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A Stupid Man...

Tonight, with my wife out of town, I had dinner at the bar in one of the better restaurants in suburban Washington. Having travelled heavily for thirty years I thought it would be a real treat to have dinner at the bar-and then drive home and sleep in my own bed. The restaurant that I went to is not important. What is important is the lesson I learned. Because of my stupidity.

Both the menu and the forty page wine list were presented to me. There was a short list of both wines by the glass and also half bottles. I didn't want to order a full bottle because I was driving. I glanced at both, noted the $11 to 18 range of reds by the glass and the $30 to $200+ range of half bottles. I ordered a 2005 bordeaux whose name I had never heard before.

I need to mention here that I am something of a wine snob. I have over one thousand bottles stashed in closets, on racks and in EuroCaves around our house. My wife gardens. I drink. Most of what I have is for that end but I do have some first growths for investment from years such as 2000. I would like to believe that I am relatively sophisticated and have shopped, invested and drank intelligently. For years.

But I am stupid.

The sommelier-not the bartender, the sommelier-presented my half bottle of wine. He noted the '05 vintage, confirmed that it was what I had ordered and then after opening it presented me with the cork. I sniffed it. Then he poured a swirl into a glass, sloshed it around and noted it's correct color. I thought it looked thin, pale and cheap but didn't say anything other than uttering the monosyllable, "fine." He added that this was the last bottle they had, as if to confirm my judgment-others, many others, had wanted this also.

He poured more into my glass. After he left I tasted it. Swill. Serious swill. (Or, serious, swill!) I thought about complaining but for $40 I didn't want to make an issue out of it.

This restaurant is known for its bread course. The former baker had established something of a following with a number of breads and rolls that were among the best in the D. C. area. But not tonight. That baker has left following the founding chef to another restaurant. Tonight, I honestly thought that the free samples that Harris Teeter serves in some of its store were as good or better although I did like the butter.

There was no amuse despite the $12-20 first courses and $26 to $42 entrees. (I suppose that someone reading this will assume a value judgment on my part because of the way I am expressing this. You would be right.) My first course of asparagus soup was served. It wasn't very good. Nice color, aromatic but just not a lot of flavor. This was followed by a $32 halibut which, for all the world, tasted like what I would make from the frozen food case of Whole Foods. The six ounces or so of it was folded and laid on top of some kind of textural green emulsion that in three bites was gone. The halibut took several more to finish.

Forty minutes after sitting down I asked for the check. While waiting for the bartender (who never once topped my glass or served water until the end of the main course) I took another sip of the wine: swill was a kind appellation.

My check was for $132 and a few cents. I looked at it, noted $80 for a half bottle of wine and exclaimed, "I didn't order an eighty dollar bottle!"

As soon as I said this I noticed that the check was laying directly in front of the exact same bottle of wine as which the check correctly noted was $80.

I was wrong. Really wrong. Really stupid. When the wine was presented omniscient me had glanced at it, noted the 2005 vintage, that it was red (well, a faded red) and the name was French. All of this was correct. It was just a different French wine from what I had ordered.

But I didn't notice this. I said, "it was fine." When the sommelier poured and swirled and noted the color I said, "it was fine." He pointed out the label to me, "this is our last bottle." "That's fine."

I am a stupid man. Such a presumptuous, preoccupied fool that I couldn't even read that it was not the bottle that I had ordered. I was also wrong: I had accepted the wine, tasted it, drank it and whether or not I liked it, finished it. All complaining because it didn't taste like what I had expected it to taste like.

Of course not. Why should it? I had ordered a bordeaux and this was a burgundy.

Tonight I, a stupid man, learned a lesson. As I type this I can only thank goodness that it wasn't say, a bottle of '61 Lafite that I hadn't read the label of. That the check wasn't a thousand or more dollars. I was fortunate.

My real regret, stupidity aside, is that the restaurant had been disappointing. However with the mistake I made that which was served seems unimportant. Rather than I learned a lesson that I should have learned long ago. Now, approaching retirement, there is no excuse for not reading the fine lines...or a label.

Or pulling out my glasses to read what is on it.

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  1. I don't think you're stupid, Joe. Sometimes it's just too easy to go with the flow. Do you really feel like duking it out with the wine steward or waiter? Sometimes I'm up for it, sometimes I'm not. Don't beat yourself up.

    1. OMG, I read this and felt your pain and embarassment. And was also impressed with your humility. I got to the end and was stunned when I saw your name. Wow. Joe H, thanks for sharing this story. I think it teaches a couple of good lessons.

      1. Dude, you are way too hard on yourself.
        Did you at all research the restaurant you went to? Not to beat up on you (you're doing a great job of that yourself), as a Chow, you might consider doing some research in future. You might also consider calling or emailing the restaurant owner and telling him what happened. If he or she is upstanding, you should get some compensatory offer for your troubles.
        We all do stuff at times that's not representative of our finest moments. It happens. To all of us. In various ways. Move on.

        1. It was bad luck. 19 out of 20 times you will get the bottle you ordered, without the burden of proof being on you to verify it. This was the 1 in 20.
          Plus, there was a good chance the more expensive wine would have been better than your expectation of the one you ordered. But it wasn't . The old adage "measure twice, cut once" applies strangely to many daily activities.
          The wine sucked. The dinner sucked. You are happier with your wife at your side. You were a gentleman to let the mistake go quietly, and if a $40 "stupid tax" as I call it, is the worst of your year so far, you are doing better than most of us! Tomorrow will be better.

          1. Ouch. I've never ordered a $40 bordeaux and received an $80 burgundy but I've ordered a wine that was out of stock and agreed to the suggested replacement. Now, instead of "fine" I always say "oh, how much is that one?"

            But in your case the restaurant might have misheard your Chateau X order and brought Chateau Y, If you accept the bottle it's hard to send back after it's opened, but it's really too bad that you didn't get to enjoy the wine, thinking it was a bad bordeaux (if it were a good burgundy).

            1 Reply
            1. re: hsk

              Not trying it when the sommelier first poured it was one of the few small errors that was necessary for the bad experience to come about. It was just a meal. Planes crash because of a few small errors.