Can I Send It Back?

There’s always that fleeting moment in a restaurant when your wine server brings over the bottle of wine you ordered, drops the cork in front of you and pours you a little splash to taste.  At this point everyone at your table, including the server are all waiting for your seal of approval.

Do you always say it’s good?  What if you don’t like it?  What if you think something is wrong with it?  Do you send it back? Would you rather avoid the confrontation and drink the wine you think is flawed because you don’t really know if there is something wrong or not?

Many people have expressed to me their hatred of this moment.

They don’t know what to do with the cork and they don’t know why they are tasting the wine. 

Let’s start with the cork.  It’s plopped down right in front of you, what should you do with it?  Nothing.  Just leave it alone, I know it feels like you should fondle it, but you don’t need to.

What’s really important is tasting the wine.  It has been given to you to see if the wine is spoiled or “corked.”

So here’s what you do…keep the base of the glass on the table while holding the stem.  Gently swirl the glass a couple of times, shooting the wine up the sides of the glass.  As the wine drips down the sides it evaporates and gives you more to smell.  Really stick your nose in it, giving it a big whiff and then give it a taste.

Do you smell a lovely perfume of fruit and spices?  If you don’t and what you do smell is a musty aroma reminiscent of damp newspapers and a mildew stench, you can almost guarantee your bottle is “corked”, the world’s most prevalent wine flaw.

When a wine is officially “corked” technically it means a chemical known as TCA (2,4,6-trichloranisole) has gotten into the bottle as a byproduct of mold in the cork or the winery.  It kind of smells like a wet dog that has rolled itself up in a mildew blanket.  Yummy, right?  However, sometimes the mildew smell isn’t prevalent and the wine aromas and flavors are just dead, completely masked by the TCA.  This is when a corked wine is harder to spot.

But as soon as you suspect a flaw in your wine, DO let your server know.

Sometimes it’s not noticeable until you are halfway through your first glass.  If it is truly flawed, any good waiter or wine steward worth their salt will smell and taste the wine and know you are right.  At a reputable restaurant the bottle will be replaced and you will not feel like an idiot.  No scene will be made.  Sirens will not go off.

The restaurant is reimbursed for all corked bottles so DO NOT FEEL BAD.

And even though modern technology has greatly reduced the amount of flawed wine in the marketplace it still exists.  It’s an organic product and flaws will always be possible.

For cork taint, varying sensitivity thresholds exist for everyone, even the experts.  I myself am only able to detect it at slightly higher levels.  But some can pick up even the slightest trace.

And remember, corkiness is not the only wine flaw.  Things like Brettanomyces, volatile acidity, sulfites, sulfides and oxidized wine also occur.

So go with your gut, if you think a wine is spoiled ask the opinion of the wait staff or restaurant management.  A reputable restaurant will smoothly take the bottle back if found flawed.

But do remember, spoiled wine is the only reason you get to reject a bottle.  Not liking what you ordered does not warrant an excuse to send the wine back.  You are stuck with it at this point.  This is why it’s a great idea to ask for help when selecting something to go with your meal.

Post a Comment

52 Comments

  1. Diane 1

    I took some wine to a party at the weekend and it had a screwtop! It was a good wine but no cork! This meant there was no embarrassing struggle to open the bottle.
    I’d also took the host a bottle of sancerre as a pressie. I’d had fun finding it! I asked the young lad in the alcohol section of my local well stocked supermarket.
    Do you have any sancerre? I asked.
    What’s that, he said, Is it wine?
    Yes, It is wine.
    So he goes off and asks and leaves me staring at about 4000 bottles of white wine. It took me a few minutes to work out that they were organised by country and that once I racked my brain and remembered sancerre was from France it was easy!
    In my defence I haven’t bought wine at a supermarket for a very long time as I’ve been lucky over the last few years and been sent a lot of wine!

  2. Thank-you for the education on what to do when testing the wine served. We have not had any bad wine at restaurants, but if we had been served bad wine we probably would just grin and drink it,and pay for it. We’ll keep this in mind ! KathyB.

