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harvey steiman at large

The Moment of Truth

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Oct 18, 2006 1:43pm ET

We have all been there. The server pours a splash of wine from the bottle you just ordered. Your job is to taste it and grant permission to pour for the table.

Oh, the pressure! Be honest. You feel it too. I feel it, and I'm supposed to be an expert. But I don't let it get to me anymore. The question should not be whether the wine is off, but whether you like it.

That eliminates the angst over all the many things that can happen to a bottle to waylay the wine. Bad shipping or storage can subject a wine to enough heat to make it taste maderized, or cooked. A leaky cork can introduce oxidation, making a white wine taste like a cut apple that has been left on the counter too long.

Worst of all, a bad cork can taint a wine. A flagrantly corky wine is easy to spot. It smells like wet, moldy newspapers. But many more wines are only slightly affected by a bad cork, and that's not so easy to taste. Sometimes it just dulls the wine, and if you haven't had a good bottle before, you can't know.

And I can't tell you how many times I have wondered if something might be off about the wine, but OK'd it anyway, only to realize 10 minutes later, as the wine opens up the glass, that I blew it. The wine was corky after all, or the oxidation became more apparent.

Yes, someone has to check to make sure it's OK, but it's not fair to make the customer decide, on one quick taste, while everyone at the table is waiting expectantly, whether a wine is acceptable or not. So don't buy into it.

No one expects you to approve your food, to make sure the fish is fresh or the vegetables aren't overcooked, before you eat your dinner. You taste it, think about it, and call back the server if something seems wrong. If the server recommended the dish and you don't like it, you should get a mulligan. It should be the same with wine.

Here's what I do: before I order a wine I have never tasted, I ask the server about it, who should, at the very least, describe it briefly. Then, when I taste the wine, my job is easier. If it tastes as described and nothing at all rings any sort of alarm bells, I nod and let the pouring begin. But if anything about the wine seems not quite right, anything at all, I just say I'm not sure, and ask the server to try it.

In a restaurant with a good wine program, someone should know how the wine should taste and can tell if the bottle is off. In truth, most restaurants aren't that good, but at least you have raised a yellow flag if, 10 minutes later, it's clear that the wine is a no-go.

In any event, if you realize that you don't like the wine, don't be shy about saying so. Unenlightened restaurants may force you to pay for it anyway, but a good restaurateur wants you to be happy. Treat the wine as you would the food. It's a lot easier that way.

