Have you ever rejected a bottle of wine in a restaurant?I recently had the disquieting experience on two consecutive days, a coincidence that I hope never to repeat. On both occasions, I had the good fortune to be on firm enological ground. Both wines were whites with which I was familiar and both were beyond the pale. Literally. Their colors would have enhanced a sherry decanter.
The first was a 1976 vouvray. I knew I was taking a chance, but the Georgetown bistro, with delightful food, has a woefully limited wine list.The owner raised no objection to my complaint. I gather it merely confirmed his own dislike of Loire wines! I don't know why he allowed his wholesaler to supply a potentially over-the-hill wine.
The second was a 1978 vernaccia from Tuscany. This should have been in good condition, if not at its youthful best, but poor vinification or poor handling had hastened its senility.
Who is responsible for ensuring that a restaurant's wines are in good condition? In the current Washington situation, the wholesaler and the restaurateur. The wholesaler because, regrettably, few of our restaurants have really knowledgeable wine buyers and most rely on the advice of the wholesalers' representatives. Storage space is minimal and buying is done on a hand-to hand-basis. Therefore, it is in the interests of the wholesaler to deliver wine that is in good condition. If a restaurant does lay down wines for more than six months, it must be sure its storage facilities are cool and quiet and that those wines, when served, are sound.
As for us customers, when can we reject a wine? Firstly, try to persuade the waither to pour more than a dribble into the glass for approval. It's hard enought to judge a wine's color in a seductively lit restaurant, without having to tilt the glass precariously in order to smell the wine. The color and then the nose are crucial tests of a wine's condition.
If you are not sure whether the wine should be purple or mahogany, or whether it should smell of eucalyptus or crushed cloves, some diplomacy is recommended. Ask the advice of the most expert wine person on the restaurant's staff. Unless that person is fully confident of his own judgment, he should adopt a customer-is-always-right policy, without making the customer feel embarrassed. If he considers the wine to be fine, he might try a little polite education on its merits: perhaps it needs to breathe, or perhaps it will change character against food. However, if there's any doubt, he should remove the wine without argument. It's good public relations.
We customers have responsibilities, too. We cannot reject a wine because we have made a selection that doesn't suit our palates or the food, but is otherwise a sound bottle. And, by the way, a piece of cork in the glass does not mean that the wine is "corked" or even "corky." The former term describes a bad, completely oxidized smell, and the latter, the smell of a poor cork that could cause the wine to become corked.
Once you've turned down a bottle, do you risk another bottle of the same wine? If it's a white, probably not. The remaining stock could be in the same condition. If it's a red, there could be a bottle variation and a second attempt may be more successful. However, if it's a very mature, expensive wine, the restaurant may not be anxious to test another bottle!
Finally, a cautionary tale. A friend tells me that, some time before the wine's popularity, he ordered a bottle of Mateus Rose in a London club. Knowing no better, he was alarmed by its petillance -- that is, its sparkle -- and sent it back. The second bottle was exactly the same. Finally, the senior wine steward came to the rescue. My friend's face was as rosy as the wine.