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The Circus

Posted: Jan 11, 2009 12:31pm ET

Here's my tasting note for a 1988 Sassicaia consumed on Oct. 30, 2008, at Cibreo Restaurant, in Florence, Italy, during a vertical tasting covering the commercial history of the famous Tuscan estate:

1988 Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia: Very rich and powerful with layers of berries, spices and ripe plums. Hints of blackberry jam and fresh porcini. Full-bodied and balanced with fine and juicy tannins. So much currant and ripe fruit on the palate. 97 points, nonblind.

Here's my note for a 1988 Sassicaia consumed on Jan. 9, 2009, at Le Cirque, in Las Vegas, with friends during a celebratory dinner of being together:

1988 Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia: Wet cardboard aromas with eucalyptus and some fruit character underneath. Full-bodied with some richness, but muted and funky with a slightly acidic undertone. Just not right. 84 points, nonblind.

It was obvious that there was something wrong with the bottle of 1988 Sassicaia that I tasted last Friday night in Las Vegas with some friends from Hong Kong during a dinner at Le Cirque at Bellagio casino. But the sommelier insisted that it was a sound bottle. I was with one of the most important wine collectors in the world, who wishes to remain anonymous, as well as wine collector/film director James Orr and an L.A.-based wine collector. We all thought the 1988 Sassicaia was corked, but the sommelier would not agree.

“Perhaps you should order another wine?” he suggested, looking at us as if we had stone palates.

I guess he didn’t want to part with another bottle of the 1988 Sass at a little more than $1,100 a bottle. The legendary 1985 was a laughable $21,000 and change on the list. The 1988 is very close in quality and a fraction of the cost, even in mere mortal wine shops. In fact, Nicolò Incisa della Rocchetta, the owner of Tenuta San Guido, prefers the 1988 to the 1985.

Anyway, I felt like I was at a Circus – which is the name of the restaurant in French – the way the wine service was handled. To give the restaurant credit, my friends had brought a number of wines to the restaurant, and they were properly opened and decanted, including a fabulous bottle of 1970 Trotanoy. But the corky Sass incident just got under everyone’s skin. Perhaps that’s why my friend, who was comped by MGM Casinos, did not gamble that night?

Le Cirque’s sommelier also said that he took the wine to no less than two Master Sommeliers at the nearby Picasso restaurant, and they concurred with him that the bottle was perfect. My friend, who had invited me to the dinner, just shook his head. “Just let it go,” he said. I guess the casino was paying, but it didn't seem right.

I only wish I knew what the motivation of the sommelier was, when the wine was so clearly corked. Could it be that the restaurant didn’t want to take the financial loss on the bottle with the current economy? Or maybe the sommelier simply couldn’t detect the corkiness in that particular bottle?

In any case, it seems to me that one of the most important jobs of a sommelier is to find corky bottles and not subject customers to them, regardless if the wine is $1,000 or $10.

Lorenzo Erlic
victoria canada —  January 12, 2009 4:37am ET
James: Who eventually should have taken the brunt of the obvious financial concern regarding the corked bottle, the restaurant or the sommelier? What was the standing of that particular person within the dining establishment? Sorry to hear about that situation yet once again it reinforces my determination when dining out to concentrate exclusively on the food offered and leave the wines (good or bad) to me alone.
Chris A Elerick
Orlando, FL —  January 12, 2009 9:07am ET
James, sorry to hear about your experience. Whatever happened to "The customer is always right?" When something like that happens to me I write the restaurant off and vow to never give them another dime of my money.

