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Corked Off

Wednesday, August 18, 2004; Page F07

My recent column on how restaurants should deal with spoiled or corked bottles of wine generated an unusually large number of questions and comments -- some laudatory, others accusatory, but all interesting. Apparently, a great many folks have strong feelings about the way wine is sold and served in restaurants.

To recapitulate, my proposal is that restaurants should go beyond the prevailing practice of merely replacing a bad bottle of wine with another bottle of the same wine, or one of equal value. Instead, I propose that if a patron discovers a bad bottle of wine, both the original bottle and its replacement should be free. I call my proposal "Make Them Pay." Here is a representative sample of the responses, edited in some cases for reasons of space:

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You obviously have not thought this through. If restaurants adopted this policy, what would stop people from coming in, tasting a wine and arbitrarily saying it's flawed and then getting a free bottle of wine? I order bottles of wine every time I go out to eat, and that is at least several times a week, and I have only oncereceived a bad bottle of wine. And I didn't have to pay for it. I got a different bottle. Big deal.

-- Michele, via e-mail

With all due respect, you are precisely the person who would benefit from my policy. The industry estimate is that anywhere from 5 to 10 percent of all bottles are corked. I put the number at about 3 percent. Even at my lower number, it is likely that you have been drinking corked wine without realizing it.

Regarding your first point, I have to ask, which is worse: Customers falsely claiming bad wine, which I don't think will happen much or at all (basically, it's stealing, which most people don't do) or the huge number of corked bottles that dining patrons are now unwittingly consuming, to the detriment of themselves and the chef's food? Maybe I'm naive, but to me it's a no-brainer.

Recently, our waiter had difficulty removing the cork from the bottle we ordered, which resulted in tiny pieces of cork floating in our glasses. Is this what you mean by corked? Should we have asked for another bottle?

-- A reader in Washington

Definitely not. The terminology is a bit confusing, but "corked" refers to cork taint, not to the little bits of cork that sometimes get in a wine if a cork crumbles. Cork taint is thought to be caused by a harmless but awful-tasting mold in cork bark. The cork industry has been trying to solve this problem through improved inspection and manufacturing processes, but eliminating corkiness is apparently easier said than done. By contrast, bits of cork floating in the glass are a minor annoyance, and you did the right thing by not making a fuss over it. If most consumers are like you -- and I think they are -- restaurants will not have to deal with a significant number of trivial complaints.

To suggest that a restaurant should replace a flawed bottle with a fresh bottle is only common courtesy; however, to suggest we shouldn't charge for the pristine bottle that is brought as a replacement is rude and mean-spirited. I will gladly take back any flawed wine and will also happily remove a wine that simply doesn't satisfy you and bring you one that does; but if you drink it, you're obliged to pay for it. At Nora's, we don't offer the services of a sommelier; instead we opt to have our staff taste as many of the wines on our list as possible. Among us, we know all of them intimately. Please don't encourage people to start throwing little fits about not paying for what they consume.

-- Andrew Myers, Restaurant Nora, Washington

Granted, the staff at Nora is quite wine knowledgeable. But that's no substitute for a professional sommelier. Sure, your staff can recommend good wines. But that is only half of a sommelier's job. What about the other half -- making sure that every bottle is sound by tasting a small sample first? Unless your staff does this, which it apparently does not, it is certain that some of your customers are being served corked wines and equally certain that some are consuming it.

Might I suggest two additional options? 1) Stelvin Closures (screw tops) and other alternative closures. Your premise is that restaurants should take all of the risk of the bad bottle of wine, when the culprit most often is cork taint. The problem is the product. You certainly wouldn't buy meat from a butcher shop if every time you brought home a steak you had a one in ten chance of it being spoiled. Yet winemakers play Russian roulette every time they use a cork.

2) Realistic wine pricing. Certainly, when a restaurant charges more than three times wholesale prices, a sommelier on duty or a replacement bottle policy makes sense.

However, some restaurants are beginning to realize that charging prices close to those of retail wine shops allows for more movement of all wines, especially the higher-tier wines. This allows my patrons to experiment and try wines they have never had the freedom (or a comfortable risk level) to explore. While I agree that as restaurateurs we have the primary responsibility of ensuring the highest quality service for guests, we all share some risk together.

-- Jerry Wright, co-owner Great American Land and Cattle Company restaurant, Albuquerque

You raise a fair point. The traditional restaurant markup (three times the wholesale cost) was developed in the days when better restaurants routinely employed sommeliers, when the wines they were serving had been aged in their cellars at considerable capital expense to them and when the full cost of replacing a spoiled bottle fell on the restaurant.

With few exceptions, none of these conditions prevail today. Sommeliers, unfortunately, are a rarity, and many restaurants serve wines that were offloaded from the wholesaler's truck a week or a month ago -- not years ago. Moreover, wholesalers routinely replace corked or spoiled bottles at no charge to the restaurant.

Given this, it takes a lot of audacity to claim that, to stay in business, a restaurant has to charge $45 for wine for which it paid $15. I simply don't accept this. I would, however, buy more and better wine at your restaurant, or any restaurant, that charged prices comparable to those of retail wine shops, which average 1 1/2 times wholesale cost (e.g., $22 to $23 versus $45 for a bottle that cost $15 wholesale). I don't expect all or most restaurants to adopt this lower-markup policy, but I wouldn't expect those that did to adopt my free replacement policy; because some risk sharing would be in order, as you suggest.

With regard to screw tops, there is no doubt that they eliminate the problem of corkiness. While I personally am not ready to trust them for long-term aging, they are a great idea for restaurants, which typically turn over their stock quickly. The question is whether diners will accept them. Although a number of excellent wines are now bottled in screw tops, most consumers associate them with cheap swill. Fair or not, that is a fact. And at the risk of sounding a bit self-indulgent, having a waiter or sommelier perform the uncorking ritual for me is a luxury I still enjoy.


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