  3. I love that you do “teaching” posts and this one is great. Having served a lot of expensive wines, I will vouch for you and say the restaurant (if it’s a good one) has NO problem with a wine coming back. You’re paying a lot, get what you’ll be happy with.

  4. Harry 4

    Someone once told me that over 10% of wines are ‘corked’. All I can say is that in over 45 years of drinking wine, some 20,000 bottles, I have had only one corked wine. It really is rare.

  5. thanks for the information–very educational! i can always count on you. now, how about a great brownie recipe? i need one! :)

  6. Katie 6

    Luckily I’ve never been less than thrilled with a wine choice, but there is always that moment of terror. I am the wine chooser in our groups and the servers have told me before how difficult it is for them when the woman orders the wine. They are supposed to serve the woman first and the “host” last. So when the woman is also the host they get a bit flummoxed.

  7. Leslie 7

    Love the black and White photos!!!!

  8. Howdy 8

    This right here is why (well mostly) I enjoy your blog… I feel like we were just sitting across the kitchen table and you said all that to me… and you didn’t make me feel like an idiot for not knowing.
    When I first ran across your blog many months ago and figured out you were ‘about wine’ I was tempted to not bother coming back… you see (she says quietly) I really am a peasant when it comes to wine – I know very little about them and since I prefer a bit of sweetness in my wine I’ve always been perfectly happy with a screw top or a $6 bottle of white zin… LOL But you seem to accept us all no matter where on this ladder of wine knowledge we stand.
    Thanks for sharing and not making me feel silly for not knowing – and thanks too for being funny, and serious, and quirky, and thoughtful and all those other things you are… I enjoyed having my cup of coffee with you this morning!

  9. Barbie with a T 9

    About the only time I have the occasion to order a bottle of wine with a meal is when cruising. During one of our cruises we must have ordered at least 25-30 bottles of wine during that particular cruise, and every single bottle was perfect. I always took the advice of the waiter or wine steward about which wine to serve with our meals, as I knew nothing about pairing wine with food. Thanks for the tips on returning wine that is corked, if I ever come across a situation like that, I will not feel bad about sending the wine back.

  10. Kristen 10

    I had no idea the restaurants got reimbursed for all corked bottles. That is good to know!
    You always teach me so much!

  11. Dee 11

    I didn’t know, thanks! I hate making scenes so I’ve put up with my fair share of corked wines. I’m going to Google Brettanomyces now.

  12. Julena Jo 12

    Life is too short to be bothered with bad wine. Thank you for the education. I never knew restaurants didn’t have to “bite” bad bottles of wine. If I ever have to send one back, I’ll feel better knowing so. That being said, I, like so many of your faithful readers out there, enjoy wines with a cork, a screwtop, a box, a bottle, whatever, whenever. Cheers!

  13. It’s also good to note that wine shops get reimbursed for corked bottles as well. Put the cork back in the bottle and return it to the store, any decent wine shop should be happy to replace it as they get a credit for the bottle from their distributor.

  14. My boss and I got bad wine once. We both could taste it, it was awful. He said it was corked. There was a huge difference between that bad wine and the bad wine I returned at a local festival. It tasted like it was about a month old. Gak.

  15. Your knowledge of wine is astounding. I have learned so much from your blog it’s not even funny.

    I’ve never had a bottle of wine smell like a wet dog wrapped in a mildew blanket, but if I did I would send the bottle back asap.

    Then again…I’ve never had a bottle of wine I didn’t like. Haha, what does that say about me? But you are right…if you aren’t sure of what to order, ask your server. They will always be able to tell you what will go best with the meal you are eating.

  16. Wow–that’s good to know! I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a spoiled bottle and I’m not sure I trust my nose to know–byt maybe I would? I would hope I could sniff out wet dog or mildew!

    I’m so glad the pigs arrived and that you like them!!

  17. Never happened in a restaurant, but I have taken about 5 back to the store in my life. They are just as accommodating. Do you think the screw tops are going to catch on more?

