Article By: David Singer
One of the most difficult and time-consuming situations for a sommelier, manager or waiter is when a client refuses a bottle of wine. This is mainly because it is such a subjective situation. If a customer sends a dish back because it is over or underdone there really isn't any difficulty because the steak is either the right color and texture, or it isn't. And even if the chef or manager disagrees, I've never seen a situation where the response was, "That's the way it's supposed to be." The chef simply cooks the steak a bit longer or prepares another one. Wine, however, is a different animal. First, unless you have a sommelier or similarly qualified person tasting the wine before it reaches the table, there isn't any quality control before it reaches the client. Second, until you open the bottle there are very few indications that the wine may be off. Finally, many restaurant professionals are not familiar with the major faults one could encounter in a bottle of wine.
The two most common faults occur when a wine is either corked or maderized. Corked is not when there are floating pieces of cork in the wine, but rather denotes a situation when the wine has become spoiled because the cork has been infected with a chemical called 2-4-6 tricloroanisole, otherwise known as TCA. Medium to high levels of TCA lead to a noticeable smell of wet cardboard or newspaper. Once smelled for what it is, it is never forgotten. What gets a little more difficult is when there is a small amount of TCA, which is not always noticeable. On the palate the flavors, especially the fruit notes, are astringent or negligible with a distinct unpleasant dryness. Maderized is when, at some point after being bottled, the wine has been subjected to variable temperatures, especially warm ones. The smell and taste of maderized wine is a sweet cooked note. Smell a bottle of Maderia, and you'll understand immediately what I'm referring to.
So what can you do if you do not detect a fault, but a client does, or at least believes that there is a fault? First, try to understand exactly what it is about the wine that is being objected to. Your response to "it's corked" will be different from "I just don't like it". If the wine truly is corked, the response is easy: apologize, set the corked bottle aside for a refund by the importer and offer the client either a bottle of the same wine or another selection to replace it. But what if the wine is, in reality, absolutely fine? This is where the art of diplomacy as part of being a restaurant professional comes into play. If the customer doesn't like the wine, or otherwise insists there is a fault, gently ask questions to better understand why it is not acceptable. Is it too much acidity, tannin, sweetness, a particular flavor, or is it not enough fruit, body or tannin? With this knowledge, regardless of whether there is really a fault or not, you can help guide the client to a style of wine that will be much more to their liking.
It is worth noting here that there are members of the restaurant community who support a much more draconian approach to this dilemma. That is, if a bottle of wine is ordered and opened, and there is nothing truly wrong with it, that's unfortunate but there's no returning it. Personally, I can't think of an easier way to lose a client. At the very least you annoy them and they never return; at worst you embarrass them by essentially saying that they don't know what they're talking about and anger them by offering poor customer service. The argument for such an approach is that if people can return any old wine they don't like, it will cost the restaurant a lot of money. But the majority of wine that this affects will not be your 1982 Petrus. In my experience, even at high-end restaurants, it will be wines that cost you between five and twenty-five dollars. Spending this kind of money in order to retain a client is a worthwhile investment.
Besides, the money is not really lost; there are easy ways to recover it. The wine in question simply becomes a wine by the glass "special" for an evening or two if you have a preservation system, such as vacuvin or argon gas. You can price the special offering such that you break even on one glass, with little impact on your beverage cost; sell two and it's profit on service recovery. How often does that happen? You can help to ensure recovery sales by leveraging modern POS systems to track which servers sell the special and reward them with a sales incentive. Further, any wine from said bottle is a great opportunity to train your staff. More often than not, servers do not have a chance to taste the majority of the wine list. By education, your servers can now recommend a bottle with confidence, which always equals higher sales.
Thus, with a combination of service, product recovery, sales incentives and education, a potentially negative situation is transformed. In this difficult business, we do not get as much feedback as we would like in order to ensure that every guest who walks through our door will return. With the right recovery plan, when a client wishes to return a bottle of wine, you can confidently use the opportunity to take feedback, better understand their needs and, rather than turning off a client, achieve the brass ring - a repeat guest.
DAVID SINGER Currently a Master Sommelier candidate, David Singer is the founder of Libation Education, a wine consulting and education business. He resides in Brookline and can be reached at email@example.com. For more information visit www.libationeducation.com.