What to do when you get a bad bottle of wine

I’m not a very happy camper, right now. It’s the middle of the night, and I’m not sleeping. All that because of a bad bottle of wine I got at a restaurant.

It’s not a question of how I’m digesting the wine, but rather of how I’m digesting what happened after I sent it back.

The scene takes place at Fore Street restaurant, one of the institutions of dining in that new darling of foodie cities, Portland, Maine.

My friend and I were having, at that point, a really wonderful dinner. Fantastic Maine oysters with verjus mignonette (my favorite thing to put on oysters, and a rare occurrence in restaurants), including some Pine Points, which I’d never tasted before and were particularly delicious to me because Pine Point is also my favorite beach in the world, a place that’s been part of my summers since childhood. With that, we were having a Domaine de la Louvetrie 2011 muscadet, which paired remarkably well with the oysters, and did so as well with some well-made, oven-grilled razor clams, right after that.

After that, we decided to move to meatier courses, and to splurge with a bottle of 1999 Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which we’d spotted on the list, earlier on, noting that its 120-dollar price tag was very reasonable, for that particular wine (in the US younger vintages of Beaucastel generally sell for around 80$ per bottle, retail, and the 1999 is generally sold for at least 120 dollars). I’d had the wine before,  about three years ago, and it had been superb and still fairly youthful, so I was very excited to taste it again. The waiter looked happy as well and informed us that the wine had been added to the list that very day. Looked like we were on the lucky side.

The waiter came around with the bottle, moving it around a bit energetically, for an older wine, opened it and poured me a sip. On the nose, there was an oxidative, bullion-cube/bovril edge to the wine, but at first taste, it seemed to still have some stuffing behind it. Older châteauneufs, in part because of the nature of grenache, can have some of that on the nose while still being quite pleasant, so I agreed to it, and when the waiter asked if he should decant it, I declined, figuring it didn’t need any more air. However, as he asked that, I had a second sip and had doubts about just how oxidized the wine was, so I asked my friend to taste it and asked the waiter to only pour her a sip.

When she tasted it, I saw the doubt on her face as well. On further tasting, the wine was dominated by oxidation, which showed more and more aggressively. We debated it, smelled the little bit left in our glasses and decided to send back the bottle. I explained to the server that I knew that wine, which I love, that I really wanted to like it, but that it was unfortunately off, and that I was very sorry, but could we get another bottle.

It took the server a while to come back, but when he did, while I had gone to the restroom, he plopped a wine list at my place and informed my friend that the bartender who’d bought the wine had decided that the bottle was fine, and that we should pick something else, “because they weren’t going to open another 120-dollar bottle for us”. Now, this is not a misinterpretation on my part, because the waiter essentially repeated the same message when I sat back down at the table.

I was a bit shocked, frankly, and told the waiter I needed a couple of minutes. I was trying to process what had just occurred, and actually trying to calm down a bit, but I really couldn’t, because:

a) I’d just been told I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about (thanks!)

b) I’d just been told that this was a price issue, or in other words that, as a customer, I wasn’t worth replacing a defective bottle of wine (even better!).

So much for the customer always being right, eh?

Now, my friend is usually the one who will calm me down, when annoying things happen. But as she thought about it, she actually became more annoyed as well.

So when the waiter asked if he could do anything else for us, I said that I would need to see the bartender.

The bartender – is there no sommelier at Fore Street? – never showed up. Instead, the manager (or at least, the person who had been managing reservations and attributing tables, at the door) showed up to discuss the matter. Frankly, I don’t remember the discussion word for word, but somewhere in there, she put the idea forward that we had rejected the bottle because we just didn’t like it. So I explained to her that it wasn’t the case, that this was a wine that was faulty, that I knew that producer well, had actually tasted Beaucastel with the owner, and had tasted that vintage before, and added that I actually taste wine for a living, so that this wasn’t just a whim or simply a question of personal preference.

Frankly, I shouldn’t have had to explain this. A customer doesn’t like a bottle, you bring him another one. Period.

