine only to find it no longer available.

            I am absolutely not saying this treatment that I hav recieved is what a restaurant "should" do -- as Icantread said, if the sommelier tells you to spend an extra $10 on a bottle of wine, then I think that is 100% appropriate. I'm just saying what has happened to me.

            1 Reply
            1. re: whiner

              My general experiences have mirrored yours. Wine gone - well we have an XXX "0X, that we'll offer you for the same price. Next, most often choice is, "we're sorry, but we're out of the XXXX, but have a wonder YYYY, and it's only $5-10/btl. more. Would you like a taste of that, to see if it meets your requirements?" This is always whispered to the host (usually me), so the guests are not privy to any choices. That is the way it should be. Tell me the truth. Do not try and upsell me. Do not put me into a spot with my guests. We will get along swimmingly.

              Still am horribly saddened that the FL would pull such a stunt. They are (or so I thought) so far above that, and do not need to indulge in such behavior.


            2. Well, what does that tell you that they have two "comparable" wines, one costing three times the other :)

              My answer would be that the wine steward should take your price range into consideration. It would be fine for them to say "we don't have anything in that same range", and THEN point out this particular bottle. But just to go right to it is inappropriate, IMO.

              Lastly, they should have had a "reasonable substitute"... say a tempranillo for a cabernet or a riesling for a gewurztraminer.... they should have been able to look over that list and find something in your ballpark, even if in another varietal. If they can't, then leaving that non-existent wine on the list is in itself inept wine management.

              1 Reply
              1. re: Chicago Mike


                Agree 100%. You said, in a few words, what it has taken me four posts to articulate.


              2. First, I find it extremely hard to believe that there was only one other comparable wine, regardless of price. I'd be interested to know what you wanted and what was suggested as the replacement. He could have suggested two or three alternate wines in different price categories.

                Second, any professional would've asked at least one question before recommending another wine. Maybe that question would be "Are you thinking of staying in the same price range?" Maybe it would be "What is it about [the wine you first ordered] that you like?' Maybe it would be "What are you planning on ordering for dinner?" The question need not be about price. Do we really want those who wait on us to assume we are buying on price alone? After all, if this is a 4 star restaurant, the server doesn't want to create the impression that you are there to bottom feed. And you probably don't want to be treated that way either.

                However, you've learned that next time you can ask the following question: "Can you recommend a similar wine in the same general price range?" I'm not saying it was your fault for not asking that question. I'm just saying that a question with more information might have resulted in a more thoughtful recommendation.

                1 Reply
                1. I'd say (and have said):

                  "Oh that looks very nice, and you are very generous, but are you sure you are comfortable offering it to us at the same price as the one you are out of?"

                  Turn it (politely) back into his lap and make *him* the awkward one. Be sure to use no contractions in your speech while doing this.

                  At the same time you confirm (if he is actually offering you the deal of the month) his generousity and ensuring the price without going "ack, is that the price?".

                  3 Replies
                    1. re: fussycouple

                      Well done! I'm going to save this one and use it at the earliest appropriate time.

                      1. re: fussycouple

                        When I started reading this thread, I thought they would give you the more expensive bottle as the same price as the one the WS recommended.

                        I had a similar experience in Dallas, TX. We ordered a bottle of Oregon Pinot Noir and they were out, and offered us a bottle of ABC for the same price as the Oregon PN. The wine was wonderful and the restaurant made a HUGE impression on us for doing that.

                      2. Often, the sommelier should point to a price on the list (so not to give away the amount to the other diners) and say "would something like this (insert wine name here) be an appropriate substitute..." That way the diner could respond with "no I'm looking for something more like this (wine name)". But really the bottle should be substitured at the same price as mia bottle.

                        1. No; three times the original bottle price is outrageous.

                          And, he was a real snake not to have asked you about your price range before offering a substitution.

                          Unfortunately, some restaurants are more prone to upsell than others.

                          1. I think it was a classic case of miscommunication between you and the wine director. It is really your duty to communicate clearly that you want to stay within some price range rather than communicating in my opinion a very ambiguous and broad request for "substitute closest in style". And humor is still important in life even while dining at 4-star restaurant - when offred a bottle for triple the price you could have smiled and turned it into a joke.

