Refusing Faulted Wine at a Bar, or Restaurant?
Have you ordered a glass of wine while out and find it tastes a little strange? Did you send it back and request a glass from a new bottle? Or maybe, ordered a bottle, only to find it didn’t taste as it should? Now, you know why wine enthusiasts smell the cork upon opening a bottle… The first situation above is quite common, the latter is rare, but it does happen. I will mention the most common wine faults here, but the primary focus will be:
How to handle the decision to send the wine back.
The appropriate conversation to engage the server when sending wine back.
Quick Review of Common Wine Faults
These are the most common:
Overexposure of wine to air/oxygen. Oxidized wines lose brightness in both color and flavor. Red wine turns brownish-orange and can have a vinegar and/or caramelized (sometimes buttery) flavor. This is very common when you are served wine by the glass. Sometimes, a glass can be poured after days of storing an open bottle.
This occurs when wines are exposed to temps over 80 F for prolonged periods, or over 90 F for shorter periods. Cooked wines develop a jammy, sweet character that can taste like stewed fruit. This can be very common in places like Arizona, where I live. Wine must be stored under 70 F and away from light to remain in good condition after a few months. In places like AZ, this means storage in coolers during the Summer months. Some on-premise businesses turn their wine inventory quickly enough that room temp storage can be acceptable, but keep an eye out to determine if you plan to return.
When bottles experience high heat, the corks often leak, so you get a double hit from Oxidization AND Heat. This problem can sometimes be identified by inspecting the cork for wine stain to the very top.
Cork Taint or TCA
This was more common in years past. Technology has made it less so, but it still happens. TCA can have a taste/aroma similar to wet dog/newspaper. There are some that say 1/10 bottles with real cork closures will experience this. In my experience, it has been closer to 1/20 bottles.
This results from improperly handling the addition of sulfites to wine. Sulfites are a natural byproduct of fermentation, but it is very common for winemakers to add sulfites as a preservative. When this is not handled correctly, it can cause burnt matchstick, rotten egg, or garlic flavors/odors. Biodynamic wines do not permit the addition of sulfites, if you are looking for sulfite-free wine.
This occurs when a small amount of residual sugar reactivates the yeast and adds carbonation to the wine. Some wine varieties are made purposely in this “frizzante” style, like Moscato d’Asti, but think of a Cabernet Sauvignon with bubbles…
This occurs when the winery and production areas are not kept clean. Certain of these faults can be part of the wine style, such as Brettanomyces. This adds that barnyard aroma to some wines and can become an acquired taste. There are additional “off” flavors and odors caused by other microbes too.
How to Handle the Decision
If you have identified any of these faults (or others), keep in mind, at most bars and restaurants they are serviced by distributors who will always take back winery faulted bottles. In the case of heat and oxidization, it is totally preventable and the management on-premise needs to know about the inventory storage problem. This issue is the primary reason mark-ups are so high for wine service. There are 4-5 6 oz. pours in a bottle. Some businesses try to recoup their entire profit in one glass purchased, others two. Either way, they are covered. Don’t accept odd tasting wine. If you can identify the fault, share it with the server. Let them know there is a solid reason for the return and they will have the information needed to deal with their supplier.
There is another discussion on the topic of returning wine, which I will address briefly. When the consumer doesn’t enjoy the wine selected… as the buyer, it is your job to engage the server and help them to understand what wine characteristics you enjoy. Although, sometimes the server does not have enough experience to assist, or they have not been trained to identify flavors/aromas in wine. This is the area where the decision has to be what you are comfortable with. Most restaurants and bars, will replace wines you don’t like, if you share your comments. At some establishments, this can turn into an argument and affect your service, so think twice about how you handle this scenario specifically.
How to Discuss the Return Request
Be confident in your identification of odd flavors/aromas and explain what you are experiencing. Share any clear evidence with the server, such as: the cork stained to the top for heat, or the horrible odor on the cork for TCA. I experience Oxidization Fault very frequently. I would say 1/5th to 1/3rd of all wine I order by the glass is oxidized and I almost always send it back. The restaurants/bars know when the bottle has been open too long. Any management worth their salt will mark their by-the-glass inventory with the date opened.
Where does the Responsibility Lie?
All small production wineries should be willing to replace bottles with faults caused by their production. The same applies to distributors and restaurants/bars for faults caused by their handling and storage. Be comfortable that there is always a mistake along the way that causes these issues and it is not your responsibility to suffer through dealing with it. Wine is a luxury item and producers, suppliers and servers should treat their service like it is a premium product.