On another note, I'm new to wine drinking but have fallen head over heels in love! The other night some friends and I ordered a 1994 Fattoria di Felsina Fontalloro Toscana at a Disney restaurant in Orlando. It was firmly tannic, with relatively concentrated flavors in the mouth but a dried-out and stunted finish. I couldn't tell if it needed a few more years in the bottle or if it's a lost cause. Compared to a 1995 Luce della Vite Luce Toscana I had at a Christmas dinner at a friend's house, the Fontalloro paled in comparison. The Luce was so nuanced and complex with a finish that offered a rainbow of interesting flavors while still being light on its feet. But, given that the Fontalloro was only $80 at the restaurant, I'm grateful for the chance to uncork a 15 year old Toscana without breaking the bank!
hong —  January 12, 2009 9:18am ET
A slightly off the topic is assessing when a wine is over the hill or just closed up and needing more time. I recently bought a load of different wines, bordeaux, with varying ages. With a couple(cantenac brown and batailley 1982) it was very clear to see that the wine was done as the fruit was almost all gone, increased acid on the end palete and not really satisfying. However with some others that I thought would be good e.g. the petite eglise 1995 it still seemed very closed on opening but after 2-3 days it developed lots more depth, bouquet and flavour. This was a total surprise as it is not a serious wine, the colour is stil great but I am wondering if it just needs more time or is it just going to go downhill. I would appreciate your advice as a guy in a keen experimental phase !. I would hate to drink my way through the case thinking it is as best as it can be and then figure it was just still not ready
James Suckling
 —  January 12, 2009 10:25am ET
Lorenzo. The restaurant would take the financial hit because it was the owner of the bottle. The sommelier should have replaced the bottle with a new one. I felt he was being slightly dishonest.
James Suckling
 —  January 12, 2009 10:27am ET
Chris. You have a good palate. The 1994 Fontaloro is drying out now. The 1994 vintage was good but not exceptional one. It was a wet harvest, if I remember correctly.
James Suckling
 —  January 12, 2009 10:54am ET
Toby. I would say the 1982s are drying out but the 1995 Petite Eglise is still tight like a lot of 1995s. I would give it a couple of years still. I remember buying a few cases of that wine myself. It was the best second wine ever from Eglise Clinet.
Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  January 12, 2009 12:22pm ET
I don't know Le Cirque's policy on this matter, the somms should have been more honest. But, many restaurants, even very upscale ones, have a policy that any wines sold over X years old (X often being 10 years) is Buyer Beware. Yes we will offer a bottle of 1988, or 1945, on the wine list, but no, we will not keep opening up bottles until you find one you like. I have often seen this policy in the fine print in the back of restaurant wine lists.
Steve Ritchie
Atlanta, GA —  January 12, 2009 12:25pm ET
James, it's interesting to hear your story on the heels of Mr. Steiman's blog about the documentary on the reopening of Le Cirque in NYC. It seems that their service culture could use a bit of improvement across the board...In general, I find the wine service in higher-end Las vegas restaurants to be overpriced and too focused on trophies. I am disappointed but not shocked at your tale because I have been disappointed in the hard-sell of some restaurants (the only wines they would recommend were at the top of their varietal's price range) and poor storage (soupy-warm Zinfandel). This story does not change my confidence...
David Williams
Carlsbad, CA —  January 12, 2009 12:36pm ET
I don't know about wine at this level, but if it gets an 84 (the high end of the "Good" scale) and it's corked--it must be very good wine indeed!
Ed Fryer
Nashville, TN —  January 12, 2009 12:38pm ET
James:At least here in Nashville, generally our wholesale distributors will pick up the bottle when we alert them of any issue. They usually contact the winery in question. Most wineries with pedigree would understand it's part of business. I own a retail wine store and we will get returns of incredible wines with corkissues. We stand behind every one of them, regardless of who "eats" the cost. We do a substantial high volume of high-end wines and I cannot afford to loose the trust of anyone who comes through our door. Just last week we had twobottles of "cooked" Laurent-Perrier Rose Champagne returned by one of the owners of one of our finest restaurants. The salesperson for the wine just happened to be in the store when she returned them. He took care of the issue right then and there and earned even more respect from me. "He gets it!"The person at your restaurant that evening owes you a bottle of wine, an apology and needs to betaught how to transact business. I have never had that type of service in any restaurant. We doreturn bottles every now and then. No one has ever doubted us or been ungracious. I appreciate you pointing out one real problem with our great industry...to many peopleplaying wine God. All at the expense of potentialfuture sales, increased education and a country of people trying to appreciate wine more instead of being intimidated and offended. More good will come from that bad bottle if stories like this are told. Thank you!
Hoyt Hill Jr
Nashville, TN —  January 12, 2009 12:38pm ET
