Many Unhappy Returns: The Dark Art of Sending Wine Back At A Restaurant

Ever wonder if it’s okay to send a wine back at a restaurant if you don’t like it (the wine that is, not the restaurant)? Well, there’s a simple answer, my friend: It’s not.

Sending wine back because it’s not to your tastes is like ordering a beet salad, discovering after two bites that you don’t like beets, and asking for your money back. Sorry, Jack.

Now, if your beets are rotting on the plate, then that’s a different story. And if you’re wine is flawed, then you should be sending it back and (politely!) demanding a replacement. While it’s fortunately becoming rarer, faulty wines can still make their way to a dining table, so it’s handy to know when a wine might be truly off (versus when your taste for that wine might be off).

There are only three things that you need to know to cover 90% of the times that you might encounter a faulty wine.

Don’t Put a Cork In It
Don’t sniff the cork. It’s all but useless for telling you if a wine is faulty. Chances are very high that the cork will smell like (guess what!) cork. The cork-presentation tradition stems from a time when labeling on wine bottles was scarce, and the chances for fraud were high. Examining the cork helped to ascertain the wine’s authenticity, as well as whether or not the wine might be faulty – for instance, if it looked moldy, compromised (with stains on both sides).

Do Put Your Nose (and Eyes) In It
The first thing to do is check how the wine looks – many wine faults make a wine appear dull or cloudy. That initial tiny pour by the waiter is performed so you can do just that – and so you can sniff that sucker and make sure the wine doesn’t smell faulty.

Anyway, here’s a general rule-of-schnoz to live by when it comes to detecting wine faults in this restaurant scenario:

If it smells like something that you shouldn’t be putting in your mouth, then, well… don’t put it in your mouth! What you’re looking for here is major stinkiness: if the wine smells like rancid vinegar, rotten eggs, a wet basement, or poop, then chances are very high that it’s faulty, and you should feel confident asking the sommelier for their opinion and then sending the wine back. Granted, some wine faults aren’t as easily detected, most notably cork taint, which can often dull the fruit aromas and flavors in low doses, even if it doesn’t give off a musty odor. If that’s the case, you may need to employ the assistance of the restaurant’s wine director or sommelier, but any wine pro worth the freshly-ground pepper on your appetizer salad should be able to help with that.


Joe Roberts is a Certified Specialist of Wine and author of the award-winning wine blog.

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