Is the wine customer always right?

The purpose of the small pour is for the customer to ensure the wine isn't corked. But what's the right response if the customer hates the wine? Robert Joseph offers some thoughts.

Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash
Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

Imagine for a moment that you are on holiday, in a restaurant with your two children, both of whom have ordered lemonade with their lunch.

When it arrives, they both pull a face after tasting it. You take a sip and understand why: it’s pure lemon juice and soda, without a hint of sweetness. Clearly something has been lost in translation.

But you and your partner have less of a sweet tooth, so you’re happy enough to take their lemonade and to order orange juices for them to enjoy with their burgers.

When it’s time for dessert, the kids opt for chocolate ice cream and the two adults decide on lemon sorbet, forgetting what happened earlier. But when the ices arrive, everyone gets a brusque reminder. The chocolate has been made with 90 percent cocoa and no added sugar and is frankly bitter, while the sorbet tastes sourly like a frozen version of the unsweetened drink. No one is enjoying what they have been served.

You call for the menu to check on the descriptions of what you have ordered and find no warning of any kind that the restaurant has its own definitions of words of which you imagined there to be a pretty common understanding.

Are you within your rights to tell the waiter that you don’t like what you have been given and are not prepared to pay for it?

Laying my cards on the table, I think you are. I grew up in a hotel and restaurant where we, on several occasions, willingly replaced carpaccios and tartares of beef from customers who were not expecting their meat to be uncooked – despite the clear descriptions on the menu. The customer, as the saying goes, is right. Even when he or she is undeniably wrong.

There has been a lot of internet chatter recently over a food-loving blogger who is reported to have had a very bad time at a well-regarded young restaurant in Manchester in the North of England. His evening appears to have gone wrong when he tasted the white Rioja he had ordered and found it to be oxidised or too old and shared this opinion with the sommelier who apparently did not appreciate his behaviour.

Lovers of traditional Spanish wine may have already guessed that the bottle in question was a Tondonia Reserva from Lopez de Heredia: a rare and brilliant example of the deliberately oxidative way white Rioja used to be made. At least a few of these wine lovers are probably mentally licking their lips at the thought of a glass or two of it; I certainly am.

But the unfortunate blogger has evidently not undergone enough wine education. He imagined that the – fairly expensive, at restaurant prices – wine he’d chosen would taste like the other costly white Riojas he’d experienced in the past. The point of difference, so appreciated by Tondonia fans, struck him as ‘wrong’. And, to be honest, I’m on his side.

I have seen other vintages of that same wine wrong-foot experienced tasters when encountered blind at wine competitions, just as I’ve seen Vin Jaune confuse judges at OIV competitions where no indication of origin or grape is given.

The blogger made the point in his report that no information was given about the wine before he ordered it; there was a presumption that he would recognise the producer’s name and know what to expect. But what right has anyone in the service field to presume in this way? What would be so wrong in either printing or orally offering a few words of description?

Which reminds me of my first encounter with Frank Cornelissen’s famous unsulphured Contadino red in a small, casual London restaurant that had earned a reputation for championing natural wine.

“Are you sure?” asked the waitress (who was not a sommelier) when I chose it from the list.

“Why do you ask?" I replied

“Because other people haven’t really liked it,” she said.

Despite her warning, we persevered in ordering a bottle. Of which we left half after watching (and tasting) it oxidise into cardboardy undrinkability before our very eyes.

On another occasion, I was helpfully warned by a Parisian sommelier that the Alsace Pinot Gris I’d ordered was definitely on the sweet side, despite not declaring the fact on its label. Perhaps a dry Viognier might be a better match for the dish I was planning to eat?

Most publishers – apart from a few French and Italian stalwarts – would not dream of expecting prospective buyers to research their books’ style and content in advance; they cover the back and possibly front and inner covers with information that give a very clear idea of what the reader is likely to expect.

I believe anyone selling food or wine should beware of presuming that customers have any but the most basic knowledge.

Or, if they prefer to leave those customers to find their own way through the minefield, they really shouldn’t be too surprised when some of them – including the occasional blogger – unhappily stumble across the occasional mine.

Robert Joseph


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