Bad Wine, Big Ego, Poor Attitude

Winebad I'm smart enough to know that the customer is not always right. After all, I'm a customer. However, the customer is always accommodated. Twice now, in a very short span of time, I've been correctly accommodated by a restaurant that served me bad wine, but in the process there was an intimation that the wine was not "bad", just not preferred by me.

This blog post is about ego.

My ego.

This past weekend, while getting together with friends I'd not seen in 20 years, I encountered a very familiar situation: "You're in the wine business, would you order me a red wine, please," I was asked by a friend who in High School often shared a "Jack and Coke" with me. A couple others who similarly observed up close my drinking habits in high school ask the same of me.

I like being given this opportunity. I get to show off, plus I get to introduce folks to things they probably haven't tasted.

In any case, the order for a Sonoma Valley Zin was taken when not moments later the server returned to inform us that they had another Zin that they thought was better that they are featuring in the restaurant by the glass at a good price. My old friends said, "no, will go with the recommended wine, thank you." Gotta love old friends.

The server returned about five minutes later to inform the table, "I'm sorry, we are out of the wine you ordered. But we do have another Zin that I think is better and we are featuring."

Whatever, bring us this other Zin.

The wine that was brought to the table was so clearly "cooked" it could not be mistaken for anything else. I was drinking a Manhattan, so I didn't know this until an old high school girlfriend pushed the wine at me and said, "Taste this."

Curious, I smelled it first. A little off. But when I tasted it, it gave off that tell tale sign of extreme prunniness combined with hints of oxidation. This wine had sat either in the sun or in the back of a very hot delivery vehicle.

I grimmaced, picked up the three glasses of the place's "featured" wine and returned with them to the bar:

"Hi, I'm sorry but this wine is bad. I wonder if we we might have it replaced by the Syrah on the menu".

The man behind the bar looked at the wine, then me, then smiled and said, "We don't want you to have to drink a wine you you don't like."

That should have been the end of it. But damn it, the ego kicked in.

"Actually, it's not that we don't like the wine. The wine is actually bad."

"This is the wine we are featuring, sir," said the man behind the bar.

"Yes, I know. But if you taste it I think you'll find the wine is cooked. It's undrinkable."

"I've been serving this wine all night to a number of customers," he said.

This is when the ego kicked in and my impatience became apparent.

"Yes, I'm sure you have, but you shouldn't. This wine is undrinkable. It's cooked. It's been exposed to way too high of temperatures either here or on the truck it came in or at the distributorship. Either way, it shouldn't be served to anyone."

"Sir, I understand you don't like the wine, I'm happy to get you another selection."

And I should have just taken the wine and walked away, right?

"Thank you, I appreciate it. But really think you should taste this wine, memorize its characteristics and never let a similar wine be served again."

There are a couple things going on here.

1. I shouldn't care nearly as much as I did that my palate was validated by a guy who wasn't even alive when I started drinking wine.

2. I should have been wary of a "featured wine" that I'd not heard of before and that was only $4 a glass.

3. I'd bet all the money in my Paypal account that either the distributor who sold the restaurant the wine or the restaurant or both knew this wine was bad, but decided to find an audience they thought they could unload it to.

Of course the restaurant did the right thing and did replace the wine without charge. I was accommodated. But, I was also right about the wine. Very right. In fact, unmistakably right. Yet, I was made to feel that I didn't know what I was talking about. That pissed me off. I'm not right about a whole lot of things, so when I know I am, well, I like to roll around in it awhile. That's the ego talking. But what's worse than a customer with an ego is an establishment defending a poor choice with a bad attitude.



