I say restaurant beware!
Most certainly I am not trying to set off an epidemic of returns-for-no-reason, not in the restaurant I work in, nor any other for that matter. What I am referring to is the dated and, frankly, rude policy of “buyer beware” when it comes to buying older wines on wine lists.
This policy actually persists in many restaurants today: If you order an older bottle from the wine list, then you own it, regardless of the condition—be it good, bad or indifferent. This does not strike me as hospitality.
But let me back up a step. I'm a guy who opens as much old wine as anyone out there and a guy who goes to extraordinary pains to ensure perfect provenance (often times sourcing old bottles from the domaines themselves). And I can tell you, they are not all good. That’s just the nature of the beast—you have an agricultural product bound up behind a piece of tree bark. Over time, it can become magic, but the road can be a bumpy one and problems can arise. Welcome to the game of drinking old wine.
Get a magical bottle and you WILL be hooked. But as you spend more time in this game, you will see that the same wine isn’t the same each time—sometimes it’s amazing and sometimes it’s just okay. This, too, is part of it and part of the appreciation. They all cannot take you to the moon, but most will offer something appreciable—even if it is just the chance to reflect on drinking something of significant age. Many old wines fall into this category and should be enjoyed, NOT returned should you be ordering them in a restaurant.
But sometimes the tree bark fails, and we get something completely oxidized and dead. There is no joy in this bottle, and it is best tipped down the drain. Now, back to the restaurant, which at its most elemental level is a place where people go and pay to be nourished. I believe that a successful restaurant will be the one that nourishes with food and service—it doesn’t just fill the belly, it warms the soul. This is worth paying for. I believe the best restaurants approach their craft from this point of view and do all they can to deliver it. When a restaurant forgets what it is being paid for and attempts to fleece the guests, I don’t believe that it will do well. It will be unable to nourish.
This is why I believe the “buyer beware” policy fails—it does not treat the guest well. Frankly, if you are offering it for sale, you should stand behind it—be it a car, iPod, steak or bottle of wine. Anything less is disingenuous.
Now, you may hear restaurants say they cannot afford to have expensive bottles sent back. I can say that this is simply not true and, instead, restaurants cannot afford to NOT allow for this possibility. At the Little Nell, where I work, we have had a policy of “return anything for any reason.” I have been telling guests for the eight years I’ve been there that their candor is required and if they simply don’t like it I will bring them something else. The point is that guests are paying to be there and be happy. Furthermore, I want to make people comfortable trying wines and not to feel encumbered by some thought that they must “beware.” In nearly a decade of serving tens of millions of dollars of wines, not once has this policy been abused. Not once.
And just for argument’s sake, let’s say someone sends back a bottle worth many thousands of dollars. If the restaurant says no, this guest is going to be furious and will tell everyone they know and will never, ever come back. Now consider the alternative: the restaurant takes the bottle back, the guest is happy, he or she has something else of the same caliber, tells all their friends how gracious the restaurant is, and is now a guest for life. Furthermore, in the scope of annual wine sales, that returned bottle won’t even show up as a blip.
Which scenario sounds better to you? The answer is the same whether you are a guest or a restaurateur.
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Jeff Vogel — Kaiserslautern, Germany — January 13, 2008 12:05pm ET
Kirbys Steakhouse — Dallas,TX — January 15, 2008 1:55pm ET
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Ashley Potter — LA, — January 15, 2008 6:52pm ET
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