  18. Excellent tutorial!
    Now, I have another ‘can I send it back’ question that I really hope you will answer…
    I bought 4 bottles of wine at a local gourmet market… The wine is one of our favorites, and ‘this’ zinfandel (red) has not been available for quite some time… Keep in mind, it is obviously a different year/vat/harvest from what we have had in the past. These bottles have a 2007 90 Points sticker on them in regard to the CA State Fair..no other reference to the year…
    Anyway, we opened one bottle and it tasted ‘yucky’. Not smooth and yummy like we are used to…
    So, I took them back to the store.
    The owner said ‘oh, we don’t take returns on wine’… I told her it tasted bad, and she gave it the evil eye and said, ‘just let it sit for a while, it was probably just bottled’….

    So tell my, please Cathy, what is up with this? I bought the wine maybe 2 days before I returned with it…

    Is this a standard policy? I am disappointed… so say the least.

  19. Candy 19

    Thanks so much for such good information. I have definitely had a “corked” bottle once or twice…one I bought from a store and took back, and they thankfully replaced it, and another at a restaurant. The one from the store I knew was bad because it was a wine I drank often and this one just wasn’t right. I didnt’ know it was “corked” I just knew it wasn’t right. They agreed.

    But at the restaurant, I just sat and tried to drink it because I ordered it. Good to know I have an option now.

  20. Thanks! I have never had this clear of an explanation of what you are supposed to do. I actually waited at a small town restaurant in college that was trying to be hip on the wine scene, and I constantly had people tasting and sending back because they didn’t like what they ordered. I never questioned, my boss didn’t specify, and I assumed that was what I was tasting for as well. Doh! Thanks again I will be spreading the word now.

  21. melissa 21

    Thanks, I drank bad wine once because I thought it was me and whaen a friend drank some she told me it was vile. I said I knew but didn’t know what to do. We did nothing. Now I know.

  22. Marcy 22

    Thank you Cathy for that informative post. I’ve mentioned that I don’t drink wine much, but now I now why they tell you to smell the cork, and that I’ve seen people swish the wine in a glass, then taste it. I will consider this my new thing I learned for the day.

  23. This is very helpful information. We have a favorite Italian place here in town and the owner is a crack up. If you’re a regular, he’ll tell you what wine to order. I’ve always felt weird about tasting part and Mr. Clairol always makes me do it!

  24. I never knew there was such etiquette with wine! I’m so glad to know!

  25. Marjie 25

    Of course, our favorite future vintner must know these things!

  26. rachel 26

    Great tutorial Cathy! Thanks so much!! I’m gonna stumble this so more can be educated by you!!

  27. Here, here to honesty. I have sent wine back and the sommelier or server has been more than happy to fix the problem.
    Great post

  28. I think my worry about sending the wine back would be that someone would spit in my food in retaliation.

    If the wine isn’t corked, but you taste it and just don’t like it, can you send it back? My father is really picky about his wine and he will ask for a glass of a different wine if it’s not what he hoped for, but he’s never sent back a bottle.

    I remember ordering a glass of wine that everyone else at the table was ordering and I hated it, but couldn’t bring myself to just ask for a glass of something else. I just sucked it up.

  29. Mike 29

    I used to be worried about not knowing what corked wine would smell/taste like until I was given some (for instructional purposes)…and that mildew/wet dog description just nailed it for me. Blech! Not so sure I’d be good about picking up more nuanced flaws though.

  30. Elle 30

    Cathy, that’s great information! I n ever knew exactly what to do–and now i do.

  31. Great post – I have only had an experience one time and that was because the cork smelled acidic – so that indicated the whole bottle could be bad. The restaurant was very gracious and replaced it. If I am not familiar with wine I will always as for advice and luckily I have never been steered wrong.

  32. ELRA 32

    Cathy,
    I am learning more and more about wine. My husband would absolutely return the bottle if he thinks its something wrong with the wine.

  33. Bunny 33

    I just love it when you do this, I don’t know anything about wine either but have always wanted to know. I’m so glad I found your blog, you talk about such interesting things, have wonderful recipes and educated me to boot!

  34. Since I don’t drink wine and most of the people I eat out with don’t either this is not a problem for us.

  35. tipper 35

    You are always teaching me something new about wine!

  36. ALF 36

    That all seems too involved. I’ll have a beer.

