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A Situation Where Everyone Loses

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Dec 19, 2006 12:54pm ET

I had dinner with friends the other night at a well-respected restaurant, and the evening ended up being a huge disappointment on several accounts.

I'm not going to name the establishment, nor the wines that were served. I will tell you this: What happened is not a rare, isolated occurrence, and at the end of the evening, everyone ended up losing. The restaurant, because most of the wines were undrinkable. The winery, for the same reason. And of course, we, the consumers.

The wines we ordered should have been grand-slam conversation pieces, spectacular bottles, in their prime, from classic vintages, and we would have been hard-pressed to find superior wines.

When the wines arrived at our table and were opened, there were mixed results. The first Pinot Noir was terrific. But then the Cabernet Sauvignon, a 1997, which was a very ripe year in California, had a pronounced herbaceous aroma. With a few minutes in the glass, it turned thin and metallic. Not corked, mind you, but off. Another bottle of a different wine showed a similar lack of freshness, which made me curious about their origins.

It turns out that the wines had been purchased by the restaurant through a third party—that is, "flipped" by a collector (someone who sells their rare wine because its value exceeds its worth to drink for the individual) or acquired online, at an auction or via another method—all common practices with many fine wines. So when you see a very rare wine on a wine list, you have to wonder where it was obtained.

The reason that the wines we drank last night were flat and stripped of flavor is nearly impossible to pinpoint. Were they stored improperly by the winery? Were they damaged during shipping? Had they been kept in less than ideal cellar conditions, which accounted for their muted flavors?

I suppose I might have been happier had the wines been flat-out corked (and I never thought I'd think along those lines), because if that would have been the case then we could have easily obtained a second bottle, reasonably assured that it would have met our expectations.

No one wins with bad corks, or as I'm starting to discover with more regularity, shoddy storage conditions.

Still, the winery got paid for its wine, and the restaurant profited with its margin.

Where does that leave the consumer? You tell me...

John Libonati
NYC, NY / USA —  December 19, 2006 4:09pm ET
This is a very frustrating incident. It always bothers me when I go to a restaurant and explain to the server or wine steward that the wine is off or corked. I fiind that most servers and wine stewards are so easy to say that the customer doesn't know what he's talking about. I've turned away a few bottles in my time but I've always gotten lousy service afterwards.I'm a bar owner in NYC and I sell a lot of wine because I love it and care about the wine. When someone orders a glass of wine I try to read thier face. If I see a hint of displeasure I always ask if it's ok and ask them to be honest. I would rather have someone drink a good glass of wine and love it than drink something they are so so about. I will always eat the cost on it too with no attitude given towards the customer.Restaurants need to take a step back and work harder to keep thier customers.
Bruce Zucks
brighton township —  December 19, 2006 4:33pm ET
i would have said the wine was bad! from the start,then asked where did they get them!James of all people you should have spoke up!
Robert L Schmitt
Encinitas,CA USA —  December 19, 2006 4:49pm ET
I have also had similar experiences. As I get older and less tolerent, if I don't think that a wine is right, I will tell the server that the wine is off and I can't drink it and insist on something else. There is almost never an arguement. One of the reasons that there is almost never an arguement, is because after reading your magazine for 20 years and drinking thousands of bottles of wine, I have learned to appreciate when a wine is ok, and when it is not ok.I think that once a wine leaves the place where it was made, there are a multitude of things that can mess it up. So, the best place to drink that bottle is at the picnic table behind the winery.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  December 19, 2006 5:46pm ET
Bruce, of course I did and always do and that's how I found out about the sourcing...Many of these ideas, blogs, stories come out of repeated incidents and experiences.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  December 19, 2006 5:48pm ET
Robert, thanks for the comment. I know many collectors who always wanted to pick up their wines at the winery and are frustrated that many wineries now will only ship. So, you're right. Once the wine leaves the winery, it can undergo all sorts of experiences...
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  December 19, 2006 6:02pm ET
John is 100 percent right. It's really very simple. If a restaurant wants a pleased customer, it can't respond to disappointed diners with attitude. And if a customer wants to be satisfied, he or she must tell the restaurant when something is not right. And the higher the cost of the experience, the more we have a right to expect.

