Last week, while touring vineyards and tasting with winemakers in northern California, I stopped into a popular restaurant for a before-dinner glass of wine in one of the area’s trendy tourist districts.
After I took a seat at the bar, the bartender walked me through a couple of by-the-glass rosé selections. They all sounded good, even though I didn’t know any of the producers. I asked her to pour me one of her favorites. Her ability to rattle off all the grape varieties in each wine and describe the style of each was impressive. It was clear that she was familiar with all of the restaurant’s by-the-glass offerings and I was confident that I was in good hands.
The wine was icy cold and it took it a few minutes to warm up in the glass. It had some good fruit in the mouth but the nose was still very muted because of the temperature. I took a few sips and by the time I had drunk about half of the glass, I realized that it was corked.
I’m sure that this has happened to many of you: when the wine is too cold, it can be hard to determine its fitness or “correctness.” Even some of the best tasters I know don’t catch corkiness at the first sniff, especially when it’s subtle. It’s even more challenging when the wine is too cold.
The restaurant and its bar were both really busy on a Thursday night in the early weeks of the prime wine tourism season. And it took a moment before the bartender checked back in with me.
When I mentioned that the wine was corked, she looked puzzled. She then promptly grabbed the bottle from the tub of ice behind the bar and poured herself a taste. She swirled and sniffed and unequivocally declared that “the wine definitely isn’t corked but I’ll be happy to pour you something else.”
It’s possible that I was wrong and I appreciated her offer to pour me something else.
But what is the point of challenging the guest regarding the corkiness or fitness of a wine?
I was alone that evening but what if I was out with my significant other or with a colleague or client? It made me feel crummy enough that she felt it necessary to belittle my ability as a taster. But what if I had been on a special-occasion date with my wife on our trip to California wine country? The awkwardness that her insistence created would have only put a crinkle into what would have otherwise been a seamlessly lovely evening.
There’s no doubt that servers, sommeliers, and bartenders who work in wine country often encounter citizen wine lovers who don’t have a lot of experience in tasting and determining wine fitness. But in my view, that’s all the more reason not to challenge the guest’s take on the wine.
Many years ago, while dining at a three-Michelin-star restaurant in the U.S., I told a sommelier that I believed a wine was corked. He tasted it and said it wasn’t and didn’t even offer to bring me something else. Was his pride as a taster more important to him than his mission to provide a great dining experience? (Never mind that he had a huge steel plug pierced into his tongue, easy to spot when he opened his mouth it was so large.)
My server ended up pouring me a fine glass of Anthony Truchard’s Chardonnay and didn’t charge me for my first glass. I really appreciated that. But what was the point of challenging my assessment of the wine when the restaurant (or at least the bar) has a policy of substituting wines by-the-glass (and not charging for them) when the guest questions the wine’s fitness?
She could have easily replaced the wine and then discreetly tasted the questionable wine (not in front of me).
I can’t imagine that she didn’t pour the rest of that bottle for other guests that evening. Too bad for them…
Worthwhile post, Jeremy. Thanks! It’s really a shame because your server missed an opportunity to actually communicate with you. I think her biggest crime was failing to be hospitable. She could have used your comment as an opportunity to get to know you and exchange observations about the wine. “I’m really sorry to hear that; let me taste.” “I don’t taste anything but these things can be subtle.” “Do you taste a lot of wine? Many customers can be reluctant to say a wine is corked.” I wonder if this is an isolated incident involving a not-ideal server or part of something bigger. Do you think the rise of celebrity somms makes service better or worse for the neophyte wine drinker?
All true, Jeremy.
But, the first big mistake is due to the fact she did not taste the wine once opened. Or, even worse, she tasted it and not understood the problem.
I agree with this comment. Serving wine off temp (whether warm or cold) is something that shouldn’t have occurred either, right? One would assume that most places in Napa have temp controlled wine fridges OR those little thermometers you put on the bottle itself. Though I have been served a wine that was too cold, but my server told me to “give it a sec,” and walked away. LOL
In both cases not professional at all.
Thanks for the comments and insights here. Francesco, you are missing the huge thread over on Facebook… https://www.facebook.com/jparzen/posts/10210899995589268
You know I do not like FB:)
The Bartender’s response was 100% spot on. They offered to pour you something else. As a former Restaurant Somm I have had countless times where a guest orders $600 Bordeaux and to impress date rejects bottle for being corked and my trained nose and palate knowing the producer and vintage knew it was in perfect condition with no flaws. Vice Versa I have dealt with hundreds of guests drinking a bottle they ordered on their own and was decanted of $700 Brunello and an hour later while they are enjoying their wine they selected I make a table visit to greet the guests and I can smell from the decanter they had no clue the wine they have been so called enjoying was big time corked ! I Of course replaced the bottle and NOW they Saw the difference. I think this example with the bartender who knew the wine by the glass from producers you didn’t know was appropriate and professional. They knew that wine wasn’t corked. The proper response was given. The wine is NOT corked and I would be happy to pour you something else. Pouring you another bottle will only get the same response. If I know the guest is wrong I never offer another glass or bottle of the SAME because they will reject that as well. The Sommelier example was rude and arrogant. The Bartender was very professional and proper
Not knowing the ability of this bartender to taste how could you possibly say their response was correct? Some people have a much greater sensitivity to cork taint and to suggest that this bartender is the expert is naive. Service is first and foremost the most important facet of hospitality. If as a service professional you feel the need to be “right” find another line of work.
