Bad Bottle Etiquette
By: George Balling
Winemaking even in the hands of those most talented will occasionally run into problems. Every winemaker will from time to time have an off vintage, but when it comes down to bottles that are actually bad or the preferred wine term “flawed”, most times it is due to something that is beyond the winemaker’s control. Flawed bottles typically come down to a handful of reasons, cork taint caused by the presence of TCA (trichloroanisole) in the cork, volatile acidity that comes from acetic bacteria, and bottle variation that shows up in bottles at the end of the bottling run typically are all things that happen, that are outside of the winemaker’s control. To help you identify the flaws, a wine that is corked or tainted with TCA will smell like wet newspaper or wet cardboard, or show kind of a musty smell. Volatile acidity will also present in the aromatics and smells like paint thinner or nail polish remover. Bottle variation will present more on the palate and will result in the wine just not tasting like the wine has in the past.
When wine consumers encounter a bottle of wine that has any of these flaws the question becomes, how to handle it? Whether in a restaurant or at home with a bottle you have purchased from a retail shop and you encounter a flawed bottle you should never pay for it. The wine after all is bad. When it happens in a restaurant your best approach is to have your server or if the restaurant has a sommelier on staff taste the wine for themselves. Most are well trained at recognizing a bottle that is just not right. If the server does not acknowledge the flaw your best bet is to ensure them that the bottle is off and have them bring a replacement. It is a good idea to have them change your glassware too, often the residual wine from the bad bottle will be hanging around enough in the glass to cause you to think the second bottle may be flawed too.
Both for restaurants these flawed bottles are returned to the distributor who in turn alerts the winery of the problem and all are credited. So, you should never feel bad about sending the bottle back in the restaurant, they are not on the hook for it just like you are not.
For bottles purchased at retail the same is true. When you taste the bottle that is off at home put the cork back in the bottle with all of the remaining wine still in the bottle. Bring the bottle back to the shop where you purchased it, and just like in a restaurant setting have the shop owner check the wine for themselves. Just like restaurant wine professionals we are well versed in recognizing the full array of wine flaws. At least here at The Dinner Party we will give you a new bottle on the spot. Then we return the wine and are credited for the bad bottle. This is the biggest reason you should never feel badly about returning a bad bottle.
One of the hardest things to do is to trust the next bottle that you get to replace the bad one. It is a psychological leap of faith even for us to go right back to the same bottling after that bad experience. We can assure you though the most common wine flaws that we mentioned are a bottle by bottle, as opposed to a full batch issue.
As wine professionals we never want any consumer to have a bottle that they don’t enjoy. One of the things you should not do is to return a bottle you selected based on it being a poor selection. As mightily as we try to always pair a wine to what a consumer is telling us they enjoy drinking we do miss the mark from time to time. In those cases, in our shop, we always will do our best to make it right and exchange the bottle you don’t prefer for one that is more to your liking. In the case though, where you pick out a bottle on your own off a restaurant list, or from a shelf in a shop it is not best practice to return the bottle if you simply choose wrongly.
Every wine professional we know stands behind the bottles we sell and when one is flawed, we hope you will let us know, so we can make it right.