I was a partner in and the wine director of a Grand Award restaurant in Nashville called The Wild Boar for several years. I can assure you that if any member of the editorial board of Wine Spectator had suggested a bottle of wine was corked during that time, I would not have argued with him! It has hard to fathom this happening to you twice recently. As they say, one bottle of 1988 Sassicaia, $1,100. Reading about your shoddy wine service on winespectator.com, priceless!
James Suckling
 —  January 12, 2009 12:42pm ET
David. LOL. Nice one. I didn't go into the details. But I tasted the 1988 Sass straight from the bottle first and said I thought it had a problem. And then he decanted and it seemed a little better, even pleasant, but it soon turn to pure cardboard. Nonetheless, some people may have just found it to have lots of old wood, or eucalyptus character. I know the wine well, as you know, so it was obviously a flawed bottle. And the rest of the winos at the table said it was off.
Stephanie A Hubbell
winter —  January 12, 2009 12:50pm ET
This situation is simply,the bottle was flawed,the restaurant takes it back to it's wholesaler and get credit towards a new bottle.Or in the case of something that can't be replaced,credit for the next purchase.
Robert Kim
Las Vegas, Nevada —  January 12, 2009 1:03pm ET
It should be the restaurant's responsibliity. Is not part of the mark-up to cover losses related to spoilage/corked bottles? Seems incredible to me, but, when I think about it, it seems to happen more and more these days.
Tony Wood
Brighton U.K. —  January 12, 2009 1:07pm ET
Hi James, Firstly, may i wish you a joyous and healthy 2009.I just don't get it, who would want to take on J.S. plus two big shots..... 1970 Trotanoy ect.? Perhaps its the sommelier's 15 minutes of fame or infamy.By the way I had the 2005 Sassicaia the other night and felt that ithad closed down somewhat, is that possible ?
Claude Kaber
Luxemburg —  January 12, 2009 2:03pm ET
Sandy, it is understandable that restaurants won't open bottle after bottle of a very old wine until the customer finally finds a bottle that pleases him. Customers should know about the high risk of bottle variation. A wine that is clearly corked however, should never be served to a customer.
David Rauch
Los —  January 12, 2009 2:09pm ET
James-I am surprised you paid for the bottle. Even more shocking is how the restaurant, or more particularly the sommelier, handled the situation. I agree he was being dishonest, and (assuming I were as certain as the four of you that the wine was corked) I never would have paid for the wine unless I was given a replacement bottle.Interesting, though, that you keep this dishonest person's name a secret while publicly naming Caroline Styne and questioning her judgment in connection with her sincere effort to direct you to a wine she honestly thought you might enjoy (and sorry to beat a dead horse, but a bottle that I think you might have enjoyed if it had in fact been a representative bottle of 05 Lillian).
Peter Kreishman
DC —  January 12, 2009 2:19pm ET
James-- I'm curious. Did you mention who you were and what you did for a living during any of this exchange? It may have had a profound impact on the sommelier's palate...
Hoyt Hill Jr
Nashville, TN —  January 12, 2009 2:19pm ET
Isn't it funny that two guys from Nashville, both wine retailers, were successive posters on this subject! I would guess that this bottle was not purchased from a wholesaler but at auction, and therefore the restaurant would have no recourse for reimbursement. That does not excuse the sommelier's attitude, however. They should have gladly replaced the wine.
James Suckling
 —  January 12, 2009 2:24pm ET
Peter. I said hello to the manager, and gave him my card, but I never mentioned who I was to the sommelier.
Bill Robinson
Calgary —  January 12, 2009 2:33pm ET
James,How was the Trotanoy? The tasting notes online are interesting as it goes from 95 points best after '95 in 1988 to 91 points in 1993 to 88 points with a drink now recomendation in 1994.
Jamie Sherman
Sacramento —  January 12, 2009 4:02pm ET
James, I agree with a previous blogger and like to leave the wine part of the meal in my corner by bringing my own. If it's corked...oh well, my loss. More then that however are the tremendous markups (3x or more the retail) in restaurants that just don't seem fair. I mean 70 dollars for a wine I can find for 18 dollars at Safeway? The sommelier may scowl at me and the restaurant may charge me and limit how many bottles I bring but it just seems to make more sense.
David Nerland
Scottsdale —  January 12, 2009 4:09pm ET
A very good sommelier would know YOU James.
Tom Samuelson
Seattl, WAe —  January 12, 2009 4:43pm ET
So James, just how much of a tip was left?
Glenn S Lucash
January 12, 2009 5:20pm ET
I have a complete vertical of Sassicaia from 1983 to 2005. I would be glad to part with my 1985 for $ 10,000. Please have the restaurant contact me. I would even hand deliver the bottle and then go to Delmonico Steakhouse and have Kevin Vogt take great care of my wine service.
Jonathan Green
January 12, 2009 5:59pm ET
To be honest, this is a much trickier question for wine amateurs than for professionals like Suckling or "world-class" wine collectors. I am sure many wine enthusiasts have had the experience of tasting a wine which, although not obviously spoiled, did not taste quite right. However, even if we regularly drink fine wine, we do not have the luxury of knowing how a bottle like the '88 Sassicaia should taste.If we can't ask the sommelier and expect an honest answer, we are in trouble. I am particularly surprised it happened in Las Vegas, where alienating obvious high rollers (your friend - they may not have known who you were, but if he were being comped like that, they knew EXACTLY who he was) is not typically done.The biggest concern from your story is that it makes us mortals even more nervous about making those types of wine purchases in restaurants. I am interested in hearing a response from the Le Cirque clan.
