The other day a reader, “Bro. Dave,” related a story about his experience ordering a glass of wine in a restaurant and asked for some advice.
“It was one listed on the menu as the manager's recommendation and was one of the higher-priced wines by the glass,” Dave wrote. “When my glass of wine arrived, it smelled like pesticide and tasted pretty much the same. I was not pleased.
“But how does one send back a glass of wine? I know wine tastes vary from person to person, even region to region. Perhaps the people around there enjoy wine that tastes like RAID! When my steak is over-cooked, that's simple to identify. But with a (bad) glass of wine, what does one do?”
It’s a question that countless wine drinkers must ask themselves, and several thoughts come to mind. First and foremost, it is perfectly acceptable to tell your server that the wine has an off taste. You would do this, obviously, if you were tasting a wine before accepting a bottle, and I think it’s appropriate to do the same with wine served by the glass. In fact, it is fine to ask for a small taste of a wine even before ordering a glass.
You may have noticed that restaurants are serving more wines by the glass these days. There are two reasons for this. On the altruistic side, they are giving consumers more choices if they don’t care to order a bottle of wine. Second, and perhaps more important from a restaurant’s point of view, is the fact that restaurants make huge profits serving wine by the glass.
When I asked Dave about the wine he ordered, he said it was a $9 glass of California zinfandel (I’m going to skip the name in the interest of fairness). A check of wine-searcher.com reveals that a bottle of this zinfandel retails for an average of about $16, with a low price of around $13. Remember, that’s retail. Restaurants are buying their wine at wholesale, so it would be fair to say that Dave’s restaurant probably paid $9 or $10 a bottle.
Restaurants try to make back the cost of a bottle on the first glass they pour, so at five glasses per bottle, let’s say, this restaurant is making about $45 on a bottle for which it paid roughly $10. That’s a 350% profit. You begin to understand why restaurants make so much of their profits in alcohol.
So, don’t feel too badly if you decide to send back a glass of wine. If your server (or the wine director or restaurant manager) gives you a hard time (and there’s no reason except for greed that they should), suggest that he or she pour a taste to confirm your suspicions. If your server disagrees with your diagnosis, politely say that you’d like to try a different glass of wine.
Remember, these days, when many people are cutting back on dining out, restaurants want you to come back, so giving up the profit on a bad glass of wine is a very small price for them to pay.
As for what Dave was tasting in his wine, my guess is that it probably wasn’t Raid or any other pesticide, although pesticide use continues to be a fact of life for most of the wine industry. A more likely explanation is residual dishwasher soap, which, obviously, can impart an off taste to a glass of wine. It’s a common problem, which is why in professional wine tastings glasses are sometimes washed only with hot water.
In any event, when a glass of wine seems tainted (beyond the fact that you might not like a particular wine), you can and should demand a replacement.