I will tell you why this Bartender or even a Sommelier in most cases did the exact same thing I would do. You are misunderstanding that this is a WAR or BATTLE of who is more sensitive to Cork Taint or Faults in the Wine. I have a Trained Sommelier Nose… and I have dealt with thousands of guests rejecting glasses and bottles for cork taint and I can tell you 100% none of them were tainted. Should I argue with the guest that the bottle is not Tainted…NO!!… I can also GUARANTEE you if I returned the same glass or bottle back to the guest they would approve the wine that they said was tainted and as I mentioned Vice Versa when the guest approves a $400 Bottle and has been drinking it for an hour and doesn’t realize that their bottle was very obviously Tainted. WHAT I AM approving of the Bartender is that they returned to you letting you know that this specific wine was NOT tainted and I APPLAUD them for trying to make you Happy by Offering Another Selection Of Wine. The Bartender pours 40 Glasses of this wine per shift at minimum and it would be a waste to bring back another glass of the same wine. They Offered Something Else. We never get into battles who is right and who is wrong… they let you know that this wine was checked by their manager or wine buyer and it is the profile of that wine and Offered another Selection to replace the wine. I have had regular guests that 100% of the Time reject EVERY SINGLE glass of wine or Bottle of Wine for Cork Taint. I always instruct Bartenders after the wine has been checked by me for Cork Taint to just politely Offer another Selection which they did. Telling you …You Are WRONG and charging you for the wine would have been a problem
With all due respect, the chances of having a corked bottle, while less than it used to be, and thank goodness for that, is still one bottle in fifty, so chances are that one in fifty bottles with corks in your restaurant would also be corked. And that suggests that more than none were tainted.
You have chosen to believe that your wines cannot be subject to cork taint. No one here believes you even though they and I agree with you on most of the rest of what you have said.
James Laube Issued a Report In Wine Spectator that in California in the famous 2007 Vintage 9.7% Of EVERY major Wineries wines with some form of Cork Were Tainted… That’s more than 1 in 50. I am not a winemaker. I have been in Restaurants as a Sommelier. I do not OWN a Winery so you don’t have to refer to them as YOUR WINES.. They are not. I just don’t know a Somm who even smells or Samples a Wine with a Stelvin Closure or brings a backup to an off site tasting. All Importers always pull 2 bottles as odds are one might be corked. On Subject.. Any Winemaker including a GRAND CRU Burgundy producer has proven that even with a great cork…from bottle to bottle with the same vintage no two bottles taste exactly as the winemaker wanted. There is a small differential. With a Stelvin Closure…None of these issues, none of these postings would be acceptable. Smart Country New Zealand is 91% Of All Wines using Stelvin Closures. We need to say goodbye to the Cork
Whatever your feelings are about cork taint, it is still clear that corks exist and that some percentage of bottles closed with cork are affected. Laube’s number of 9.7% is higher than anyone else’s, and while Jim is fine person and a friend, he’s findings are high by most other professional taster’s measurements. My 2% number is what I am finding today.
By the way most non-oaked whites are bottles under screwcap in CA these days. Many Pinots are also but few of the oak-aged Chards or heavy reds get that treatment. And as Larry Schaffer points out, TCA comes from more than just corks so there could be TCA in a wine under screwcap, And, there are other problems that can crop up with screwcap so it is not a perfect closure either. Still, the cork folks brought the alternate closure issue on themselves by allowing cork taint to be so prevalent.
And what about Diam corks? Are they tainted as well?
You and I both know that Laube is ultra sensitive to TCA – and his abilities have been ‘confirmed’ by lab testing. It actually must be a ‘curse’ because a wine that may not seem corked to anyone else may be to him – and it is to him. And happy to hear that your rate is only 2% – but others may experience more or less because a) your wines will always be ‘unique’ compared to other bottles and b) your sensitivity to TCA may be lower than others.
And there are MANY wines now being bottled under screw cap, my friend – NOT just the stainless whites and lesser pinots as you point out. PlumpJack has been bottling their high end reserve cab under both closures since 1997 – and continue to do so because of the way that their wines under screw cap develop.
