Wine Opinion: when is it acceptable to send wine back?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 May, 2014, 9:39am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 May, 2014, 6:10pm

When should you send back wine in a restaurant? A recent article in Bon Appétit argues that it is acceptable to return wine under absolutely any circumstances.

Conventional wisdom says you can only send wine back if it's faulty or being served at the wrong temperature.

Written by sommelier David Lynch, the opinion piece says that it's the sommelier's fault if a customer has been served something that they don't like, so the restaurant should swallow the cost and replace the bottle. It's a sign of poor wine knowledge or training if staff can't adequately describe the wine they are selling. Lynch also believes that sommeliers should swallow their pride if customers want their wine served at the wrong temperature. Insisting on the correct temperature is just geekiness.

Not surprisingly, his comments have not been appreciated in the restaurant trade, where a returned bottle will dent profits. But is he right?

I like his attitude that the customer is always right, but ultimately he's wrong about the wine.

First of all, putting the customer first is not always the rule in Hong Kong. I have been told in the past that "the wine's supposed to taste like that" or "you're used to drinking that grape in a different style" when pointing out that the stuff in my glass is muck, to use the technical term.

If it's supposed to taste like that, why are you selling rubbish wine? If the grape has been made into wine in an unusual way, why didn't you explain that before selling me the glass?

Actually, this aspect of remedying a customer's complaint is very easy.

Recently, I was in a bar drinking the house wine. I grimaced when I took the first sip, the bar manager saw me, rushed over and with a gracious apology replaced the glass with one from a different bottle.

I have been back to this bar.

Presenting a customer with a bottle of faulty wine should be a very minor part of that customer's experience. If the bottle's replaced without fuss then it's probably an incident that will be forgotten. Compounding the error by having an argument is never going to bring repeat custom.

So I'm entirely with Lynch when he says "I'd argue with patrons over whether something was corked or faulty, and such interactions never worked out well".

I take issue with him when he says that if a customer wants their Chablis brain-freezingly cold then that's how they should get it. He doesn't seem to see the contradiction in wanting his customers to "think me a hero for having elevated their meal through my stellar beverage choices" and ruining their very expensive wine by not politely pointing out the correct temperature. He might be on thin ice in assuming that all restaurant staff know what that correct temperature is, particularly in Hong Kong. Serving whites too cold and reds too warm does no favours to the character of either but happens far too often here.

Sommeliers are supposed to have knowledge about their wine lists and should have assembled them based on that knowledge or with advice from suppliers to be able to steer their customers towards enjoying their wine.

It's not the role of the sommelier to wrap the customer in cotton wool. Life is inherently risky. If you take a risk on buying a bottle of wine and end up not liking it, you are just going to have to drink the consequences.