James Suckling
 —  January 12, 2009 6:10pm ET
Johnathan. That's why I wrote the blog!
Kasey A Carpenter
Fort Worth, Texas —  January 12, 2009 6:20pm ET
I will add: Good luck getting a distributor to pick up a 20+ year old bottle of wine, corked or not. That is assuming the bottle was bought from regular channels... of course anything else would be (gasp) illegal.
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  January 12, 2009 6:29pm ET
I agree with a "buyer beware" philosphy with older wines in terms of oxidation or other age related disorders but corked is corked--an intrinsic flaw of the bottle from the day it was createdand thus should have been replaced
Ed Fryer
Nashville, TN —  January 12, 2009 6:38pm ET
Hoyt, maybe we just have far fewer bottles of corked wine here in Nashville!?! I think I can speak for both of us here, we would certainly do right by the purchaser, irregardless of how much it costs us.To be treated poorly or to have someone with ANY'experience' or 'knowledge' of wine try to explain away your obvious dislike of any wine is wrong.To have any person in the wine service industry attempt to explain the merits "cardboard" as a positive sign of a wines character is flat out unacceptable. To have to have a wine of that nature remain on the table (or show up on the bill) --- well, I probably can't use that language on this board.
Michael Homula
Howell, MI —  January 12, 2009 6:54pm ET
This is a sad and depressing story. Unfortunately I have had many friends who have returned from Vegas with similar tales of woeful wine service, second rate sommeliers and ridiculous prices. Given the quality of dining and the unquestionably interesting and diverse wine lists in many Vegas restaurants this issue becomes even more glaring. While I have not had horror stories on the same level as these while there, I have only had one exceptional experience with a sommelier and wine service. Since we have called out by name those who are not so good I thought I would point out that Tammy, the sommelier at Olive's in the aforementioned Bellagio, has always been outstanding in her service, knowledge, listening skills, unique recommendations and pairings. I also agree with David from Scottsdale; a very good sommelier, strike that, any sommelier ought know YOU James. Perhaps I will use that as my litmus test when interacting with a sommelier with whom I am not familiar: "Do you know who James Suckling is?"
Todd Bishop
San Francisco, CA —  January 12, 2009 7:19pm ET
To add insult to your injury, my wife and I were just at a small Italian restaurant in San Francisco over the weekend, and I saw the '88 listed for $300. I too find it hard to believe that a sommelier at a place like Le Cirque didn't recognize you, but the point is, of course, that it shouldn't have mattered; no restaurant guest should be put in that awkward situation. Certainly you have exponentially more credibility than the average wine drinker, but either way, it should have been obvious to the sommelier. (It would be one thing if a restaurant had a "buyer beware" policy on old bottles that was clearly communicated - as previously suggested - but he was simply ignoring the circumstances.) Perhaps he is less familiar with the wine than you are, but nonetheless, how could he ignore aromas of wet cardboard?!
Philip Smith
January 12, 2009 9:04pm ET
Michael, I like that idea for a litmus test. I will be using it also.
Trevor Witt
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada —  January 12, 2009 9:47pm ET
JamesI find it quite interesting that the sommelier did not know who you where. I would only assume any educated sommelier whould recognize pictures of Suckling, Parker, Tanzer, Robinson etc. perhaps the Le Cirque sommelier should do a little homework!Trev
Matt Scott
Honolulu HI —  January 12, 2009 11:51pm ET
Trevor I agree with you 100%! If you are in the business and am a top sommelier, you would/should recognize Mr. Suckiling. On top of that, the fact that Tuscan wines are James' "beat" would be enough for the sommelier to say "hmm, this might be corked and we should take it back". $1,100 for an '88 Sass is a lot of money, even in Sin City. That's one of the reasons why you pay a 200-300% mark up on a wine, so that you are protected and there is no "buyer beware". I could go on for months on the subject. Thanks for the blog James.
Miguel Lecuona
Austin, TX —  January 13, 2009 5:25am ET
Given the depth of the wine program at Bellagio, including the presence of so many Master Sommeliers on staff, this is stunning. The judgment of whether the wine is corked is one thing. But for a sommelier to come back to the table to inform the VIP's that his colleagues agree with him that the customer is wrong -- that is "service suicide". And it should not matter whether he knew who JS was or not, (another strike the did not!). In this case there is only one proper way out for the sommelier and he did not take it.Think of the dynamic at the table and how the sommelier could have benefited from agreeing. Relieved of a disappointing situation and an expensive one, the customer would now be free to try again and "reinvest". And the sommelier moves from adversary to advocate.The sommelier loses not only this table, but this customer for life. And in this case, the impact goes well beyond the normal ripple effect of a bad customer experience. And where was the manager -- given that he had the card of JS, was he not aware of the situation and unable to intervene to keep his sommelier from causing such a disaster?I have had, and witnessed, superb wine service elsewhere at Bellagio recently -- at Jasmine, and at Petrossian Bar. Corked wines are a reality. A high end restaurant knows it comes with the territory. Buyer Beware is one option, but it's not nearly as good as Customer is Right.