As far as DIAM’s go, there are a group of winemakers who will never work with them because of the issues related to agglomerated corks that they used to produce under their original name back in the late 1990’s. I personally have never experienced a ‘corked’ wine under DIAM’s but they also develop differently than natural corks or screw caps, and I still worry about ‘oxidation’ issues as they are still made up of cork materials.
Larry, you obviously understand that corked bottles show up all too often. Even if the incidences of corkiness are now greatly reduced from what they were a decade ago, you can bet that an active restaurant is pouring a corked bottle every 20 or 30 times it pulls the cork. And who is to say that the bartender knows more about wine than the writer of this column.
But there is another lesson here. The customer is always right. Yes, the occasional schmuck sends back a perfectly good bottle just to show off, but if there is still a 3% incidence of corked bottles, I am guessing that there are more corked bottles in most restaurants than schmucks.
The customer is not always right. If you’re insisting something is wrong with food or drink we as employees are obligated to confirm or deny. We don’t do it to embarrass or belittle the guest, but the bartender did offer to pour something else and seemed to do it professionally. Not to say the writer in this article didn’t know what he was talking about, but everyone has different palate and we work with these items everyday. For years people have created this mentality that the customer is always right, but in fact all this has done is give people the right to act like animals and treat staff like crap. I’m not saying this happened in this case, but when the guest feels wronged even in the slightest way, they feel they are owed the world and more. The problem with blogs, social media, etc. Is that people who don’t understand how restaurants work and what they should or shouldn’t expect have the right to make a person or restaurant look bad because something wasn’t handled the way the thought is should have been. Unfortunately perceptions are different.
From a technical point of view, the customer may not always be right, but when a professional wine taster says a wine is corked or volatile, he or she is usually not wrong. A wine does not smell musty if it is not musty. No one, not even my dear departed mother, would make that mistake. But, for a bartender to essentially embarrass a customer, whether that customer is right or wrong, makes no sense. And there is no “obligation” on the part of the restaurant to respond. If the restaurant does the “right thing”, and provides something else without charging twice, then good for them. But they can do that without getting into a dispute with the customer. Especially, because, in this case, a professional taster surely knew what he was tasting and not making it up.
I had the same issue with a popular wine bar in Houston. He took the wine in the backroom, came back, and told us there was nothing wrong with it. And like your one experience, offered nothing else and we either had to drink the flawed wine or simply suck it up and pay for it. Regardless, we ended up paying for it and quickly leaving.
Believe your experience is frequently played out in many restaurants around the country… I make a bitt of wine and sell DTC – if anyone tells me they received a corked bottle, I immediately offer a refund or replacement.
But… I’ve been served corked bottles in Wine Country (my localized experience) Napa and have had somms or waitstaff argue with me and become very amgry… In one instance, the somm had the manager and bartender o ver to my table! I had only said that I thought the wine was corked – guy went off on how his wines aren’t corked! and then called the manager and bartender… the manager offered another bottle but the somm said he wouldn’t serve us! I told the manager that we would just leave… but he comped the wine and the dinner and apologized profusely. Also the somm never reappeared (at least during our dinner). But it made for an uncomfortable evening. Folks around us completely took our side but still…
And why? There was no loss to this somm?
Sorry to hear about that experience – but folks can get ‘edgy’ when they feel they are being ‘one-upped’ – and I guess a somm who ‘misses’ a corked wine can certainly feel that way.
The other thing to remember, though, Rich, is that so few folks understand what a ‘corked’ wine is, and therefore restaurants most likely need to deal with folks all of the time who want to turn back wines that are fine but that they just don’t ‘like’ . . .
All of this said, the somm blew it in this case – and luckily the manager ‘saved the day’.
“guy went off on how his wines aren’t corked!” Amazing that he knew that every single wine in the restaurant was not corked.
My only experience with being called out on a corked wine was in Chateauneuf du Pape, with a white CDP. By the chef/owner no less. He almost had me convinced I was wrong, until I tasted it again. I think he was concerned about losing the bottle cost. Or maybe he resented being questioned by an American.
Another thought-provoking post about corked wines – I dig it! And the whole situation brings up so many other things that it’s fun to discuss.
First off, it is a pet peeve of mine to serve roses too cold. if the idea is to make them taste and go down like water, by all means, ice the heck out of them. But so many current Roses are so interesting that they really should not be served that cold.
You mentioned that as the wine warmed up, you realized that it was corked. Did you get this from a faint odor of TCA or the fact that the fruit was dulled? You had mentioned in a previous post about a screw capped wine being ‘corked’ and your feeling was that it was because of muted fruit. As you know, though, ‘muted fruit’ can due to many factors in addition to TCA.
All of this said, the best thing the server could have done would have been to replace your glass and offer you something in exchange. We all know that BTG selections are set up whereby the restaurant or wine bar covers the cost of the bottle with the first glass poured. It truly would not have been an issue whatsoever to do this. Or perhaps to open another bottle of the same wine and compare.
