Can I… Should I Ever Send a Wine Back?

June 25, 2014 No comments » [ssba]

Picture it: New York City, 2002.  My mom and I treated ourselves to a trip to The Big Apple during the holiday season.  One night, pre-theater, we dined at the Grand Central Oyster Bar.  After scanning the unbelievably long/borderline overwhelming menu, I decided on the Lobster Pan Roast, which is a sort of creamy seafood stew.  I didn’t know much about wine at the time and I attributed seafood with white wine, so I ordered a glass of Viognier.  The wine came first and it was very good – crisp, light, with flavors of citrus zest and green apple.  When our dinner arrived I took a spoonful of my stew – sweet and creamy deliciousness with big chunks of lobster meat.  Then, I took a sip of my wine…fail.  All at once, my Viognier tasted like metal shavings dipped in acid, it was awful.  Hands down, the worst wine and food combination I’ve ever experienced.  I figured I had already drunk half of my wine before my dish even arrived, so how could I possibly send it back?  I ate the rest of my pan roast, let my taste buds settle, and then drank the rest of my wine.

The Grand Central Oyster Bar, New York City.  Great food and wines, just don’t order the Viognier with the Lobster Pan Roast!

Picture it: Los Angeles, 2009.  My cousin and I sat down to dinner at a swanky spot known equally for its wine list as its food. One of the things I like so much about this place is their choices of wines by the glass, carafe and bottle.  We had decided to order a bottle but weren’t sure what we wanted other than a red.  Our server graciously offered to let us taste the wine before we committed, and since the restaurant served the same wines by the glass as they did by the bottle, I knew an entire bottle wasn’t being uncorked and tasted on a whim.  Our server returned with two small glasses of the wine.  I smelled, swirled and tasted.  I didn’t care for it. My cousin wasn’t impressed either.  So, I asked our server if we could try another.  “Of course,” she said.  She arrived with taste test number 2.  I didn’t like it.  Now I felt awkward.  I felt the server’s eyes, like lasers, staring down at me, daring me to ask for a third taste.  “Um,” I said, “I’m not sure I’m a fan of this one either.”  She stared.  “Uh….,” I went on, “I’m a fan of Cabernet’s.  Could you bring us your recommended Cabernet?”   Even though this placed encouraged tasting first, I got the feeling the servers (at least mine) wasn’t used to having to bring more than two tastings out before a decision was made.  She brought a third tasting for us – and maybe it was in my head – but she looked annoyed.  Fortunately, both my cousin and I did like the wine and finally put in an order for the bottle.

Don’t be afraid to ask your server if you’ve made a good wine choice

Today, would I ever send back a wine?  Yes, I think I would.  As a customer at any dining establishment, I want to enjoy what I’m paying for.  But I also think it would depend on the situation and location.  If I’m ordering by the glass, by all means, I’ll ask for a small taste first!  But the circumstance changes when I’m ordering a bottle.  First of all there’s the whole presentation: your server or sommelier brings the bottle of wine to the table, presents it, uncorks it, pours a small amount for you to smell and taste.  Meanwhile, your entire party is counting on you to choose a good wine.  There is naturally a sense of obligation to keep the wine, and honestly, most of the time, it’s great wine.  Even if the wine wasn’t my absolute favorite, I’d probably suck it up and keep the wine.  Only if I really disliked the wine would I send it back.  A little research on Google brought me a lot of articles on this scenario.  Some authors flat out said one is to never send back a wine.  Others agreed that only if the wine is bad (like it has truly turned to vinegar) should you send it back.  Others were more flexible on the situation.  Here are some interesting and helpful “rules” that I learned:

  1. Try to determine if the wine is genuinely flawed or if you just don’t like it.  If the wine is flawed, it will probably be obvious; the wine is vinegar-y, it is astringent or smells like cardboard, your champagne has no bubbles, etc.  Politely explain any unpleasantness and then ask for a replacement bottle.  The restaurant will most likely not charge for a defective bottle of wine.  If you just don’t like the wine and order a different one, be prepared, the first wine might remain on your bill. This could mean an uncomfortable situation once it’s time to pay.
  2. Decide what you’re eating before you order the wine.  I don’t know why more restaurants don’t encourage patrons to do this.  I find it so much easier to make my wine decision once I know what I’ll be eating.  Less chances of being unhappy with my choice. Take my New York incident.  If I ordered my meal first then put in my Viognier request, maybe my server would have recommended something more suitable.
  3. Ask your server (or better yet, the restaurant’s sommelier) to give you feedback or advice.  Yes, I ordered my wine at Grand Central Oyster Bar before I ordered my food and, no, my server didn’t give me any indications that my pairing would be heinous, but perhaps he would have if I’d just asked.  Had he told me, “Ma’am, a lobster pan roast with Viogner would be heinous,” I’d have ordered the seared scallops.
  4. Always be polite!  There is so much truth behind the saying, “You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”  Don’t act like you know more than your server/sommelier, don’t make demands, don’t raise your voice.  Calmly explain your problem with the wine and ask if they could bring something more suited to your tastes.
  5. Tell your server what you like so they have something to go on.  Be as specific as possible when your server asks what kinds of wines you like.  If you like bold reds with lots of fruit character, or very dry white wines that have been aged in oak, or sweet-as-candy pink wines, tell them.  The more they know, the better your chances of them bringing you a wine you love on the first try.

At Ponte, we want our guests and Members to walk away smiling, so we hope you’ll tell us if you aren’t happy with what you’ve ordered at any of our restaurants.  That said, our servers are trained and well skilled on which of our red, white, sweet  or bubbly wines will pair best with each and every dish on our menus, so feel free to ask questions, and get their feedback and recommendations.

What are your thoughts on sending wine back at a restaurant?  Would you ever?  Have you ever?  We’d love to know.

–Erica Martinez

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