We need to talk about a…delicate subject.
No, it’s not locating G-spots or what to say to your doctor if it burns when you pee.
But it is a subject that’s almost as touchy, at least for wine lovers, and one that often leaves even the geekiest of wine nerds flummoxed: how do you know when it’s okay to send a wine back at a restaurant? And if you do have to cross that etiquette line, how do you do it without looking like a total douchebag? Here’s now not to look like that guy at a restaurant.
Pretty much no one – including any decent restaurant waitstaff – wants you and your guests to have a crappy wine experience. But no one wants to ruin the vibe of an otherwise excellent evening by having to argue about whether or not you should call foul on that expensive bottle for which you just forked out hard-earned cash, either.
To help navigate these tricky vinous waters, I enlisted the help of Jeff Taylor, Head Sommelier at NYC’s Eleven Madison Park, which was recently named one of the ten best restaurants worldwide (in the S. Pelligrino and Acqua Panna-sponsored 2012 list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants), and boasts a James Beard Award (the food world’s equivalent to the Oscars) in wine service. If you splurged on one bottle each of the ten most expensive wines on EMP’s list, it would set you back approximately $100 grand. As classy joints go, few are classier than EMP, so Jeff is uniquely situated to clue us in on the best ways to handle an off bottle.
As it turns out, advice that’s handy in the bedroom is equally applicable when it comes to maximizing your wine pleasure at a classy eatery: an ounce of prevention can prevent a lot of headaches later. The best way to handle sending a wine back is not having to send it back in the first place.
Picking a place that gives a damn about its wine service will minimize the chance of you getting a bad bottle – especially important if you have high stakes (in terms of a business dinner, or amorous intentions) riding on your dinner.
“At Eleven Madison Park, we have four sommeliers on the floor every night, so the idea is that a wine should never have to be sent back for a fault because every wine is tasted by a sommelier before it arrives to the guest’s table,” Jeff told me. “The idea is if one of the somms feels that the wine is not sound, we can get a second opinion from one of our other somms.”
A good sommelier, according to Jeff, will also treat it as his or her job to suss out the wine preferences of you and your guests, so that you don’t drop a pretty penny on a wine that stylistically isn’t a good fit for your tastes. It’s well within your purview as a dinner guest to send a bottle back if you think the sommelier didn’t do a good job in making that assessment — but not so much if you eschewed their advice and picked on your own and just happen not to be a fan of the style you chose.
So while picking your dinner spot intelligently is the best advice for avoiding wine issues on an important night out, it’s still possible that you’ll encounter an actual flawed bottle at some point. In that case, follow this simple rule of thumb: if a wine smells like rotten eggs, a wet basement or a tire fire — or anything else that you’d rather not stick in your mouth on a normal day — then you’re entitled to another bottle.
Ah, but how to send the wine back without pushing the “Ruin It” button on your dining experience?
“If it’s a gentleman at a business dinner with six other people, he may feel that he doesn’t want to cause a scene,” notes Jeff. “If you don’t want to obviously cause a scene, make eye contact with the sommelier; or, the next time one member of the service team is over at the table, say ‘Hey, can you bring the sommelier over?’ Anytime anyone asks for the sommelier at Eleven Madison Park we immediately go to them in a conversational standpoint and not address the whole table.”
Jeff also recommends having a simple question in your back pocket, both to indicate that you think the wine might be off and to see if the sommelier has done his or her job in the first place:
“One thing that works really well is if the guest asks, ‘Did you taste the wine?’ Then we can answer, ‘Yes, and I think it’s showing exactly as it should be for that vintage or that producer,’ or if not, the sommelier can retaste and help confirm if the wine seems off (and if so, discreetly replace the bottle).”
Also, as in the bedroom, timing is everything in sending a wine back. You are being a douchebag if you and your guests have tossed back ¾ of a bottle before calling the somm over and then telling him or her that you thought something was wrong.
“If you okay a bottle of wine and then become unhappy with it later, you should let the somm know as soon as possible,” Jeff advises. “Think of it this way: if you’ve eaten two courses and then you say, ‘Oh I don’t think this wine was right,’ it’s sort of like having a plate of food, eating the whole thing, and then saying, ‘I didn’t really care for that steak.’ I can’t prepare something else for you because you’ve consumed the whole thing; it’s the same thing with wine. You’d be surprised how many times that happens. What really upsets me is when someone gets the same bottle twice and then they try to claim a huge vintage variation or something like that after drinking the entire second bottle.”
There you have it – some of the same common sense that makes an amorous encounter successful will help you navigate the tricky waters of restaurant wine-replacement etiquette.
Just be sure to use your newfound powers for good, okay, superman?
About the Author:
Joe Roberts is a certified wine geek, and has been called "an original" by media maven Gary Vaynerchuk, "provocative" by the Seattle Times, and "a Robin Hood in the exclusive world of vineyards and corkings" by The Urban Grocer. His wine knowledge has been tapped by the L.A. Times, New York Times, CNBC.com, Mutineer Magazine, Publix, Palate Press, Mint.com, and Wines.com. You can find Joe regularly roasting wine's sacred cow (and pairing them with robust, obscure red) at the award-winning 1WineDude.com.