A friend, who worked for years as the wine manager for a well-known Seattle fish house, loved to tell the story about a young couple, nervously poring over the restaurant’s extensive wine list. Clearly befuddled, the young man finally decided to ask for help. “May I speak to the chandelier?” he inquired. My friend the sommelier was forever after known as Monsieur Le Chandelier.
A lot has changed, and consumers generally bring a lot more experience to the table these days. But ordering wine in a restaurant setting can still be a nerve-wracking test of character, fraught with more traps, land mines and opportunities for embarrassment than any other aspect of fine dining. Here are 10 of the stickiest situations you may encounter—all taken from real life accounts—and some practical advice on how best to extricate yourself.
1.) This clumsy oaf spilled wine on me!
These things happen even in the best restaurants. But if the customer handles the situation gracefully, the restaurant will often bend over backwards to compensate, whether it means paying for dry cleaning, offering a complimentary bottle, or some other extra that serves as an apology. So if you happen to be the spill-ee, remember that there is nothing to gain by going ballistic, but much to be gained by cheerfully allowing your server to save face.
2.) The wine list is huge!
You may not want to spend your evening deciphering a monster wine list. Solution? Look over the wine list before you get to your table. Some restaurants post them online. You could also stop by ahead of time, or arrive 15 minutes early, and use that time to look it over. Focus on wines that fit the restaurant’s regional specialty, or that come from local wineries. Note where the average prices are clumped (say $30 to $50) and look there for the best deals.
3.) Do I look like a cork-sniffer?
Is cork-sniffing for snobs? Actually, no. A quick inspection and sniff of a freshly pulled cork provides a kind of early warning alert to the possibility of a corked (TCA-contaminated) wine. TCA is a mold that turns the wine musty and stale. If it smells like wet newspaper, do not accept the wine. You also want to look for stains running lengthwise (like a red seam) through the cork – that can indicate a leak and perhaps oxidation. If a cork has crumbled, that is not necessarily indicative of a bad wine, but again, it should be very carefully checked.
4.) This isn’t the wine I ordered!
One couple’s dinner bill jumped from $300 to $500 because no one noticed, until the end of the meal, that the wines served were from a more expensive vintage. Both customer and server should have paid closer attention. One diner should be responsible, not just for ordering, but also for confirming that what is brought to the table is exactly what was listed.
5.) You’ve frozen my wine!
White wines too cold? Red wines too warm? These are easy problems to fix. Touch the bottle before wine is poured. If it’s too cold pull it out of the ice bucket and let it warm up. If it’s too warm (white or red) it should be put into an ice bucket for a short time (no more than 10 minutes) before being served. However, if a wine seems to have been improperly stored—is really warm or shows signs of leakage around the capsule—that bottle should be sent back and replaced
6.) These corkage fees are ridiculous!
A reader made reservations for 10 at a new restaurant and thoughtfully called ahead to ask if the group could bring in their own wines. “No problem,” he was told. But when the bill arrived, they had been charged a corkage fee of $12 per bottle for their eight bottles of wine.Was a $96 corkage fee out of line, considering that it was not disclosed in advance? There are no clear rules or standards about corkage, and every restaurant has its own guidelines. Though the restaurant should have made its guidelines clear, it is always a good idea to ask about corkage fees in advance. Get the name of the person who gives you the answers, and confirm them once again when you arrive—before the corks are pulled.
7.) All these wines are so expensive!
There are strategies that can help you get a better wine for less. Many restaurants offer half price wines or waive corkage charges on quiet nights. And look for places that offer tasting flights, where you’ll get smaller pours of many different wines, often for the price of a single, modest bottle.
8.) They won’t let me bring my own wine!
Policies vary widely. In order to avoid being stopped at the door with your special bottle, you absolutely must call ahead to discuss it with the wine manager. (While you’re at it, discuss their corkage fee. See item #3.) If BYOB is permitted, be respectful and choose wines that do not appear on the wine list. Your best choices would always be older bottles from your own cellar. Order something from the restaurant’s wine list as well; even a round of wines by the glass will do. And by all means, share a taste of your special wine with the wine steward.
9.) I can’t drink this swill
Despite your best efforts, the wine that you ordered simply isn’t to your taste. Now what? Your server should determine if there is a true flaw—a corked or baked or oxidized wine. If it is perfectly sound, but you simply don’t like it, your chances of exchanging it for a different bottle depend upon the policy of the restaurant. Discuss your misgivings (calmly) with your wine server, and he or she will usually negotiate a fair settlement.
10.) Did they get these wine glasses at Goodwill?
It is remarkable that thick, small, generic wine glasses still turn up, even in restaurants with decent wine lists. Sometimes a restaurant will hide the good stemware in a locked cabinet, reserved for special functions. Ask for it. Or call ahead and determine if you can bring your own (if you can bring yourself to do so). There is no point in buying an expensive wine if it’s going to be poured in a crummy glass.