That doesn't mean you should be confrontational. Just a quiet word explaining the problem should be enough. As Jim notes, that is rarerly so.

In this case, since the wines came from a third party, it's likely the restaurant bought the wines on consignment. Which means, if the wines were not good the restaurant has no obligation to pay for them. At the very least I should think the restaurant would want to know the wines were not up to snuff if for no other reason than to be wary of buying other wines from that same source.

The down side of the passion for wine we all share is that we can be disappointed when something goes wrong after the wine goes in the bottle. A restaurant that doesn't recognize this and work to make things right only guarantees itself disgruntled customers. Who wins then?
Jeffrey Ghi
New York —  December 19, 2006 6:10pm ET
John, what if the wine in question was a 600$ bottle? Where would you draw the line between the customer enjoying it and you saying that they're wrong?
Berry Crawford
December 19, 2006 6:25pm ET
I was at Gary Danko once (over all a great restraunt) and got a Russian River Pinot in the $100 price range. After about a minute of sitting in the glass it developed very unpleasant fungal and bitter properties. I thought it was corked but she thought it simply had brett and seemed very reluctant to take it back, but in their credit they did and gave us another more expensive bottle for the same price.
Edoardo Fioravanti
Florence\ Italy —  December 19, 2006 7:00pm ET
As a "living" product, the wine can really turn in something deat, if is not kept in good conditions...So even a good wine, in is best year, if kept in an unhealty place (umidity, light, temperature and oxigen are more or less the things to consider for storing the wine) can get sick and die.Yes it will star little by little to loose his energy, his "good" acidity, and will get sick...You can reconize it sometimes even from the color, but most of the time from the reflex of the light..A healty wine is a wine that shine :)
Gregory Katseyeanis
December 19, 2006 9:04pm ET
If I am a guest where someone else is buying, I keep my observations to myself unless asked by my host. When a bottle of wine is obviously corked or just not right, I never have a problem sending it back providing I am the one that is buying it. I always ask a member of the staff to taste the wine and if it looks like they don't agree, I'll mention that it is totally possible that my taste buds might be off tonight. Either way I'll ask that the bottle be removed since I would not be able to enjoy it and that I would consider it a favor if they could taste the wine again after it has had a chance to sit for awhile on the chance that it isn't just me and the wine is off after all. If they still feel that the wine is good, I ask that it be poured for the staff with my compliments since it obviously isn't my night and I hope I'm not coming down with a cold or something. This has never failed to result in a refund or another bottle with apologies. Sometimes the house also comps us desert, coffee, or a drink after dinner. It never hurts to be gracious. It hurts even less to give the other person a chance to appear magnanimous.
John Libonati
NYC, NY / USA —  December 19, 2006 9:21pm ET
Jeffrey, I'd never buy a $600 bottle of wine in a restaurant. I usually order with second and third bottles in mind. There's no way I could justify spending $1,800 on just 3 bottles. One day I hope so! With wine being as popular as it's ever been, restaurants should pay more attention to who they are getting their wine from and the conditions it's been kept in; rather than having a show off list.
Mike Vessa
East Williston,NY —  December 19, 2006 10:11pm ET
This underscores the reason I bring my own bottles to restaurants and bite the bullet on corkage...most times waived because of the relationship developed with the owner or sommalier...either the wine or the price is too bitter to swallow!
Phil Telgenhoff
El Dorado Hills, CA —  December 19, 2006 11:01pm ET
I'd like to know the name of the establishment. Who wants to spend $200 on a bottle of wine from an inadequate source?
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  December 20, 2006 12:56am ET
Scary subject. I was just reading an article where Serena Sutcliffe, MW feels conterfeit wine is becoming a problem too. Buying from 3rd party (not including distributor) seems like a bad idea. John, I agree for the most part that a wine should be replaced no problem. But...there are people who send back wine for no good reason. On the other hand, many guests drink very expensive wine on a regular basis way more than I do. I have to assume they are speaking from their experience w/ a specific wine. It may be rare for me but probably not for them. Anyone that spends $600, $800, $1000 a btl at a restaurant probably has done it many more times than me. Regardless of my training, I'm not going to dismiss this person out of hand. At this point I'm going to ask several questions to find out if I should pour the same or suggest a different btl.
David A Zajac
December 20, 2006 6:27am ET
I have been saying this many times, I believe this is a BIGGER problem than corks - inperfect storage and shipping conditions ruin more wines than bad corks do, period. Replace corks with other stoppers, fine if you can also confront how wines are shipped and stored as well, otherwise its a half hearted effort.
Kirk R Grant
Ellsworth, ME —  December 20, 2006 9:01am ET

