Wine selection isn't an all-you-can-eat buffet where you heap up your plate with every possible item and leave the stuff you don't like.
THE TANGLE of ritual, opinion, deference, ignorance and tolerance surrounding the selection of wine in a restaurant more or less reaches its zenith when the wine arrives at your table and you are disappointed enough to consider asking for a replacement bottle.
What is the protocol?
Well, it’s a mighty slippery slope, even for those who consider themselves knowledgeable about wine. You don’t want to extend what is likely to be an awkward moment any further than is necessary. So, set the ground rules early, before you order the wine. When asking for advice on what to order, explain in the clearest possible terms what you like and don’t like. Name the grape and region if possible. “I like Napa Valley chardonnay with an oaky flavor” is far more helpful than “I like a dry white wine.”
If you are ordering a syrah, do you prefer the jammy, high-alcohol Australian style or more elegant, austere versions from Europe or Washington? When possible, give your server the name of a specific wine that you know well and ask for guidance finding something comparable on the wine list. And never be afraid to specify a price range. That said, the best values are often about one third of the way up from the cheapest wines on the list.
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When ordering wine by the glass, ask to see it poured. If the server cannot do that, then ask when the bottle was opened. If it has been open for more than 24 hours, request a pour from a new bottle. If that is not possible, order a different wine.
Once your bottle of wine arrives at the table, the server will pour a small taste into the glass of the person who placed the order. This is your first and best chance to reject it. However — and this is a big however — simply saying “I don’t like this” is not reason enough for the restaurant to take a wine back. Wine selection isn’t an all-you-can-eat buffet where you heap up your plate with every possible item and leave the stuff you don’t like.
What can and should be rejected are wines with specific flaws. The most common flaw, and one you should try to familiarize yourself with, is the scent of TCA, a chemical compound commonly referred to as a “corked” wine. This is not a wine that smells like cork; it’s a wine that smells like the bottom of a sock drawer, or a very musty attic, or wet newspaper. Such off bottles should always be returned.
Leathery, sweaty saddle aromas and flavors in red wines are the markers for brettanomyces, a spoilage yeast. If you do not like such flavors, make it clear when ordering that if the wine has that horsey smell and flavor, you will send it back. For more on this, see my Sept. 25 blog post, “Should we fret about brett?”