Delmonico Stkhse @ Venetian
Las Vegas, Nevada —  October 18, 2006 3:32pm ET
Harvey - I agree with you. If a guest complains about a bottle, I am more concerned about if the guest is happy, not if the wine is sound. We immediately replace bottles that get complaints and ask questions about the wines later. If the bottle is returned and the wine is good, I will use it for something else. If it was bad, I'm glad they didn't drink it in our restaurant. Either way, good or bad, nobody wins if a guest drinks a wine that they do not like in our restaurant.
Alvaro Esquivel
Miami, Fla —  October 19, 2006 1:11am ET
Harvey - I wish more restaurants would be as customer oriented as Delmonico. I'm sure more wine would be consumed in such a friendly environment.
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  October 19, 2006 2:57am ET
We do the same. I'll replace the btl ASAP. When I recommend a btl I always say "hey, if it's not what you like let me know and we'll start over." However(there is always a but), Kevin, what do you do if they want to send the 2nd of the same and you're pretty sure both btls are sound. Just tonight I had a situation where the guy sent the btl back BEFORE tasting because the cork was wet a third of the way up. The side touching the wine not the top. Ridiculous. It was at the bar, didn't interact w/him myself. We of course replaced it w/out comment and this was not the norm. I actually like when someone lets me know they don't like a wine or think it's off. Most times they are right and I feel bad when we taste a btl that's been left after the guest departs and I realize it's off
Matthew Lo
Zurich, Switzerland —  October 19, 2006 9:36am ET
I cannot agree more with Harvey. The situation that he described happened to me some times. I was once in a very nice restaurant (one-star Michelin) and ordered a bottle of California Chardonnay. It was clearly corked. Believe me, I could tell a really corked wine. This is no rocket science. I indicated that to my waitress politely. She took the wine to the kitchen and I could see someone was tasting it. She came back and proclaimed that the wine was OK. Then I said let's open another one to compare. Then she decided that I did not like oak and went on to "suggest" me to have another wine. The wine she took out was local and inexpensive. Then I had two options: 1. walk out and never return (this would mean a Big Mac for dinner) ; 2. stay and drink the wine. This has to be "rock bottom" situation. I did a little bit of both options: Stay and never return again. Luckily, it only happened to me this once.It shows that even if staff tasted the wine first, it does not mean the wine is always fine. On the hand, I think it is the job of the restaurant to make sure the wine is OK before the customer has it. Not the other way around.My question would be: When you send back the wine and get a second bottle, what if it is also corked. Now what to say?
Jeffrey Ghi
New York —  October 19, 2006 10:23am ET
I was horribly disappointed at the Palm here in NY the other day. I'm both a frequent patron on personal and expense accounts. That night we spent alot of money and to have the "sommelier" come by and tell me I have no idea what I was talking about when I turned away a wine, infuriated me. What made it worse was that me and my friend ALWAYS get the same wine when we are there. The 4 yr old wine was completely oxidized, showing a brown color, "chunks" of sediment, and a very harsh vinegar taste. She gave a whole slew of reasons including "Are you sure it wasn't a different year?", "Are you sure it's just not the tannins you taste", "The wine is probably just a little closed", and the best one "I don't want to waste this bottle and open another of the wine because you might not like that one either, can you pick something else".