28 Responses

  1. Samantha Dugan - April 11, 2011

    Right on Tom! you have every right to be cheesed off, I would be too. I’ve had this happen a few times and I get way irked…especially when the server gives the wine list to my husband (who hands it right over to me) comes back to take HIS order for the wine even though I am the one with the list and then pours HIM the tasting pour, (that he will again slide over to me)and I’m treated like I know nothing when I tell them the wine is off.
    This exact thing has happened a couple times and I loathe having to either pull out my business card or resort to, “Look, I’ve been in the wine business for 15 years” but my ego will not stand for being treated like that. I didn’t say I didn’t like the wine, I said the bottle was bad you twit. I even had one jackhole pour me another glass of wine from the same bottle after I sent a wine by the glass back because it was corked. “Yeah, still corked kid, you’re gonna have to open a new one” grumble….

  2. Marcia - April 11, 2011

    Since Samantha’s comment is above, I’ll address her point first. Idiot server! I’ll bet you don’t return to that establishment. A good server will refocus the wine ordering if the list has been moved (by a guest) to someone else at the table. To repeatedly return to the sole male at the table when he’s clearly not managing the wine selection and tasting is…stupid!
    Tom, I gather you’ve let your temper quiet down quite a bit before writing, given the argument the bartender put up with you! You did your friends quite a good service however!

  3. Samantha Dugan - April 11, 2011

    Not a chance in hell I would return to either of the places that did that. Never.

  4. Renee - April 11, 2011

    Thanks for putting a smile on my face today with that post! Great commentary about yourself and the resturant business itself!

  5. Debbie Gioquindo - April 11, 2011

    I had a similar situation happen at a local restaurant. They didn’t want to take the wine back, but did. Later during our meal the server came over to us and said “Yes, the bartender did taste the wine and it was indeed bad.”
    One shouldn’t have to defend themselves when served a wine that has been oxidized, cooked or what have you.

  6. Dennis Schaefer - April 11, 2011

    Then there’s always the infamous reply: “But sir, no one else has complained about this wine and I’ve been pouring it all night. You’re the first.” (and therefore, you’re an idiot and don’t know what you’re talking about).

  7. Brian - April 11, 2011

    I see no problem with your reaction. The problem was their reaction. They could have (and should have) apologized and just replaced it with something else. At the very least call the manager or sommelier over and let him deal with your problem. I’ve spent a lot of time in the hospitality industry and as much I might disagree with a guests assessment I would never question that assessment.

  8. Anatoli Levine - April 11, 2011

    This sounds very very familiar – I had being in a similar situation a few times, and was unable to convince the folks on the other side that the wine is simply bad, has nothing to do with my liking.
    At the same time, I would like to note that many people will either accept the wine because they simply don’t care, and some will be too shy to say anything. This is changing, but slowly.

  9. King Krak, I Smell the Stench - April 12, 2011

    Tom, I could not be that nice in this situation.

  10. Lewis Perdue - April 12, 2011

    One more reason why people order beer or a mixed drink instead of wine.
    And me? I’d name the restaurant AND the asshat who “server” you.

  11. Matthew - April 12, 2011

    I read all of the comments that in way or another say “I won’t go back there.” I hope everyone that has made such a comment has posted such experiences on one of the restaurant review websites, such as Yelp.
    If an establishment is not good enough for you to return to, don’t you think others would like to know this, and avoid wasting their money and their evening?
    Of course positive reviews are just as important.

  12. daniel sweeney - April 12, 2011

    this reminds me of an “ego incident” that i was a part of recently at a wine expo… i was lined up along a tasting table, myself and two (very nicely dressed) couples. the server was very gracious and hospitable, going on at length about each wine. about four or five wines into the tasting i recognized a distinct smell that i’m trained to recognize (cork taint) and blurted out, “that’s corked” without thinking. the server was a bit taken aback… he smelled the wine from the bottle and told me that it was most certainly alright (meaning that the wine was fine) and offered me a fresh pour. at that point i had to walk away, both out of embarrassment and to keep myself from ruining the other taster’s experience by coming across as a know-it-all. that said, even though i know and admire both the winemaker and winery i will not buy any of their wines in the future.
    the lessons are that servers should assume that the customer knows what they are talking about, treat them as such, and that employers should be vigilant regarding staff training. also that the time we spend developing our palates seems to develop the ego along with it.