James, I think that any time I go to a restaurant and order a bottle of wine I should get what I came for, a good bottle. If the wine is less than perfect, I should not be expected to bite the loss at what is usually twice the cost.

However it does bring to light a story a friend of mine shared with me the other day. Someone brought an 87 Chateau de Beaucastel to a wine party, it was the hit of the party and one of the best wines my friend had experienced to that point. The owner of the bottle said he had opened a bottle 6 months prior and dumped it out because it wasn't drinkable.

Both bottles came from the same distributor, and both were stored in the same climate the entire time (a benefit of buying a sealed case) it was just in a dumb phase. Many customers don't know or don't think about this. If that is the case then it is not the restaurants job to bite the loss, however if they want a happy customer they should.

In the case of a wine that is obviously less than right they should bite the cost every time if they want a repeat customer. I have avoided wine stores simply due to a rude employee. I would avoid any restaurant that didn't want me to leave completely satisfied. It seems to me that if this were ever a problem I would probably not return to give them a second chance for quite some time, if ever. Restaurants need to think long and hard about where they are going to get their wines from.
Laura Turner
December 20, 2006 9:25am ET

Another layer of this issue relates to who can and will store the wine. James wanted a properly aged wine in a restaurant. The restaurant wanted to offer wines of age, so where do they get them. Few wineries hold back wines until they are ready to drink because they have to sell them to get the revenue to continue as a business.

The days of Restaurants buying wine to store in their own cellar until they are ready are long gone because they too have to sell the products they buy to stay in business.( and get off the byob thing, a restaurant cannot survive on $10 corckage fees) It's become a vicious circle of businesses trying to keep their heads above water in an ever increasing whirlpool of economic madness.