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: olasek

                              I'll have to take you to task on that one. The OP DID communicate the price-ponts, with the initial order. The onus for a substitution is clearly on the shoulders of the sommelier, after that point. If the price is different, then it is up to the sommelier to quietly communicate this difference.

                              If I go into the MB dealer, and ask to purchase an E-500, only to find that they are out of stock, I do not expect the salesperson to say, "look, I have an S-550," and not tell me that the difference in price is US$25,000. WTF, if I order X @ $Y, then that is what I'm looking for. You offer something else, then you'd better be prepared to tell me of the price differential. Any professional (regardless of whether a sommelier, or an MB salesperson) should be prepard to disclose the price difference.


                              1. re: olasek

                                I call shenanigans on this response. It is not the customer's duty to expressly tell the somm they want a wine in that price range. Indeed there may be circumstances where it would be awdward to do so.

                                The fact that the customer wants a wine in a particular price range is evidenced by the fact that they ATTEMPTED TO ORDER a wine in that price range (particularly when, as I suspect, $115 is at the lower end of the range at TFL). There are few people who are able to pick a wine purely on the basis of style without consideration of price (and I suspect those folks are usually ordering at the higher end of the price range). The wine selection almost invariably will involve some personal calculus of taste and budget (which it's the somm's duty to respect).

                                Completely arbitrary, but I don't believe a somm's recommendation for a substitute should exceed by more than 50% the wine selected by the customer.

                                If the somm really wants to find out if cost is an object to the customer without directly asking, they can identify 2 wines - one in price range, the other above - and ask if the customer might prefer one of those (and point them out in the list). I just can't believe TFL doesn't have at least 3 Napa Merlots on the list.

                                1. re: Frodnesor

                                  Personally, I'd be a tad stricter than 50%. Now, I'm speaking of wines in the US$75 - $150 range, but I'd like to be informed if the substitute exceeds +$20/btl. This will never be a deal-breaker for me, but I think that it is good business to set a point, a bit closer to the patron's original order. Afterall, we're talking about communications - should go both ways. I would wish for the conversation to go something like this: ME "I'd like the XXX '94 Cab (maybe giving the bin #, or pointing to it on the list - this is $150 btl.)." SOMMELIER "I'm very sorry, but we are out of that wine. I do have the YYY '00, and it's $20 more expensive. I feel that it is in keeping with the style of XXX, and will pair very well with chef's cuisine. Just had a glass last week, and it was drinking marvelously. Shall I decant a bottle for you?" I don't think that this is too much to expect. Even if my guests hear that the wine is more expensive, that should not cause a problem, though they are usually in rapt conversation with my wife, so I doubt they'd even notice.

                                  Same thing with a corked, or horribly flawed wine, that I would decline. The conversation is between me, and the sommelier, and is always carried out in rather hushed tones. I do not wish to alarm my guests, or any near-by patrons. It is between the sommelier and me. This holds true, unless the sommelier cops an attitude, then my voice can carry to the cheap-seats, if need be. Matter of fact, I'll bet that the valet could hear my displeasure - however, this almost never, never happens.


                              2. I agree with you. You had established your price-point, with your first selection. The duty of the sommelier, cellar-master, whatever, is to try and match your first choice to his/her list. This happens all of the time. To do a 3x upsale is in poor taste, and is not fulfilling his/her duty to the patron.

                                We used to frequent a local restaurant, operated by an award-winning chef, and his (then) wife, the sommelier. I ordered a bottle of Syrah for a dinner with new board members. They were out, and the server informed me of this. He added that the sommelier had a great recommendation, that was not on the list. I agreed. When the bill came, the wine was $450, when I had ordered a $125 bottle. This was the third bottle of the evening. Now, in front of our guests, I did not make a big deal of this and paid the bill. However, we have never been back, and will not return. Our "new board member" dinners are held elsewhere. My wife's assistant knows not to book us at this place. Recently, it closed, with the chef hoping to re-open a new venue. I wish him well, but will not bother to return. "Once burned... "

                                Other sommelier "upsale," in PHX, is also history. Amazing how this sort of deviceiveness comes back to haunt a restaurant. Yes, it can work for the tourist, but the local will just avoid them, and tell everyone. Isn't CH a wonderful thing?