In any case, she finally asked if I indeed wanted another bottle of the same wine or something else. I hesitated, actually, wondering if the whole batch could be in the same condition. But then a mix of feelings came through me. First, I really, really wanted a good bottle of 1999 Beaucastel: when that wine is on, it is absolutely gorgeous. Second, I have to say with a certain amount of regret, this was becoming a matter of pride. Because of the way this had been formulated, because I had been told that I was wrong, I couldn’t help thinking that if I gave up, it would be admitting I’d done something wrong. Whereas I hadn’t: this wasn’t a question of personal preference, it was a question of a rather obvious problem with the wine.

So I said yes, please do bring another. Which the visibly annoyed waiter brought back, moving it around as energetically as the previous one, and opening it in midair, with a great twisting motion. (If there was sediment in that bottle, it sure wasn’t at the bottom anymore.)

The bottle, still, was better. Not great, but better. It had better color, a better bouquet. It still had a fair bit of that oxidative edge, but also some spice and herbal notes, and just a fuller mouthfeel than the previous one. The bullion cube/bovril was still rather present, but not as aggressive. So I accepted the bottle, saying that it wasn’t great, but that it was acceptable.

The waiter asked if he could decant it, I said yes, and then saw him pour it vigorously into the carafe. (Dude, that’s not decanting, that’s carafing, if you ever take a sommelier course, and it should be done with young wines, not old ones). Sediment was all over the side of the carafe. This felt like a bit of a lost cause.

The wine did go okay with a nicely roasted quail, in particular, but I still felt bad. Bullied, mistreated, frustrated and – perhaps mostly – foolish.

Why, oh why, for crying out loud, didn’t I just order the 2006 Vacqueyras Le Sang des Cailloux, which in the end would have done a much better job at a lesser price? Or even the 2000 Guigal Hermitage that was right above the Beaucastel?

Foolish pride, really. I’d been treated like crap, by any restaurant standard (I reviewed restaurants professionally for eight years, and this is a matter that I still give very serious thought to, as a food and wine writer), and that had royally screwed up my decision-making process. Telling your customer that they are wrong and you won’t provide them with what they asked for is a pretty basic no-no, in my book.

Now, had the waiter asked me if I would consider another bottle, said something like “we think the other bottles will probably taste similar, so would you rather try something else?”, this likely wouldn’t have turned into the frustrating mess it became. Instead, he let us know we were wrong and not worth the trouble.

Gee, waiter dude, sorry we ruined your evening…

I have to say I gave a bit of an earful to the host and manager, on the way out, explaining that the bottle was still not great, and that maybe they should talk to their supplier. I didn’t curse (at least, I don’t think so), I tried to explain my position, but I also expressed a fair bit of anger about the way this had been handled, that I had been made to feel like a jerk, and that it was a shame that a delicious meal (the food was, indeed, great) had been spoiled by this behavior. She did apologize, saying that the waiter certainly hadn’t meant it that way. And she did remain calm, though I don’t think I ever felt she truly thought a mistake had been made on their end.

Whatever the case may be, this certainly doesn’t make me feel like returning there, ever again. Which is too bad: I really would like to have those razor clams again…

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2 Comments

  1. Lauren
    Posted January 12, 2013 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    Dear Remy
    What a well written article. You were so articulate in expressing the frustration that so many “wine” aficionado’s experience at a restaurant. I was so appalled for you with the server swinging the older bottle of wine and so sympathetic for the entire “tone ” of the management attitude. I hope this article is an “eye-opener” for many restaurants and used as a training example at restaurant management courses. Well done on your part! Your article was an education in wine tasting itself. Thanks from all of us out here! I do hope you get to enjoy those clams again under much better circumstances. Lauren

    • Posted January 13, 2013 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

      Thank you, Lauren. What I’ve been thinking, more and more, since that happened on Friday night, is how a non-aficionado would feel. I know for a fact that bottle was defective, and I could explain it and justify it, and they still made me feel very bad. Someone less experienced would have felt intimidated and unable to respond, perhaps even humiliated in front of other guests, and certainly unwilling to try his luck again with another bottle. The wine world is intimidating enough, restaurants should never behave that way and make things worse.

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