  37. Bunny 37

    It’s me again! No I don’t have any annoying wine questions….this time. I have an award for you.

  38. Cheryl 38

    Cathy, you so rock! All of this information was dispensed with such exquisite clarity (and lovely illustration)—we went to a tasting a few months ago where they shared the “never feel bad” tip. So glad to hear it reiterated…our wine shop (walking distance ;) our home equity should go up) voices that regularly too.

    My favorite takeway from the testing…the phrase “Stelvin Enclosure”…sounds so nice compared to “screw top” which I used to bandy about!

    Great post…as always!

  39. Cheryl 39

    And another quicky…any location you’d recommend for acquiring frames to create bulletin boards (or full wall boards ;) ) from extracted corks? I pondered spray painting them and making li’l Fisher Price-esque people for my kids, but fear G’Ma might not see that as appropriate recycling!

  40. Leah Q 40

    Thank you for your sage grape advice…. I never knew several of the points you made….

    I bow down to you my Noble Pig…

    :::walks away humble, bending down, walking backwards, arms showing the signs of “im not worthy, im not worthy’:::

  41. sassy 41

    I never knew so much about wine untill i came visiting here. Thank you for the education!

  42. For the record, Brettano Myces is going to be the name of the hero of my next novel.

    Sounds so cool.

  43. Maria DaCosta 43

    This so reminds me of that clasic Faulty Towers episode, where the patron keeps telling him the wine is “corked,” and he says, “Of COURSE it’s corked! How can I pour it out of the bottle if I don’t cork it first? Bloody idiot!”

  44. Well put Cathy. I agree with everything and would not change a word of your advice!

  45. Here’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it: Bunch of us girls out to dinner, ordered a bottle of wine. Had a sip of it and it was awful! Told our waiter. Maiter d/owner comes over, takes one of our glasses and sips it. (Yes I know this is gross). With a surprised look on his face, that snotty maitre admits it’s a reallly bad bottle! We got a replacement bottle, but I’m still horrified that he actually doubted us and siped what we told him was no good, BAH!

  46. Egghead 46

    Wow I didn’t know all this about being corked. I learn something from you all the time Cathy. I have to admit when I saw this line…”Really stick your nose in it, giving it a big whiff and then give it a taste” the first thought in my warped head was that movie with Steve Martin “Roxanne” where he can’t drink his wine because his long nose is in the way so he snorts it through his nose. Funny stuff.

  47. love it when you teach these details.
    I’m still thinking about the Hayden Hill we had at my birthday, it was that fabulous. Who needs food with wine that good? I’m happy with the bread.

  48. Bad restaurant manners: Mental P., jules a few other gals, and I were out to eat at a very nice restaurant who is known to have a less than pleasant owner. We ordered a bottle of wine and instead of having one of us taste it, it was left on the table. We all had a sip. It was bad. Called the waiter, who happened to be the owner, over and told him it was a corked bottle. HE LEFT, GOT HIS OWN GLASS AND TASTED THE WINE! We all felt he was being a doofus and trying to put us in our place. It was just wonderful when he had to admit the bottle was bad! And, no, we didn’t get the next bottle free of charge, tho we should have after his horrid behavior.

  49. heather 49

    i don’t even drink wine, and that was interesting! i knew people always tasted the wine like that, but not why. thanks!

  50. I was just asking my husband this very question yesterday! Thank you for answering it. Not that I ever get to go anywhere without my children where I’d actually get to order a WHOLE bottle of wine. Maybe someday.

  51. medstudentwife 51

    Great post !!! I’m learning so much about wine thru you :)

    Just wondering what you think about the synthetic corks they are using now. Will they be better with respect to “corking”, do they actually change anything in the wine as it ages in the bottle, etc?

    Driving across the US from CA to IL… there are wine makers(wine grape growers) in Missouri and Illinois… didn’t try the wines, but am interested in the climate and soil they are growing the grapes on. Way kwel I think

  52. This is a great post. I always dread when the waiter waits for my approval. Sometimes I do hate it, and drink it anyway. haha. I love the wine cork pictures also.