Kevin Smith
January 13, 2009 10:08am ET
Wow, and I thought I had it rough. I just had to take a second job to help pay for my college tuition, rent, food, etc. But Mr. Suckling and his Hollywood friend and "anonymous high roller" may or may not have gotten a bad bottle of a luxury wine I can only dream of one day tasting. My condolences to all of you on what was obviously a tragic event. What a sad, sad world we live in...
Anacleto Ludovic
paris france  —  January 13, 2009 11:15am ET
a sommelier that didnt know you............and you are surprised he continue saying the wine is fine?i believe Le cirque is not looking that much on who they hire..................saludos
Tim Webb
high point nc —  January 13, 2009 2:30pm ET
it occurs to me that the real issue is the price of the wine. had the bottle in question been $10, i doubt the server would have even slowed down at replacing it, so the real issue was not if the wine was good or bad, but that it cost a thousand dollars. to order a wine that price in a restaurant without any guarantee that it is what it is suppose to be is just silly. what other product would you buy at that price with no assurance that it would even be useable and no guarantee that that it would be replaced or refunded if found not to be so? perhaps the lesson here is not to order thousand dollar wines in restaurants. i doubt that is the lesson le cirque wished to teach.
Timothy Flynn
January 13, 2009 2:56pm ET
You are 100% in the right, but I want to know why you gave a corked wine 84 points?
Rodger Callo
January 13, 2009 2:57pm ET
It is a sad world, one with far too many bitter and envious people in it. I too can not afford to drop $1100 on a bottle of wine Kevin, but I would never begrudge those who can.
David A Zajac
January 13, 2009 4:08pm ET
Kevin, love your post...but you may be in their shoes someday and you will understand better what its like to be taken on a very very expensive bottle of wine. I have had that happen at auction before, very disappointing, but --it happens!
Kevin Smith
January 13, 2009 5:29pm ET
Rodger,It's their money, they've earned it and are free to spend it however they wish. My point was this: if someone has the kind of disposable income that allows them to go to Las Vegas, have their room comped, and order a wine that costs $1,100, and that wine is questionable, I'm not going to be terribly sympathetic. I'm not envious of anyone's success, or bitter about anything other than the rising cost of my college tuition. Maybe this might help you understand why a controversy about an expensive bottle of wine strikes me as somewhat trivial.
Brad Baker
Vancouver Canada —  January 13, 2009 6:17pm ET
That $1100 bottle is gonna cost them $$ multiples of that in bad publicity. I am heading to the Bellagio at the end of the month for superbowl. A friend recommended we go to Le Cirque, but I will now Strongly suggest we don't. It's the principle of the matter. Good for you James for not throwing your name around. The attitude of whats right for me is right for everyone, is much appreciated in this day in age.
Kevin Smith
January 13, 2009 6:20pm ET
David, a very valid point. Hopefully someday I will be in their shoes! Cheers, and thanks!
Jeffrey Alle Cassetta
Ada, MI —  January 13, 2009 6:40pm ET
James, how can anybody ITB not know who you are? If he did, can you imagine how the "regular Joe" would have been treated...?
Joshua Kates
January 13, 2009 8:59pm ET
I was recently in Michael Mina in SF and had a 2000 Ponsot Morey St Denis, which was really disappointing--if not corked, than just bad. As I had consulted with the sommelier, Rajat Parr, beforehand, he graciously subsisted the other wine that had interested me (Gros Vosne-Romanee), though he did substitute the '06 for the '05. This, despite the insistence of the server, who had tasted it, that the wine was merely 'soft.' This was a case where the sommelier consultation "paid off"; of course, these wines cost nowhere near the amount in question here.
Gil Lempert-schwarz
Vegas Baby —  January 13, 2009 9:44pm ET
Actually, this is a little crazy. Picasso does not have two Master Sommeliers; there's only one and his name is Robert Smith. Had he tasted this wine, he would have immediately agreed that it was corked; no doubt. Problem is, you got taken...and god help I know who @ Le Cirque when Mario M. finds out about this...a guy over at Guy Savoy got fired for less, and this is not the time to pull tricks on the customers, especially at that comp level...jeez I am ashamed on behalf of our city and Bellagio; it is very out of character for them...and you know that I would know...next time call the cavalery...
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  January 13, 2009 10:12pm ET
I know my comments will be received with a healthy degree of skepticism, but I assure you that what I'm about to say is 100% truth. I have an acquaintance who actually LIKES corked wines. Once with a zinfandel at a private party and once with a red spanish blend in a restaurant this friend told me he thought both were "real nice".