  13. Andrea - April 12, 2011

    your mistake was not asking to see the manager…the “guy behind the bar” was just that… a guy behind the bar. Making a decision about pulling a product that the company paid for is way beyond his pay grade. Maybe he brought it to the attention of the manager, maybe he didn’t. You should have. Or let go of your ego, out of respect for spending quality time with your friends, and perhaps contacted the restaurant the next day to discuss the situation.

  14. SanFranSomm - April 12, 2011

    While your frustration is completely understandable, I agree that you handled this incorrectly.
    Get the manager. Don’t insult the “bar guy” because your infallable palate has proclaimed the wine unfit for the masses. Whether you’re right or not, check your ego and save the soap boxing for the guy who is responsible for this travesty: The manager.
    I have no doubt that you were right about the wine being unservable. It was also handled poorly by the bartender. However, it’s the manager’s job to educate his staff on wine service. Take it out on him.

  15. SonomaWinemaker - April 12, 2011

    Hey SanFranSomm, I agree with you at least that this an issue for the manager. But the barguy was out of line. You gotta learn, especially when your restaurant is in wine country, to spot the guys who can teach you a thing or two. Winemakers like us walk into restaurants every day, and most winemakers can teach most sommeliers (and damn near every bartender) a thing or two about wine flaws, and critical winetasting in general.

  16. ML - April 12, 2011

    The only dangerous flipside of this issue is the industry person with the overly-sensitive palate who is able to create problems when none exist. A buyer from a restaurant in Sacramento visits our Oakville winery twice a year, always with 2-5 bottles of our wine that he’s opened AT HOME and that his wife has found to be corked. We always replace the bottles, no problem and thank you for bringing it to our attention, but here’s the problem: the bottles aren’t corked. Not one. They’ve all been sitting open for a while, but no one on staff (winemakers – that’s me – included) can identify any TCA taint whatsoever. So how do we tell our friend the buyer, whose restaurant represents a good number of cases a year, that his wife is overthinking the corked wine issue?

  17. Jeff - April 12, 2011

    I would have done the same thing, Tom. I really don’t see it as ego, I see it more as a wine professional who CARES about what people are drinking and HOW they are going to experience wine. Some for the first time. That cooked wine can completely turn someone off of Zin. What a shame. It’s a major problem in the service industry; improper storage, clunky stemware, dead wine, and honestly, staff and management that don’t care or just don’t know. I bet the sales rep made out like a bandit.
    I would have talked to the manager AND the person that bought that wine and thought it was OK to serve it. Then asked who the heck sold this to them.

  18. Joe - April 13, 2011

    First, its wine, not laced Red bull and vodka. The restaurant did the correct thing by replacing the wine with your next choice.
    Second, if you want a quality wine, why are you buying a $4 glass, what do you expect!
    I also get annoyed with the lack of knowledge of wine by restaurants, tasting room staff and all others who are in roles that suggest they should know something about wine. But, is it worth being upset when you are with friends you haven’t seen in 30 years. I wonder what they are thinking, geez he is making a scene.
    Just because you know a thing or 2 about wine, doesn’t give you a license to demand the recall of a particular wine-by-the-glass. The restaurant probably didn’t pay much more than $4 a bottle to begin with. Would it be as commendable if a similar response came against a glass of Carlo Rossi?

  19. Joel Goldberg - April 13, 2011

    It isn’t customer service to “accommodate” your customer while simultaneously implying he’s an idiot. You should have talked to the manager and, if the manager didn’t care or had the same attitude, you should have outed the restaurant.
    But ML makes an excellent point; some expert (or excessively fussy) palates spot things as “flaws” that no one else is going to find. One friend of mine can regularly identify 12 of every 10 corked bottles; I imagine that sort of thing can get old to wine country restaurant staff.

