Outside of being handed the check, few moments at a restaurant are more daunting than immediately after a sommelier or server pours the wine you’ve ordered and stands there expectantly, awaiting your judgment. The vast majority of patrons will accept it whether they like the wine or not, perhaps scared of looking silly or getting drawn into an uncomfortable conversation.
It’s an understandable impulse, but it puts both drinkers and conscientious wine professionals at a disadvantage. When you order wine in a restaurant, you are quite literally putting your money where your mouth is. A good sommelier wants you to be happy with your choice. Fortunately, there’s an art to speaking up.
A lot depends on why you’re refusing the wine. It almost goes without saying that if something is glaringly wrong with the wine, that’s a perfectly fine reason to send it back. Cork taint, which has a cardboard-y taste, is the most common flaw. If you detect any sort of wet newspaper notes, or suspect the wine might have cork taint, you should absolutely request a different bottle.
“If you are given the wine to taste, what are you looking for? You are looking for an obvious wine fault, and usually this means cork taint,” Jamie Goode, award-winning author and VinePair contributor, recently wrote. He notes that a variety of other, less obvious wine flaws like mousiness, excessive brett, or oxidation might also merit sending a bottle back, but can be difficult for many consumers to identify.
“What you are not doing is tasting the wine to see if it is just right for you tonight. The only acceptable reason to reject a wine is faultiness. Full stop,” Goode adds.
Others in the industry have a different, more democratic approach. Many working sommeliers have opened bottles with faulty corks that had, as a result, turned the wine to vinegar, or that had obviously oxidized far before their time. Other, older bottles might have foreign solids such as crumbly cork bits floating in them. Most restaurant professionals believe those bottles can and should be returned.
The stickier point comes when for whatever reason a guest or table is unsatisfied with a technically correct bottle. There are those who, like Goode, who operate from a “buyer beware” mindset. They believe that if you ordered it and don’t like it, that’s on you.
Cassandra Felix, head sommelier and beverage manager for Flagler’s Steakhouse at the Breakers in Palm Beach, Fla., feels differently. “We do not argue with the guest, ever,” she says. “If they’re unhappy or unsure, then I’ll taste the wine. I’ll inform them if I think the wine is fine, and if so, I’ll steer them towards another wine on the list. With a more expensive bottle, I’ll sometimes offer to double-decant it or to give it extra time to open up.”
Even in cases where the bottle costs upwards of $1,000 or more, Felix won’t make a guest pay for a wine they don’t want. After all, that unwanted bottle of wine can still be put to good use. A thoughtful sommelier might use it as an education tool for their staff, or pour it by the glass in an attempt to recoup the purchase cost. They might even offer tastes as a treat to valued regulars or other noteworthy guests.
If for any reason you suspect something is wrong with the wine, ask your server or sommelier to smell and taste it for themselves. If the wine is indeed flawed, they should open another bottle for you, no questions asked. In almost all cases, when a wine has a flaw, the restaurant will be reimbursed by the producer or distributor.
Of course, even if there’s nothing technically wrong with the wine, it might not suit you. This presents an opportunity for you to explain why the wine doesn’t meet your needs. Politeness counts, as does clarity.
In cases where the server or sommelier made a recommendation, they should graciously offer you a different wine that suits your tastes. Good wine professionals will make a note of how their suggestion and your tastes failed to line up, and will use it to better their service going forward. They will hopefully offer another recommendation that better takes your tastes into account.
On the other hand, if you ordered something on your own, you should still feel comfortable expressing your dissatisfaction. In this case, however, be prepared for a bit more resistance, especially if your server or somm offered to help you make a selection. If you’re respectful, staff at a quality restaurant will almost always take the bottle back. They will prefer you leave happy, even if that means wasting some wine.
The last thing to do as a wine consumer is to spend a bit of time thinking about your own tastes and preferences. One of the most powerful questions a sommelier might ask is, “What do you usually like to drink?” Those who can answer that question with specifics tend to get better, or at least more personalized recommendations than those who can’t. So, “Pinot Noir from Oregon or Burgundy” is a much clearer answer than “Pinot Noir.”
Similarly, spend a moment or two considering your price range, and how interested you are in trying something new. There’s zero shame in wanting a wine that fits your budget, or to have an old standby. Communicating that ahead of time will help avoid unpleasant moments.
If the dreaded moment does occur, however, and you truly dislike the bottle you’re tasting, stop fretting. Send back the wine. Do it gracefully and politely, and you’ll not only have a better drinking experience, but you’ll help remove some of the tension that surrounds the tableside tasting ritual.