My OPINION is that many people can't tell the difference, and it is my BELIEF that stores and restaurants actually cater to people who CAN'T tell the difference. Why? They won't send the bottle back. Less hassle. Let me also state that the manager of a certain local wine shop resents it when I bring back a bottle for exchange. (contrast with Ed Fryer, above, whom I wish I lived locally to...)

It's a loathsome attitude to be sure, but I'm recently convinced that those of us with "educated palates" are actually persona non grata, in cases such as these. But the winery, in the end, should be the one to bear the cost.
Rodger Callo
January 13, 2009 10:28pm ET
Kevin, this is not the place to get into a back and forth with you. It is however a wine blog, a perfect place to let others know about the level of service a sommelier gave. If it was your bottle, no matter what you paid, which was in question, I doubt that you would think this to be trivial. I for one am glad to see Mr Suckling name names when he receives sub-par service. As others have stated, if he can't get good wine service where does that leave the rest of us?
Justin Mcauliffe
Vancouver, Canada —  January 14, 2009 12:17am ET
While I agree the sommelier could have handled his esteemed guests with greater tact, one cannot overlook his personal opinion that the bottle was in fact sound, and further supported by the opinion of his colleagues. He wouldn't have anything to gain by refusing to take the bottle back, it probably cost the multimillion dollar restaurant a couple of hundred at the most, and could easily be returned for at least cost. I think the issue is that he refused to be bullied by his guests and he stuck to his guns. Sommeliers and especially Master Sommeliers train incredibly hard to discern faulted wines, and it is arrogant to think that the wine expert at a place like Le Cirque and 2 masters can't detect what James Suckling can. If the wine is corked, fine, take it back. But sommeliers shouldn't post pictures and live in fear of the almighty wine spectator critic, as some blogs suggested.
Peter Steinke
Woodinville, —  January 14, 2009 12:53am ET
James, thanks for sharing. I believe anyone who loves fine wine and dining has had a similar event where the sommelier just "doesn't get it". It actually eases the frustration for us "nobodies" knowing it can happen to the experts. I understand they sometimes have people send back a perfectly good bottle for "show" or because they just don't like it, but does that happen very often? When you make it clear that you are very familiar with the region, varietal, winery, vintage, etc. and they refuse to admit it is flawed is amazing. We had a restaurant for which we gave rave reviews to everyone we knew for 5-6 years. After my worst experience with a sommelier to date we now have given scathing reviews for 2-3 years. Fortunately this is rare and a pleasant experience is far more common than a bad one.
Lorenzo Erlic
victoria canada —  January 14, 2009 6:55am ET
Wow; James, you really ARE the Wolf Blitzer of the wine world indeed... My thanks go out to those who understand all aspects of the ramifications given this and other similar situations. Let me reiterate the point at hand: Who knows best which wine to serve with the meal YOU are about to receive... as for me I put my money and experience on ME. This is not arrogance; it is a cultivated understanding of my tastebuds, palate and memory that serves me and my trusting guests very well, as close to bang on as anyone can get. I am free of lances, thus empowered to speak freely on something I passionately care about.
Kevin Smith
January 14, 2009 12:22pm ET
Rodger, Rodger, Rodger...I'm well aware this is a wine blog...why else do you think I'm "wining?" ;)
Rodger Callo
January 14, 2009 4:18pm ET
Kevin, touche.
Steve Lenzo
PHX, AZ —  January 14, 2009 9:42pm ET
Man. I would love to know what the talk is around Le Cirque is these days. They can't be happy about this bad press.

