Restaurants have to take the bullet for their customers when it comes to corky bottles, no matter who's right or wrong.
A good example of the virtues of this approach came during a dinner at Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence, a Wine Spectator Grand Award winner and arguably the best restaurant in the city. All restaurants should use it an example.
There are few better wine restaurants in the world. Pinchiorri has more than 4,500 wines on its list and more than 140,000 bottles in its cellar. It also has three stars in the Michelin Guide.
A wine-merchant friend from Hong Kong, Paolo Pong, ordered a bottle of 1986 Domaine Leflaive Chevalier-Montrachet to start off the evening. We tasted it, and there was some reticence on the quality of the bottle. But none of us at the table thought it was bad enough to send back, even though the bottle cost nearly $600.
"I think it just needs some air," said Pong, looking a bit worried.
Another person at the table—also a wine merchant—said that the wine showed "that typical musty character that blows off within a few minutes."
I thought it was slightly corked, but I didn't want to make a big deal out of it.
"Could you please decant the wine?" Pong asked the wine waiter, hoping to give the wine the equivalent of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
We were talking for a while, and I noticed that the wine waiter had asked the owner of the restaurant, Giorgio Pinchiorri, to come over to the serving station and taste the wine. I saw them shaking their heads. A few moments later I saw one of the sommeliers come up from the cellar with another bottle of the white Burgundy and put it on ice.
"What are they doing?" Pong asked, looking confused and, again, worried. I think he might have suspected they were doing a bait and switch or something!
Pinchiorri walked over and said in Italian, "That [first] bottle is not right. It's just lightly corked, but we want to make sure that [your] bottle is in perfect condition."
He added that over the last week they had had a number of corked bottles from Leflaive. That wasn't normal for the producer, but they always exchanged them for a perfect bottle.
The new bottle was decanted after chilling slightly. And there was no comparison. It had amazing aromas of white floral, mineral, apple and vanilla character. It was full-bodied, with layers of fruit and loads of fresh acidity. It lasted for minutes on the palate. For me, it was one of the best white Burgundies I had had in a long time. I rated it 99 points at the dinner—close to a 1978 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Montrachet (100 points) that I drank a few months before.
Pong was a happy wine drinker, too. "I am really impressed," he said. "I have never seen a restaurant exchange an expensive bottle of wine, even though the customer never said that it was corked."
For me, that's the sign of a great wine restaurant. Customers come first—even if it means taking a bullet for a bad bottle.