Luckily the manager came over who we also know and pointed out "Hey, you're the only ones that clean out that bottle of wine and we have to order more just for you guys". So she brings out another bottle and we taste them side by side and she still has the nerve to tell me the original bottle wasn't off and that the difference in taste is bottling variation, adding the bottle does not have cork taint(because oxidized != cork taint). ARGH! Frustration. Though I must admit, I was borderline worried that if the second bottle came in bad also, I'd be stuck with a wine that I couldn't quaff.
Bryan Bucari
Baton Rouge, LA —  October 19, 2006 10:42am ET
I like everyone else seems to do, replace the wine right away. Most customers ask me to taste the wine for them and tell them what I think. Sometimes the wine just needs to open, sometimes its bad, and sometimes it's perfect. We decant every bottle of red wine, which solves the opening issue a little faster and is something I wish every restaurant did. Another thing I tell the customers whenever I recommend a wine is that if it isn't what they are looking for, I'll be happy to drink it (especially those bottles that you treasure and want for yourself anyways). Another thing I have done is give a glass of the wine to customers who I know will appreciate it, when it is good of course. As painful as this is to say this, sometimes you just have to recommend a martini and move on though.
Robert Fukushima
California —  October 19, 2006 1:32pm ET
I have never felt any pressure with taking the first taste, other than the possibility of having to taste something that is horrible. I figure that there is always a possibilty of a wine not being quite right. I have no problem asking that the problem be corrected. Of course, I have had bad experiences with wine service, and that always disappoints. On the other hand, I have had good or even great service more often, such as when the house wine glasses disappear without asking and are replaced with fine stemware appropriate to the wine, the decanter appears magically and the reverential treatment of a special bottle. Sending back a bottle is just part of loving something that is antural and poetic and not just another manufactured, mass produced, rubber stamped product.
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  October 19, 2006 1:44pm ET
Bryan that's great guest service! I like to take a good btl that's been returned and spread it around to the regulars as well. Usu. that makes everyone happy. The guest who rejected it, the distributor who does not have to deal w/ it and the regular who gets the special treatment of a comp. Many times I'll tell my sales rep and they replace it w/ something anyways.
Chum Lee
Mendocino, CA —  October 19, 2006 2:08pm ET
Apj, I see you on the posts quite often, and pass through Dallas periodically for business. What is the name of your restaurant?
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  October 19, 2006 2:41pm ET
I have endured situations similar to Matthew's and Jeffrey's, when the server just would not believe that the bottle was not up to snuff. When you think about it, what does it profit a restaurant to insist that the customer is wrong? Especially when it's so easy to fix the problem. Just bring another bottle.
Karl Mark
Geneva, IL. —  October 19, 2006 7:51pm ET
Harvey I know that I feel the pressure. My friends are very keen to the fact that I enjoy drinking and collecting wine. That doesn't help me however if the wait staff brings out the wrong vintage or the wine is "off". It frustrates me when the wait staff has no idea about the wine, vintage or prices when I have guests who are inpatient or have no idea why there is a delay in the service. How many times do you find that your the default wine expert while everyone else is waiting for you to start the meal?
Mark Mccullough
GA —  October 20, 2006 1:17am ET
With a large markup and a tip on top, wine should be viewed as a premium service, not just an additional food purchase. That means waiting for the wine to breathe before presenting the wine for approval, using decanters and upgraded stemware and frictionless return if the wine is not acceptable. Diners would order premium bottles more often if the same attention was paid to the wine presentation as the food. And restaurants need to resign themselves to the fact that 5-10% of their bottles are always bad in the best of conditions. So quit arguing about it.
Jeffrey Ghi
New York —  October 20, 2006 9:09am ET
Karl, I eat regardless, nothing stops me from digging into a steak, Nothing, except maybe some beefsteak tomatos =)
James Peterson
San Antonio, Texas —  October 21, 2006 1:47am ET
I generally have a pretty good nose for detecting corked wines, and most times I don't even taste the wine--a swirl, a whiff and a nod of the head suffices. If it seems at all suspect, then I will take more time to evaluate it. That's about the only time there is pressure, because I don't want to challenge it unless I'm certain. Also, anytime I get a corked wine I always pass it around to people so they will have an idea what it is. There are so many people who do not even know that a wine can be corked. Rather than quickly hide it away, I try to educate everyone.
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  October 21, 2006 2:18am ET
Harvey: I had the opportunity to sit in on a luncheon hosted by Peter Gago of Penfolds today. More on the great wines later. More pertinent to this blog was that when they poured the St.Henri at my tbl, 2 of the guys (1 from penfolds & the other, mgr of fine wine-republic) immediately pulled the wine because it was "off." I had to confess that I didn't catch it and had not tasted St.Henri in several yrs. They told me not to feel bad because it was very slight, but flat. The repour did taste much fuller and the flavors brighter but it was ironic that it happened as if to confirm your blog. The topic of screw-cap then came up at our tbl and it is my understanding that Penfolds will be coming out w/ some wines capped in the coming yrs (including some btls of Grange) ps-Peter spoke fondly of you.
Paul Wright
October 22, 2006 10:38am ET
One of the reasons I started to get more interested in wine was that I accepted a bad bottle at a business dinner, not knowing at the time what a bad bottle tasted like. I still get nervous tasting the wine, especially in a business environment. If I get a bottle I think is off I'll ask someone else at the table to try it or someone from the restaurant, unless it's obvious. I've had a couple of occassions when the second bottle has also been off; first time it was suggested we try something else, the second we were told they had no more so had to try something else. On both occassion I felt a little embarassed, as if I was at fault not the wine.
Robert Fukushima
California —  October 23, 2006 3:35pm ET
Apj,I have found that slight flat-ness thing is one of the trickier things. A couple of months ago, some wine buddies andI had a dinner, the bottle I brought was off, not distinctly, I asked one of the other guys, he felt maybe something was wrong. It was just a little dull tasting. I got home and manufactured a reason to open another bottle of the same case a few days later and it was fantastic. Go figure.

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