And yes, if your a Somm at a world class restaurant like this, and you don't reconize Suckling then you know nothing about wine to begin with becuase he must not be paying attention
Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  January 15, 2009 12:06pm ET
The picture of JS on this blog doesn't really look like today, per some of his videos. So if the only vision of JS's appearance is that of his current picture posting, I can understand the somms not recognizing him. Second, this has been blogged before. JL claims to be able to detect cork taint to 2 ppt. He says that 1 in 7 bottles submitted for review are tainted. This way surpasses anything most of we wine lovers see or recognize. Perhaps Justin, above, has a point. Maybe JS's finely honed tastes are far more acute at picking up cork taint and the restaurant somms couldn't find it. I'm sure if the two James went through my cellar they will find far more tainted bottles than I could. So the real question here is, that if any patron walks in and cries cork taint, is the restaurant obliged to pitch the bottle, even if their somms says it isn't so. I guess to that question there may be a multitude of answers, especially if they charge $1100 for the bottle.
James Suckling
 —  January 15, 2009 12:27pm ET
Nice try Sandy! The other people at the table during the meal at Le Cirque were more upset about the corkiness than I was. And they clearly found it.
Roberto Scarpati
New York —  January 15, 2009 12:57pm ET
James, Absurd but true, election day in November '08 my apartment got broken in to and I kept a few bottle of sassicaia in my Eurocave from various vintages including 1988. In September for my Birthday I opened a bottle of '88 and 90 with two of NYC best Sommelier and a couple of other friends. The bottle of 88 was really bad, not only corked but stinky and the fruit profile gone. The point I was making is that it makes me feel better to know that I was not the only one that had this issue with '88 vintage ( it was the 2nd bottle I opened that was bad ) I unfortunately lost several bottle of Sassicaia in the robbery including 90-97-98 and 2 bottle of yes the legendary 85. However I believe that it is possible that 1988 bottling had some serious problem, but, paying what we are paying for Tenuta San Guido wines, the winery should carefully in buying better corks product. My family lives only 1 hour from Bolgheri, maybe next time I visit I should go check in person at the winery what 88 taste like.
James Suckling
 —  January 15, 2009 1:03pm ET
Roberto. Sad story all around. Let's hope the robbers got corked bottles! The problem with old bottles of Sass is that you don't know how they have been stored. Old Italian wines are often stored badly. I wish I could share a good bottle of 1988 with you.
Dennis D Bishop
Shelby Twp., MI, USA —  January 15, 2009 1:27pm ET
I guess it just goes to show - even the best restaurant guests are exposed to bad service, just like the rest of us common folks. But it sure is nice to have the power to get back at them when they mess up! WTG James!!! The battle was won but the war has been lost.
James Suckling
 —  January 15, 2009 1:30pm ET
LOL. Thanks Dennis. So true about the war lost. But we will fight on!
Richard Hawkins
Akron, Ohio —  January 15, 2009 3:20pm ET
Wrong restaurant, Valentino or bust, man is that place good. Le Cirque is a ghost town half the time. Who's James Suckling, can I get a card?
Matthew Weiler
Los Angeles, CA —  January 15, 2009 3:41pm ET
If Le Cirque had a policy of not replacing corked bottles of rare and expensive wines, this should have been made explicit. Attempting to bully your table into taking the wine by saying that two other "master somms." had vetted the wine was a classless move (by the way, James, I would call the other somms, just for the sake of morbid curiosity regarding the wine, and the integrity of the Le Cirque somm--maybe this wine was one that reasonable minds coulds disagree on?). In my opinion, the only way to justify a (roughly) three times mark-up in the value of the wine is to say that Le Cirque bears the overhead costs, including the risk that the wine will be flawed. Some of the better restaurants in SF have lower mark-ups on expensive and rare bottles, and in that case I think it is reasonable to operate under the assumption of caveat emptor. Of course, it is better that this policy is made explicit, for the sake of transparency, rather than implied by the prices. [I chalk your experience up to the general knavery of Vegas, a haven for all things in bad taste.]
Colin Haggerty
La Jolla, California —  January 15, 2009 4:44pm ET
Nothing like drumming up business by insulting customers who are willing to pay for their highly overpriced wine! In general, I hate the fact that we are in a severe recession and many fine restaurants will undoubtedly be forced to close. Rip-off joints like Le Cirque, however, will have me crying crocodile tears on the day that the doors are boarded up.
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst Illinois —  January 15, 2009 5:00pm ET
This is a great blog as it touches on a lot of different issues. The corkiness issue may be the most tricky. As a Wine Director for a chain of stores in the Chicago area, I frequently attend trade tastings. On more than one occaision, I have encountered a corked bottle which was already half poured. In other words, not only the representative for the wine, but also a number of knowledgeable tasters all presumably missed the corkiness. I once immediately followed Wine Spectator's Thomas Matthews at the Catena Zapata Malbec table of the Grand Tasting event, only to find a corked bottle he had missed--the second bottle was corked too--only the third bottle was sound.