                                Were I the sommelier, and a patron had chosen a bottle of wine at $X, that I did not have, I'd either find something within a few $'s, or whisper about the possibilities, with emphasis on any difference in price. Good manners and good customer service. You got "upsold," and "hosed" in one fell swoop.



                                1. I think the true test would have been if the same wine director would have recommended the 125 dollar bottle of wine if the the 350 dollar was not available. After all, that would be the closest substitute. Judging from your reaction I doubt he would have done that.

                                  1. A few points to add...

                                    1. The FL has multiple sommeliers at any given time.

                                    2. There is no defence for offering a bottle three times the price of the one you orginally picked. None. Try that trick while attempting to pass the service portion of the Master Sommerlier exam and see how it goes over.

                                    3. The French Laundry has a problem. Walking through the front door of such a hallowed establishment makes everyone forget the rest of the real world, including the staff. With table after table spending insane amounts of money, it is far too easy to forget that spending $300 for a bottle of wine is something most people never do. Ever. But becuase there are so many ultra-rich (or those acting that way) in the restaurant each night, it is easy to forget that mere mortals often populate the dining room. For most, it is mind-melting enough to consider how much you are going to spend for just eating there--to suddenly see your per head average jump by another $50, $100?, is positively vertigo inducing. But the staff doesn't seem to remember that.

                                    It should be noted that I have had nothing but stellar wine service at the French Laundry. I have no axe to grind with them. But I have sensed that my selections have elicited two different types of responses depending on who I got as my wine server--a wry knowing smile as I picked two or three of the best affordable selections on the list or a slight sense of disappointment that I was not going to be ordering any $300--or $3000--bottles that night. There was no difference in service beyond that very subtle difference. I suppose that if I were serving such magnificent food I might want to see it eaten with the most magnificent wines.....but again, mere mortals often eat there and it just doesn't always work out that way.

                                    2 Replies
                                    1. re: ellaystingray

                                      My two cents:

                                      I do not care how esteemed or expensive a restaurant menu may be; there should be GREAT wine choices in the $100 range, if not the $50-75 range. The world of wine is vast, and it should not be too complex a task to find GREAT wines at many price points.

                                      Let's face it: many wines that are priced in the $300 + range are priced that way because of prestige and reputation and not merely due to production costs (it's "what the market will bear", right?). Therefore, a restaurant should offer wines that are much less expensive than $300 that offer equivalent or close-to-equivalent quality to the $300 wine.

                                      Second point, the FL has a LARGE wine list with many bottles. I find it hard to believe that the ONLY other wine with a similar style to the $125 bottle was a $315 bottle. This may be the case in a restaurant that has only 100 wines on its list, but it most certainly should not be the case in a restaurant that has 1000+ bottles.

                                      The most offensive part of the story is that the sommelier (or was it a server?) put you in an awkward position where he forced you to acknowledge that your wine choice was at least partly informed by cost. He ASSUMED that you could afford a $315 wine, and you then were in the position of having to state that you did not wish to spend that much. A good server should never back a consumer into this sort of a corner; many people, regardless of their financial means, simply would not consider spending $300 on a single bottle of wine. This is an extravagance that the vast majority of diners would never allow themselves. In fact, I bet that the MAJORITY of FL diners do not spend an average of $300 on a bottle of wine (I would bet that the average would be $150-$200 per bottle or less, even in such a high end restaurant).

                                      The disconnect between service standards and menu prices in restaurants never fails to amaze me. I've had better service for some meals where my wife and I have spent $50 than meals where we have spent $300. Some servers have it; some do not.

                                      My number 1 rule of service is: do not embarrass the customer or make him feel small, cheap, uninformed, or unimportant in any way. (OK, I'll admit that the rules of offering water and providing reasonably timely service are not far behind....)

                                      (PS--on a total sidenote, I had a restaurant server earlier this year present a different dessert to that which my friend had ordered. When my friend commented on the difference, the server said "I wasn't go to say anything if you weren't going to say anything." Bear in mind that this was a $400+ birthday dinner. Incredible!)