For many American consumers its OK because they have not learned about the pleasures of properly aged wine; but for the connoiseur it is a real problem when eating out. On one hand, the collector may be the only solution to supplying aged wines and it's up to the purchaser to first research the wines provenance or attach a guarentee of quality to the purchase. On the other hand, there are no guarentees that at any given time the wine in the bottle is in the ideal condition when it is opened. Afterall, as with anything good, there is risk attached to the reward.
Tony Aukett
Chicago, IL —  December 20, 2006 9:51am ET
Greg, love your respnse to this (all too frequent) situation. i will remember this for the future.
Steve Barber
Clayton, CA. —  December 20, 2006 1:00pm ET
What a shame. James, the good news for you is you'll have the opportunity for other fine dining. If it were my wife and I, we'd be paying a sitter, and having a once or twice a year type of dining experience. Like others, I have been bringing my own wine and paying corkage....happily so. I have my wine in a wine fridge, and know that is has been handled properly. All this makes me re-think the issue of not bringing a wine that is on the wine list. So What? I'm the one studying wine via WS mag./online, I'm the one who truly is having a special night out ( two kids 6 & 8). We need the odds in our favor.Sidebar note: How about an issue featuring regular folks and their cellars....an issue dedicated to the WS main demographic perhaps. Where located in the home, glassware, decanters, dinner party ideas/stories etc. We spilled red wine on a friends new deck one time. Two days later, another attendee who is an airline captain told him his deck looked like the Japanese flag as he was flying out of SFO. That's funny!
James Laube
Napa, CA —  December 20, 2006 2:34pm ET
Just so there's no confusion. The restaurant didn't charge us for the off bottles and the staff was very pleasant and professional given the awkward situation and they were embarassed by the quality of the wines as well. The wines were not super expensive, and to my mind, great deals...I don't have that kind of money. I've been following this third party acquisition story for a while, since when you go to a restaurant and find those really rare wines, they were not likely acquired direct from the winery, but from another source. I hope it's not as bad as David does, but the reality is a lot of wine is poorly stored somewhere along the line and there is little recourse for the consumer.
Jj Gallagher
Near Napa, Ca —  December 20, 2006 4:19pm ET
Regarding the BYOB and corkage. Even if the restaurant is great about it, just dealing with the situation puts a damper on the evening. I am in the BYOB camp. I see Laura's point, but- very few restaurants have less that a $20 corkage, at least in my area. If a restaurant cannot survive with it's corkage policy, it has bigger problems. A suggestion- while this won't work for everyone, we have been bringing a special bottle and ordering another off the menu. Most places even waive the corkage for every bottle purchased. If we are just 2, we often order something by the glass.
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  December 21, 2006 4:16am ET
I'm wondering...those of you who feel restaurants really run up the numbers w/wine prices...do you buy food/drinks/beer at sporting events or concerts? Why do most bloggers think it is ok to cut in on restaurant owners profit. I suppose most of you work at not-for-profit institutions. Lawyers, doctors, stockbrokers, software techies. All of you guys charge reasonable rates - right?
Robert Leach
Atlanta, GA —  December 21, 2006 7:35pm ET
Mr. Powers, which cuts into a restaurant owner's profit more: going there and buying food and perhaps some wine (but bringing a bottle or two along as well), OR not going there at all?I would personally prefer to buy wine off the restaurant's list. However, if the list is mediocre, or if the markups are excessive, I am simply not going to do it. So, if bringing my own wine is, as you suggest, some sort of malicious effort on my part to "cut in on restaurant owners profit" then I guess I'll just go somewhere else -- and what would the profit to the restaurant be then?
John Wilen
Texas —  December 21, 2006 10:08pm ET
The issue for me Apj, my fellow Dallasite, is value-added. I have no problem paying for a fine dinner because the kitchen has transformed ingredients into a special meal that I cannot prepare myself. However, with restaurant wine, there is little or no value-added involved. It is the same bottle I have at home or could buy if I wanted to. The restaurant stores it and serves it, hardly a skilled set of tasks. For less knowledgeable customers, a wine steward's expertise at suggesting a bottle to go with their food does add value --- but even then the usual markups can't be justified.

I ceased to complain a long time ago. My wine friends and I now just take our dining business to those top-tier restaurants who reward our patronage by allowing us to bring wine in AND do not charge us a corkage fee. Yes, even in Dallas where you hear "that's illegal," it happens all the time.
Steve Coyle
Chappaqua, NY —  December 22, 2006 1:43pm ET
How about Mail Ordering? Has anyone returned a wine back to a vineyard or to a store when it is bad? I tend to cellar my wines for a while. In 4 to 10 years when I open them, what if they are well within the drinkable window, but they are bad. It happened the other night, one bottle was perfect, another identical one bad. Should I call Turley Vineyards? Thoughts?
Tim Webb
high point nc —  December 22, 2006 3:32pm ET
i have maintained a cellar my entire adult life. it is quite literally a cellar; dirt floor, below ground with the bottles laid on side in racks. most of the wine in my cellar stays there six to ten years. rarely do i take a bottle out that is off any any way other than a occasional touch of tca. how hard is this? surely if a restaurant is in the business of serving fine wine, it is their responsibility to store the wine properly. if they are buying aged wine, it is the restaurant's responsibility to know where and how the wine has been kept.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  December 22, 2006 5:58pm ET
Steve, I would. Even if they don't or can't replace the bottle (they can't be sure how it was stored), I think the feedback is valuable to them. Even when we make mistakes at the magazine -- even a typo -- we like to know about it.

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