  20. Andy Byers - April 13, 2011

    My wife and I have had a very similar experience. Unfortunately, we were with friends who simply said that they did not like the wine and would never order it or purchase it again. They don’t have a clue what TCA is, but they know what they like and don’t like.
    We own a very small brand and the thought that someone in a restaurant could ruin an opportunity to sell our wines to a group of consumers for life. We need every customer we can get, and would certainly replace any bottle that was cooked or corked. Restaurants, Retailers and Producers must have a partnership.

  21. lori - April 13, 2011

    There is simply no excuse for bad service. Owners need to educate their staff. I’m with the commenter who suggested naming the restaurant; it could be a good lesson for the owner. Thanks for sharing this story. I think we’ve all been there at some point.

  22. Ralph - April 13, 2011

    While I agree with the majority of comments, this brings up one of my all-time pet peeves: when bars or restaurants sell wines by the glass, but never taste the wine when they open a new bottle – they just pour it for the first customer in line. Assuming they have the training to detect serious flaws (a gross assumption, I know), how hard is it to pour a half ounce into a glass and taste it? I’ve been in the restaurant and wine business for years, and when I host a tasting, I open and taste every bottle before it’s poured – sometimes 50-60 bottles during the day. And I’ve caught a few stinkers that would have seriously damaged our reputation.

  23. kitchenaid professional 600 - April 13, 2011

    this article was an interesting read

  24. Courtney Cochran - April 13, 2011

    This happens way too much and is such a travesty for the reputation of the service industry. Unfortunately, it persists. Boo!

  25. Richard - April 13, 2011

    Tom, I agree with you and don’t believe your “ego” was out of line. Having said that, suspect the server/bar-tender was doing what he was told – I can hear the manager now telling his staff to say sweet euphemisms for the bad wine “oh, say that you’re sorry they didn’t like the wine…” or “say they are perfectly welcome to try another wine to their liking…” Sadly, something similar has happened to all of us – my wife and I went to a very nice, and new at the time, restaurant, in Napa town and the wine was corked – we were made to feel like bugs that should never have been allowed in their fine establishment. My “ego” finally go the better of me and I told the sommelier “Sorry, but I make my own wine, have been making it for 10 years and been in and around the business for 30 years and this wine is corked…” His response? “Well, sir, it’s OK, the staff and I will have the wine for ourselves…” Again, ego kicked in and I simply said “look, the wine is corked, end of story, please ask the manager to come out…” Of course he backed off and said he understood… Sadly, my wife likes the restaurant and on a return trip a month later, they actually remembered us sending the wine back and gave us horrible service. My wife says that she will now never return…
    So, you were totally on the mark to call them out on this and more people should.

  26. Mihai Rosu - April 16, 2011

    Hi, i use to go monthly and drink a red wine to restaurant. I can’t say that i drink the best wine, but i like it. And about your ego, wasn’t out of the line, it was just grate. Trust me.
    Thanks for your post.

  27. t-bo - April 19, 2011

    One more comment that you should be naming the restaurant. It would enhance the credibility of the post and provide readers a service.

  28. Urge - August 7, 2011

    Amusing, but your early comment says it all: “this is about my ego”. I’ve worked in the restaurant industry for nearly 30 years; a wine bar,a couple of 4 star fine dining establishments etc. My experience, 180,000 or so guests and counting, is that for every customer who knows what they’re talking about there are 500 who don’t. They offered to exchange your bottle. YOU wanted to put them in their place.You escalated the encounter needlessly.
    If you were looking to help, you could have asked for a manager, explained that the wine was bad as a service to future guests. Instead you figuratively beat your chest and bellowed ” I’m the expert here” By and by, a bottle of Chateau Musar has exactly the characteristics described…. on purpose.
    Truth be told, I’m sure you were right about the wine; I’m also pretty sure the server wasn’t sure you were right ; as he offered to exchange no problem you were the one out of line, not the server?bartender….

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