This Is The Only Time You Should Return Wine At A Restaurant

Ordering wine at a restaurant can be intimidating, but it doesn't need to be. Restaurants with sommeliers take pride in their wine collections, and rely on their sommeliers to provide exceptional service by helping you select the perfect wine for your meal. Once the sommelier presents your bottle, they will open it for you and pour a sample for you to evaluate. What's important to keep in mind here is that you are looking for faults (defects or imperfections in the wine), not your personal preferences.

Wine consumers often stick to wines they know because they are a safe bet, but wine-curious people like to try new wines, and look to sommeliers and servers for suggestions. Whether you opt for a favorite or take a chance on something new, it is disappointing when the wine you order under-delivers or has faults. Wine Folly suggests that there are seven major wine faults to look for, including cork taint, Brettanomyces (aka Brett), oxidation, volatile acidity, and lightstrike. Fortunately, you can learn to spot these issues with some practice.

Evaluate the wine: look, swirl, smell, sip

Start by taking a look at the wine. Does it look murky, or are there bits of cork or sediment in the glass? This may mean that the wine is past its prime or faulted. Some wines (like low-intervention wines) are not filtered for perfect clarity, giving them an opaque look. Old wines often have sediment and, occasionally, bits of cork fall into the bottle. This doesn't always mean the wine is bad, and a skilled sommelier will strain or decant the wine for you.

Swirl and smell the wine to identify any faults that may be present. Does your wine smell musty, like wet newspaper or wet dog? If it does, the wine likely has cork taint, a common fault caused by a naturally occurring fungus that grows on some cork trees. If it is mousy or smells like a barnyard, that could be bacteria or Brettanomyces. If the wine smells like nail polish remover, it has volatile acidity. Wine that smells or tastes like vinegar or cooked cabbage is also bad. Sometimes wine has accidentally been overheated or exposed to oxygen, which can cause off-flavors in the wine. 

Remember, even enthusiastic wine consumers can miss faults upon smelling the wine, which is why taking a sip is important. If you taste anything off, smell the wine again. Faults reveal themselves upon careful inspection. Wine Enthusiast indicates that some faults, like Brett and oxidation, can actually be a good thing once in a while, depending on the wine style.

Politely inform the sommelier

Vine Pair advises putting your trust in the sommelier. If you think the wine is flawed, politely ask your sommelier to smell and taste it. Trust their instincts — they are trained to evaluate wine. More importantly, they don't want you to drink a flawed wine, because it reflects poorly on the restaurant. Listen to how they describe the wine and talk about the fault. It can be a great learning experience, and you can file the information away in case you encounter the flaw again. 

In most cases, sommeliers will offer to replace the flawed bottle or make recommendations for a different wine. A good sommelier won't argue with guests once a table determines the wine is flawed, even if their opinion differs. However, if the wine is not flawed, do not send it back, since sending back a sound bottle is considered bad wine etiquette.