The Bar Code: When It’s OK—and Not—to Send Wine Back

It’s a moment fraught with tension. The bottle has been opened, the taste has been poured. Now comes that essential question: Is this bottle of wine OK or—gasp, dare I declare it unfit? Even experienced wine drinkers are occasionally flummoxed by that quandary, and for most diners it’s hard to summon the courage to say anything, even if the wine seems flawed. That’s why I’d like to dispel a few myths and misconceptions about sending wine back.

For starters, make sure the bottle you requested is in fact the one you’ve been served. The server or sommelier should show you the bottle and repeat the type of wine, producer, and vintage that you ordered. To the best of your ability, take a few seconds to verify that it’s the one you wanted. Many restaurants carry several vintages of a certain wine or several wines from the same producer, so mistakes can happen.

Once the wine is opened and poured, take a few seconds to focus on it. You can examine the cork if you like, but don’t smell it; smelling a cork is a profoundly amateur move, and also offers little indication of the quality of the wine, despite what you may have heard. That said, if the cork looks moldy or in poor shape, especially in a younger wine, that’s cause for concern. But what really matters is what’s in the glass.

Start with your nose. First and foremost, does it smell like wine? If it smells like vinegar, wet cardboard, rotten eggs, or nail polish, then chances are something is wrong with it. There are, however, several unusual aromas that can be present in a good bottle. For instance, many French wines have a particular scent best described as “barnyardy.” That’s due to the presence of a species of yeast called Brettanomyces, which at low levels can add complexity and depth. Run rampant, however, it can easily take a wine past the point of enjoyment. When ordering a wine from the RhÔne Valley or Burgundy, it’s important to be aware that there may be some level of “brett” present. Some people like it, others don’t, but know that many Old World wines can have unusual aromas that don’t necessarily indicate a flaw.

Generally speaking, though, if it doesn’t smell right, say something. If you’re not sure, it’s perfectly fine to ask the server or sommelier to sniff to confirm your doubts.

If the wine smells all right, move on to taste. Take a small sip and draw a bit of air into your mouth. Forget what your mother taught you; this is one time it’s OK to slurp at the table. If the wine tastes solid, you’re home free. Remember that some wines may require a bit of oxygen contact to fully express themselves (hence the need for a decanter), but again you’re mostly checking to make sure there are no off flavors: vinegar, rancid meat, or brine.

If you do think the wine is off, you absolutely should send it back. I once brought to a table a bottle so bad I nearly gagged after opening it; needless to say I didn’t offer them a taste! Restaurants can and do get reimbursed for these flawed wines by their distributors, so it’s really no skin off their back to have a bottle returned.

So it’s all well and good to send a wine back when something is clearly wrong with it, but how about if you just don’t like it? This is a much touchier issue, and different restaurants may have different policies. Some take the position that if there isn’t a problem with the wine, they won’t take it back. Others are more willing to accommodate an unhappy guest, even if it means taking a loss on a bottle. Obviously, the more expensive the wine, the less likely the restaurant is to grin and bear it.

From my perspective, merely not liking a wine isn’t a compelling-enough reason to send it back. Is that barbaresco you ordered too tannic or that California chardonnay too oaky? That’s likely not an issue with the wine, but with your having ordered one you’re not familiar with. Your server or sommelier is there to help you find the right bottle. If you follow their suggestion and still really don’t like it, then by all means say something. They’ll almost certainly want to make up for their mistake. But if you just order at random off the list? The Romans had a phrase for you: Caveat emptor.

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