                                      1. re: anewton

                                        That was a well-thought-out response.

                                        I've come back to this thread time and time again, and each time I find the sommelier's actions offensive. I can only chalk it up to the individual arrogance of the sommelier/server, and not any philosopy of FL.

                                        Professional service always makes a diner comfortable. It anticipates the questions, makes inquiries courteously and discreetly, and respects the diner's needs, budget and individual preferences.

                                        dock, please drop me a quick email at the address on my profile...

                                    2. His job is to find a substitute similar in both style and price. That his only recommendation was 3x the price of the original reflects very poorly on both himself and the restaurant, regardless of his intent. There is nothing worse than a diner who feels that a restaurant is trying to rip him off.

                                      In his situation, here's what I think is appropriate for the wine director:
                                      1. Apologize for not having the bottle you requested.
                                      2. Ask about your preferences, or some characteristics of your original selection with which he can make a recommendation. With a couple of easy questions, he should be able to determine if you're looking for a Napa merlot specifically, any merlot, any fruit-forward red, or just any red to go with your meal. He'll have a much easier time making a recommendation with more information.
                                      3. Make not just one, but a few appropriate suggestions around the original price point. And if you seem receptive to discussing your options, then he might offer you the more expensive wine, and perhaps tell you why it is special.

                                      His problem wasn't necessarily recommending you a wine that was $350. I don't mind when experienced wine people offer their genuine thoughts on particular bottles that might be expensive or out of my price range. His problem was boxing you into a corner. A sommelier's job is to help you make the choice; instead, by recommending you only one wine that was $350, he was making the choice for you.

                                      1. I am so glad my original post ellicited such a response. My dinner companions that evening were my wife and 2 dear friends who have been eating at TFL for over 10 years. They know TK and are semi-regulars. We were treated to a 16 course feast. The wine director that evening was not the usual one my friends know which of course is no excuse. My friends allowed me to order the wine. When my original bottle was not available, he did not immediately make a recommendation until I asked for one. When I looked at the wine list and saw the price, I told him his recommendation was more than I wanted to spend. I explained that my friends enjoy California fruit bombs but I lean towards old world style. I recommended a Crozes Hermitage instead and he recommended the vintage that he felt was more fruit forward. As I said, this wine was quite good. I feel the problems with the service were:
                                        1 recommending a wine that was much more expensive than the original choice.
                                        2 not telling me or pointing out the price of this wine. If I did not bother to look at the wine list and trusted his expertise, we would have had a fight when we got the check.
                                        3 not asking why I chose the original wine. Did it have to be a merlot? California? As I said, I made the substitute recommendation after explaining our style preferences.
                                        4 not suggesting a completely different wine besides a Crozes Hermitage. I know wine but I am not an expert. I left the field wide open for a different recommendation of his choosing but he only recommended a certain vintage of the same wine. I have spoken to many wine directors and they usually love customers like me. Not set in a certain style and looking for unusual wines in a certain price range. I expected him to say that the Crozes was an excellent choice but would I be interested in ....

                                        When we ate at Cyrus a few days earlier I told their wine director, who looks like he is 12 years old, exactly the same thing I told TFL's guy. I chose a wine and explained that I prefer old style and my friends love more fruit forward and did he have a recommendation. He gave me a choice of 3 others, 2 in the same price range I had chosen and one slightly higher. We enjoyed a Sonoma syrah that I had never had before. That is what a good wine director should do.

                                        1. This entire thread really got me thinking... what does the "average" table spend at suer-nice restaurants on a bottle of wine? Obviously, this is the wine section of a website dedicated to food, so I cannot imagine that our personal collective answers would be similar to the rest of the world. But still...

                                          Taking TFL off the table, because the price is just so rediculous to begin with, and leaving aside the business dinners or when "someone else is paying" -- what does a typical person spend on a bottle of wine when at an $80-$120/person pre-fixe type place. My guess would be that at a restaurant like that, the average person orders a bottle that costs about what the per-person food costs, and the average table goes through a half a bottle per person. But I really have no idea.

