During my dating days, some gents were intimidated because I was such a wine geek. In one particular case, my date shrugged my offer to choose the wine and insisted that he order. Well, the moment of truth came when the waiter came to the table with the wine bottle, pointed the label at him and poured a taste. I could see the horror in the poor guy’s eyes. His expression said, “We’ve paid for a whole bottle and I want to impress her, but I have no idea what to do.” At this point, the waiter astutely suggested, “When there are only two at the table, it’s fun to taste together,” and proceeded to pour me a taste, too. I’m certain that waiter got a good tip that night for helping my date save face.
What are the rules at a restaurant for sending back wine? Is it all right to send the bottle back if we don’t like the first taste?
Here’s what you need to know:
Get The Scoop Before You Order
The way to protect your wine investment is to order something you’ll really like. The best resource at this point is the waiter; tell him what you’re looking for. If you know the style of wine you like, explain it to your server. For instance, Australian Shiraz, Cote-Rotie, and Sonoma Coast Syrah are all made of the same grape, but have very different personalities. Indicate your preference. You should also tell the waiter what type of food you’re having so he can suggest an appropriate pairing. Don’t be shy about telling the waiter how much you’re looking to spend; a good wine list has many well-made, affordable options. If you’ve had success with a certain wine in the past, ask if there is something similar on the list.
If You’re Not Sure About A Bottle, Go The Lower-Risk Route
If you’re having trouble making up your mind or are unsure that you’ll like the new wine that the waiter suggests, consider ordering a bottle that is also offered by the glass. Often, the waiter will offer to pour a taste from a previously open bottle. But, even if he cracks open a fresh bottle for you, you should feel guilt-free about sending it back if you decide that this type of wine is not your cup of tea. After all, it won’t go to waste, as the restaurant can use it to pour glasses for other parties.
Inspect And Accept
When your bottle arrives at the table, be sure that the label parallels the listing on the wine menu.
For example, say that the wine list reads:
Cabernet Sauvignon, CHATEAU MONTELENA, Calistoga Cuvee, Napa, 1999
Here’s what it means:
Varietal name (name of the grape), WINERY, vineyard or proprietary blend, place of origin, vintage
If the wrong bottle mistakenly arrives at your table, you may be committing to a wine DOUBLE THE PRICE without even noticing! After all, the waiter is showing you the label so that you can give the thumbs-up that this is, indeed, what you ordered.
The Point Of Tasting The Wine Is To Find Flaws
Once you’ve made sure that you have the correct bottle, the waiter will pour you a taste. The point of the tasting isn’t to decide if you like the wine, but to determine if the wine is “correct.” You’re looking for flaws in the wine.
Taking The First Taste
First, smell the wine. Your job is to spot any “off-aromas,” which would indicate a flawed wine. Red flags include wet cardboard smell (cork taint), nail polish remover smell (volatile acid), or the smell of rotten eggs (sulfur). If all seems well, go on in for a taste. As you take your sip, think to yourself, “Does it taste pleasant?” If so, give a nod to the waiter and he’ll pour wine for your party, ending with you.
Beyond The First Sip Of Wine
If you are disappointed with the first taste, don’t panic. Take a second sip. You might still be tasting your own toothpaste or afternoon coffee. Another fact to keep in mind is that wine changes perceptibly when food is introduced; acid tends to mellow and tannins soften with the addition of food. If you still don’t like the wine after the second taste, it’s time to involve the waiter. Be gracious when asking for help. When you call him over, he will taste the wine and assess. Often he will offer to bring you another bottle, even if he finds no flaw in the wine, especially if he was the one who suggested the wine to you. In my experience, the waiter will usually take the wine back, unless it was ridiculously expensive. After all, the staff wants to make you happy.
For more info on this subject, keep your eyes peeled for my future article about hidden gems on wines lists.