This is a question that gets to the heart of the issue of "the customer is always right." As a general policy, most restaurants will politely take back the bottle of wine which the customer rejected, without any issues being raised, and will most likely have their distributor salesperson replace the rejected bottle. That is in most cases, but not all cases.
What happens when the prized bottle of rare Nuits St. Georges, on the wine list for $550 that was bought at an auction is rejected? What is the proper course of action here?
Before we get into the restaurant's course of action, there is some vital background information about that bottle, and how it arrived to the restaurant. The wine industry is commonly referred to as a three tier system before the bottle of wine is in the hands of the consumer. Those tiers; the producer, the distributor, and then the store or restaurant that finally sell the bottle to the consumer, are the most common path.
There are many variations and added layers to this system, including the internet, but three tiers is the common path. Each state has their own set of laws, and those laws vary. Additionally, some distributors are importers, and added layer, and there are some specific regions such as Bordeaux, which come into the market with, in many cases, middlemen selling and re-selling the product.
You might be asking, "What does this have to do with the bottle of wine I didn't like?" Well, in reality, because wine is a living organism, the way it is handled has a great deal to do with the health of the product when it arrives at your table. So, the amount of people who handle it, as well as the way they handle it, has a lot to do with the health of the bottle when it arrives to your table.
So, the travel of the bottle can often reveal possibilities of potential problems, or they could also show great care to prevent those problems. The winery, where the wine was created, will often have a cellaring area, where the wine is temporarily stored. The next stop along the journey might be a local warehouse that is equipped for the storage of wine.
Now the real travel begins. If the wine is from another country, the wine will probably travel by truck to a consolidation area where wine from multiple regions of that country will be put together onto a container, to be shipped to a port in the United States. The time of year has a lot to do with a possibility of a problem.
The extreme heat of the summer is a big problem for the health of the wine; as is the extreme cold of the winter. There are occasional dock worker strikes, which would leave the container untouched until its conclusion. These strikes happen on both sides of the water. There are delayed inspections of ships for security reasons, and as I'm sure you can understand, there is a bit of Murphy's Law at play. Still, if everything goes right, and the weather cooperates, the wine will only have been jostled and bounced, but be able to recover in about a month's time to a perfectly good bottle of wine.
For domestic hauling, the rails are the preferred method of transportation. Again, the time of year, and the weather conditions have a lot to do with possible damage that can occur. Most conscientious producers and distributors make their best attempts to ship during the spring and fall. There are extra precautions that shippers of very fine wine take, such as temperature controlled reefers which maintain a steady optimum temperature during the time in these containers. They are more costly, and are most likely to be used for more expensive wine. Most producers of inexpensive wine could not, or would not bother to pay the extra expense.
Eric Vogt, a Boston based business man has a device using the principles of a radio frequency, to track the path of a bottle and case of wine, and record the temperatures they have traveled through. This, needless to say, would cause great upheaval in the current system, and is just being implemented.
So, back to the journey: The wine from overseas has arrived at a US port, and must go through customs, various inspections, etc... They can be held up for days or weeks at the docks. They then are transferred to trucks, and transported to a general warehouse, an importer's warehouse, or a distributor's warehouse; where most often they are immediately taken to market to sell.
Domestic wines are either trucked to the same warehouses, or delivered by rail. Although considerably quicker than the overseas experience, extreme weather conditions are a very likely scenario.
The wines; both imported and domestic are now in their marketplace. Salespeople sell the items to stores and restaurants, and the shipments to the restaurants begin. Some of these warehouses show concern for the care of the product, and in some, the conditions are not very good. The wines are trucked to the various restaurants, hotels, catering halls, and stores, where they store the merchandise for the customer.
Let's sum up the travel of an imported wine before it arrives to your table. Made in XYZ country, stored in the cellar, moved to a warehouse, trucked to a consolidation warehouse, put on a container to travel by ship, trucked to the port city where it will be shipped from, ship journey, delay at the US docks, transfer to importer warehouse, shipment to distributor warehouse, delivery to store or restaurant, and then sold to the public. I have not even begun to talk about the storage conditions of most urban restaurants. By now, it must seem pretty obvious there is real possibility that something could be wrong with a wine, which brings us back to the initial question;
"When is it okay to refuse a bottle of wine?"
Much of the ritual that appears so formal and unnecessary when the wait-staff brings a bottle to the table actually has a purpose. If it is a cork enclosed bottle, as the waitperson is removing the cork from the bottle, are they having any problems? Was the cork protruding into the capsule? Are there any stains from wine seeping through the cork, and down the sides of the bottle? Is the fill of wine in the bottle at a normal height for the age of the wine? (Older wines tend to lose a fraction of their volume) When the cork is presented at the table, rather than sniff it (It smells like cork) feel the cork to feel if it is crumbly, or wet. A healthy sign would be for the cork to be slightly damp at the bottom.
Any of these questions, if the answer is yes, there is a visual indication that something might be wrong. Further visual inspection is when the waitperson pours the taste of wine, does it look as it should. Is the wine clear? Is the rim of the liquid clear or brown? Clear is a sign of health in most cases. Older wines tend to have a browner rim, and that is normal. Is the color a young Merlot should be? Is it the color Chianti should be, etc...
If the color is different than other times you have drank a similar wine, there is another possibility that something might be wrong. Next comes the most important step. Smelling the wine will confirm any of the visual evidence you have gathered. If the smell is very unpleasant; like rotten eggs, or moldy cork; stop the process right there and ask the server to get a manager. Explain your findings, and ask to see the wine list again. The restaurant should happily take back the damaged bottle, and start again. That does not apply to people who drink half a bottle to two thirds of a bottle to then decide they would prefer Pinot Noir to Merlot.
The last test is to taste the wine. Sometimes everything else seems okay, yet there are off flavors.
Tasting, in this case is the only way to know. Several indications of a wine that would be "off" would be have interference of pure clean flavor, or corky flavors mixed in. The Stelvin closure, or screw-cap, has been a very positive new development that has led to the elimination of "corked" wines. Generally, with the exception of traditionalists, the reception to these closures by the trade is very positive. This doesn't mean the wines cannot be affected by faulty winemaking or factors of weather conditions, but one factor, a cheap or faulty cork has been removed as a possible fault to the wine.
As for the situation of the $550 Nuits St. Georges, well, most restaurants that carry expensive wines on their list have some type of disclaimer on the list. Something to the effect of "Let the buyer beware." Yet, as painful as it is for the restaurant to swallow, if they serve a bottle no matter what the price is, it seems as though they should have a moral responsibility to stand behind the products they sell. I guess, in the end,
"The customer IS always right."
(Permission from Dish du Jour)