                                          2 Replies
                                          1. re: whiner

                                            You sound pretty spot on, at least at my restaurant. The average wine- purchasing table spends around $70-$105 per bottle, excluding half bottles of dessert wine (which are usually fairly cheaper). Average table also drinks .50 to .75 of a bottle per diner. This is in a state where there is no corkage, etc.

                                            1. re: whiner

                                              Considering the wines from the last dozen dinners (not events), I have spent from US$ 60 to $350/btl. If I factor the quantities, it comes out to be about US$120. Now, I've spent that amount on a few half-bottles, but these were to share with my wife, and not the rest of the table. They just did better (my speculation) with our meals, and there were usually three halves (prices from US$40 to $120). In all cases, they DID go very well.

                                              I've hosted some dinners, where the average probably went above, but these were board members or candidates, and the dinners were celebrations. Just spec'ed out a board dinner where the wines ranged: US$ 75 & $95, with a bigger Cab at $135 for the dinner. This is for a group of 40. Still, the general range is within your figures.


                                            2. Following this thread, I find it depressing to hear the complaints of wine service at establishments that have no excuse. I have been a sommelier for about three years in various restaurants and one the best principle I have applied is complete guest satisfaction. If I make a recommendation and the guest does not like it I will "without hesitation," pull the bottle and start from scratch. How many sommeliers will do that? If the wine is in good condition, then I can sell it by the glass or use it for staff instruction. No wine goes to waste and nothing is more important than the guests experience in the restaurant. Just last night, my restaurant ran out of a bordeaux that we were pouring by the glass. A gentlemen, who had ordered it was let down and stated that he had always wanted to try bordeaux but was afraid of the price and was unfamiliar with the wines. Without hesitation, I pulled a good St. Estephe, popped the cork and poured him a glass at the original glass price. I used the rest of the bottle for staff training. In all it was a win/win situation. Why do so many miss out on these opportunities? I, like so many others do make mistakes but it is how we react that can fix these matters and build trust. Now sometimes a similar wine might be more expensive but a good sommelier should always present several options and explain their reasoning behind them. Build trust, build repeat business, build enthusiasm and in turn sell more wine. Nuts and bolts.

                                              4 Replies
                                              1. re: DancingFool4U

                                                Agreed, but not all owners are as lenient/generous as yours seem to be.

                                                1. re: DancingFool4U


                                                  Your attitude and philosophy are what I have come to expect from a good sommelier. That is one reason that I often ask if there are any b-t-g selections, not on the menu. Many times, I’ve been offered a b-t-g, that is otherwise available from the bottle list, because a diner did not “like” it. I’ve had 1er Cru Bdx., though not often enough, plus some great white Burgs, that had been returned. This has most often happened in the PHX market, but maybe that’s because I know so many of the sommeliers, or maybe they just get more returns. In all cases, the wines have been wonderful, so there was no fault with any of them. I do not “expect” this, but do ask, because of the number of wonderful surprises.

                                                  I also like the use of the returned wines, for staff training. Too often, even when there is a sommelier, or two, on staff, the servers do not know either their wine list, or how the food is coming out of the kitchen, with regards to wine selections. Nice touch.

                                                  I’d urge you to keep this program up, and share your knowledge with the entire service staff. It sounds like you have a good program going. Congratulations!


                                                  1. re: Bill Hunt

                                                    I wonder if the French Laundry Sommelier suggested to someone to try the $115.00 bottle when they were considering the $310.00 bottle

                                                    1. re: sarge

                                                      Predicated solely on our visits, and interactions with the wine staff, I would expect them to, provided that the wine fit the diner's criteria, and the kitchen prep.

                                                      Now, considering some of the negative comments on this thread, re: FL, maybe it's been too long, since we were last there. Maybe things have changed, and not for the better.

                                                      In my experiences, elsewhere, a good sommelier is trying to pick the best wines for the diner, and the meal, irrespective of price. I've had many, offer up a less expensive wine, for a given dish. It should be about the overall dining experience, and not just selling product. OTOH, too many seem to have trained at a used-car lot, rather than a fine restaurant, and their intentions often show...