June 26, 2010 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
Last week, we began a look at an all too common problem for those of us who enjoy a good bottle of wine: Getting one from a store or restaurant that just doesn’t taste right, or which could smell like moldy cardboard, gym socks, and “have all the appeal of drinking nail polish remover,” as Seal Beach wine expert Abbe Rabenn describes damaged wines.
Her comments were echoed by wine educator Kevin Simon, with the Conrad Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management at the University of Houston. He has great sympathy for people who enjoy good wine and happen to live in “parts of the country where it can be summer six months of the year.”
“They’ve got a real problem, and that problem is the attitude of too many people in this industry who do indeed understand how fragile wine is, where and under what temperature conditions it should be stored, but they simply don’t care about the customer.
“Even with so much effort by wineries and distributors to educate retailers and restaurant owners on how to properly store wine, I am still amazed to find wine stored on window sills or in display cases with the sun beating down all day long. I have explained what sunlight and heat does to the wine — how it cooks it, and how that can never be reversed. Yet, when I return, nothing has changed,” Simon explained.
“You find restaurants that put wine on back bars, near refrigerators or bar equipment which vibrate and generates heat. A lot of home builders place wine racks underneath the cabinet above the refrigerator. Heat rising destroys the wine,” he added.
What the customer should do
“A customer does not have to accept wine which has been either cooked, corked, oxidized or over the hill.
“Cooked wine smells like over ripe fruit, almost burnt and will have an unpleasant taste, like burnt earth. Color can change, where reds look brown, and whites can look dark with brown stain. Corked wine smells like musty old books, wet cardboard, and when really bad, body odor or dirty sweat socks. This is the result of a bacteria called TCA which enters the wine through the cork.
“Oxidized wine has an off color and metallic taste. A faulty closure with too much oxygen invading the bottle is the reason. Over the hill wine is simply way too old — it should have been sold years earlier and will taste flat, no aroma.
“If any of these four issues are present, there is justification for sending the wine back. Any reputable restaurant with knowledgeable wine people there will recognize it is bad. They will know and should be apologetic,” he maintains.
You are not harming the retailer or restaurant
“Often, restaurant patrons or retail customers are either afraid to speak up, or worried that this will cause the business to lose money.
“But restaurants or retailers do not lose money on returned bottles. Product which is bad, unless caused by the retailer or restaurant, goes back to the distributor, and is either replaced or a credit is given,” Simon points out.
“It is important to realize that two things are in your favor when asking a waiter to bring you a different wine. First of all, even if the wine is OK, that bottle will be taken to the bar and sold by the glass, which brings far more profit to the establishment than single bottle sales. The restaurant can also use this bottle to help educate the staff to sell in the future.
“Secondly, it just shows that you are dealing with a responsible, professionally run business and you’ll probably be back.”
Both of the wine experts I spoke with wanted to underscore the importance of understanding the difference between wines objectively damaged or spoiled in some real way and those which we don’t like the taste of.
“Just because a wine wasn’t what you expected, this does not justify sending it back,” they stated.
Exceptions to the rule
So, does this mean that wherever I go, retailer or restaurant, that if I get a bad wine I can always send it back? No, not always.
There is one situation where it’s “buy at your own risk,” and even if it tastes like diesel fuel, it’s not going back and you’re going to pay the sticker price.
“Very old wines — special, rare collectibles — are typically sold without warranty, purchased with the full understanding of the risks involved. With these wines, the restaurant must make this clear on the menu, or wine list, in some prominent place.
“If they do, they’re off the hook,” wine professor Simon concluded.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.