The point is not that I have such a superior palate, I don't--others have pointed out corked bottles that I did not catch--but subjective and psychological factors seem to come into play.

The best solution? Get rid of the corks!!!!!!!

Tom Benezra
Thomas Matthews
January 15, 2009 5:06pm ET
Hey Vince/Tom! If you're so sure that it was me at that tasting, and that we tasted the same bottle, and that the Catena was corked, why didn't you say something then? Friends don't let friends drink corked wine!
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst Illinois —  January 16, 2009 1:06am ET
Thomas, thanks for the offer of friendship, nice to hear from you We haven't met, so I wasn't sure it was you as I saw you only from behind at the tasting. However, the fellow pouring the wine at that table happened to be our stores' sales rep (I was with a different company at the time), and he was giving me a hard time for insisting the wine was corked. It was he who pointed out to me that Thomas Matthews had just tasted the wine without incident. Admittedly, I've told the story a few times as it makes a powerful example, but am usually pretty low key so I don't go around blabbing it to everyone (just a few thousand Wine Spectator subscribers).Anyway, hope to catch up with you at the May tasting in Chicago? Tom (piggy-backing on the boss's subsription)
Peter Chang
Hong Kong —  January 16, 2009 8:53pm ET
I'm glad Sandy mentioned the point I wanted to make...how do you expect people ITB to recognize James if the picture he posts up here doesn't actually look like today's James?
James Suckling
 —  January 17, 2009 12:22pm ET
That's how I look. I just looked in the mirror to confirm...
Kirk R Grant
Bangor, Maine —  January 18, 2009 10:06am ET
User Name: James Suckling, Posted: 10:25 AM ET, January 12, 2009

Lorenzo. The restaurant would take the financial hit because it was the owner of the bottle. The sommelier should have replaced the bottle with a new one. I felt he was being slightly dishonest.

What you wrote above is the largest problem people have with trusting sommiliers. I've worked as a sommilier in the past and the owners were very harsh on my choices made when giving the customer the bennefit of the doubt. I remember a customer ordering a bottle of 2006 Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc wanting to try something other than Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio and not liking it. I took away the Kim Crawford and brought them back a bottle of the Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio to see that they got what they wanted. The owner appeared upset with me immediately. I put the remaining 3 glasses on "special" for the rest of the night and got double the cost of the Kim Crawford from selling those three glasses. It's a fine line sommiliers walk...and it is unfortunate that you had this experience.
Tom Hudson
Wilmington, Delaware —  January 18, 2009 9:11pm ET
James - perhaps you should cut and paste your comments as a review on the dining page of WS Awards of Excellence winners, of which Le Cirque is a Best of Excellence winner.Isn't that what this feature is for?http://www.winespectator.com/Wine/Dining/Restaurant_Awards/Restaurant_Profile/0,1246,4818,00.html
Bernard Kruithof
San Antonio, Texas —  January 19, 2009 1:27pm ET
As a professional restaurant manager for over 20 years now it is clear to me that a mistake was made by this sommelier. Wine and food in restaurants of this caliber are certainly open to individual customer taste. Trained professional hospitality people should understand that the reason we enjoy the price markups we do is to ensure quality of everything that the customer receives. When the customer doesn't think the wine or the steak is right-its real simple-replace and please the customer. The reason for the high price markup of wines is to ensure that older wines with problems can be replaced when wanted by the customer without breaking the restaurant profit. It was just a big mistake on the sommeliers part to think that he was right when in reality the customer is always right. More training, education and professionalism in the hospitality business in always needed and Mr. Sucklings case is a classic example
Lorenzo Erlic
victoria canada —  January 19, 2009 5:45pm ET
Thank you Mr. Grant for highlighting my thoughts about the sommelier and his standing with the management. Given today's economic climate was his job possibly in peril with that bottle's return without renumeration? Wow, what a drag. To Le Cirque: The bottom line may be something you may well regret descending to...
Aleksandar Jovanovic
January 22, 2009 10:27pm ET
I have experience of taking care of James Suckling in Emeril¿s Delmonico during a cigar tasting (James, it was a ¿comparo night¿ between Padron and some Cubans, I poured you some New Zealand Shubert Syrah just for kicks¿you probably don¿t remember). As one would expect he was a great gentleman at the table and any sommelier with a bit of experience would notice his grace and impeccable table manners all tellers of great experience and probably knowledge. Hence, even without knowing who venerable James is, one would expect a sommelier to recognize all this in first 30 seconds of the interaction and to realize that he is not being ¿played¿¿inexperienced ones are always afraid of it¿been there, done that¿so even if he didn¿t pick up the ¿corkines¿ he should have honored the guest¿s opinion and asked in which direction they would like to proceed¿new bottle, different vintage, different bottle¿people forget that they are in the SERVICE INDUSTRY and they are suppose to provide SERVICE. If they can not recognize a bully from an expert or at least an honest guest they are way too young or inexperienced for their position¿It will happen of course and it does happen¿that¿s why this long blog because I am fighting with it every day and this will continue. Note: you DON¿T have to pay for the bottle¿at the end of the day you will be right in any restaurant that cares. Of course for those of you that haven't noticed...all this was written while spending some quality time with 2001 Barbaresco Bric Turot Prunotto...great wine!!!

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