I don’t take offense at her saying that she did not feel it was corked – as we all know and experience, different people not only have different thresholds for picking up TCA but also a different awareness of what it is.
All in all, a great learning experience – and one that I’m glad you shared with all of us.
Larry I couldn’t have said it better myself. DITTO on everything you just posted. No wonder you have the first name LARRY lol… Yeah that’s my favorite.. People rejecting wines with Stelvin Closures as being CORK TAINTED… LOL… I think the Bartender did everything professional and offered a glass of something else and not charging for the rest.. I would take no offense to their disagreeing with me about the cork taint but I certainly would not offer another glass or bottle of the SAME Wine if I didn’t pick up the slightest bit of Cork Taint. Now I risk another Rejected Glass or maybe a $500 Bottle. I take more offense that the Bartender who knew All The Grape Varietals put A COCKTAIL NAPKIN under STEMWARE… That is a ROOKIE MOVE…LOL… Cheers Larry
A corked glass of rose? Gimme a break! 90% of rose have screw top closures so the chance of getting a corked one is infinitesimal. Did you look at the bottle to see the closure before declaring it corked? Probably not. And besides, its a glass of rose…who cares. Me thinks you complain ith too much.
Wow – just wow. My friend, I don’t think there’s a reason to have that attitude. ANY wine at ANY price point could be corked – and I don’t care how much it costs – if it’s corked, someone should know about it. I do believe there are many that share your feelings – that why should one bother to ‘complain’ unless it is an expensive wine, etc.
The only way our industry is going to truly react in the way they should is to understand how ‘bad’ the problem really is. If most folks act as you do, how do we really know how bad the problem is
I will say that I did ask the question above about wondering how the author knew the wine was corked – still waiting for a reply to that one . . .
Also there is the simple fact that a screw cap closed wine can certainly still be tainted with TCA. TCA is not unique to cork and can be “picked up” in the cellar, in the container (if shipped) etc…
2 Out of 12 With A Cork of some form can Be Tainted…. 20 Years as a Somm Certified by The Court… I have never ever ever ever found a TAINTED Stelvin Closure Wine. I don’t even Smell the Wines and either do all my winemaker friends. When they attend a tasting they bring 2 bottles of every sample of a wine with a cork. Only One Bottle with no backup with a Stelvin Closure.. They know that EVERY Bottle will be dead on perfect.
I’ve been making wines under screw cap for over a decade and they indeed are more consistent for sure – but can still suffer from ‘issues’ from time to time. Just not usually TCA :-)
Obviously but never TCA … but if you are using Stelvin not just any Screw cap …they are the way to go. Issues are next to zero…Cheers
Yep, always a chance, but it would be very very rare – and most likely, if it was due to something else, ALL of the wines in that lot would be affected in the same way (systemic issues).
The reality is that a wine under screw cap is very UNLIKELY to be affected by either TBA or TCA.
This is a really interesting thread, but I couldn’t help but notice that the perspective of the winemaker is missing. If the wine is corked and is being served to people even after it has been brought to the attention of the somm/bartender then the perception of the specific wine and perhaps also the winemaker may be compromised. I know that winemaker friends of mine would be mortified if they were judged on a flawed bottle instead of the actual merits of the wine itself.
And therein lies a big problem here – if the wine is not ‘reported’, the winery may never know. And that happens a LOT.
I am still waiting for the author to comment about how he knew the wine was corked rather than just muted, though . . .
I love your insights Larry…. I would love to Serve you A Glass or Bottle Of Wine.. Yes we all are waiting for the Author’s Comments on this subject. Big Difference of Muted Fruit and TCA Taint ..Cheers!
Yep . . .
This is great!
Although, I think everyone is taking this a bit too seriously..it’s a glass of wine.
The bartender was great and they offered to pour something else. Obviously busy and had lots of balls in the air (I’m guessing the pricing wasn’t Michelin star level.) I’m sure they would’ve done things a bit differently in hindsight, or in a seated area. Only human and not every member of staff has the capacity to deal with things to perfection (under silly discussion and dissection on blogs hereafter…). I think about how much I train my staff and the problems I still have to run across the room to avoid!
We’ve all had all types of crazy wine service in various types of venue and I think this was ok; perhaps they phrased the response poorly. Responses in Europe are traditionally less helpful.
One personal instance springs to mind..In Salo on Llake Garda I ordered a glass from Lis Neris by the glass off their blackboard and it was horribly, irrefutably corked but even after telling him what I did for a living etc, the bartender would not budge, or even enter a discussion. I chalked this down to occasional tourist service and got on with my day. I am so English….
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Thanks to everyone for all the comments and insights here… I never realized this post would touch such a nerve… but I’m glad to see that it inspired such lively dialogue and such a robust exchange of ideas… Thanks for reading and being here…
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