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Sending Back Wine - An Experience with "Bad" Wine
Copyright 2003 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed December 10, 2003. For more information go to

"Waiter, this wine is corked!"

So easy to write, so hard to say: One of the most daunting challenges in the world of wine may be mustering the courage to complain when something goes wrong in our glass.

After all, most people prefer to avoid public confrontation, and that goes double when the subject under dispute is as mysterious and complicated as wine. I don't know if it will reassure you to know that even purported experts like your humble scribe sometimes think twice before speaking up about a wine-related problem.

So it was last night, when we checked out a new restaurant in our town, formerly a "Southwestern" spot that reopened recently with a name and image transplant as a trendy Tuscan grill. (For Louisville-area readers, it's Mezzaluna - formerly Alameda - on Bardstown Road.)

Our dinner selections suggested different wines, so we ordered by the glass. My wife chose a Gavi, a Piemontese white, to go with her veal piccata, while I went with a modest Chianti to match a beefy lasagna Bolognese.

All seemed well until the Chianti came. Phew! A dank, musty stink of wet cardboard and damp basements gave sure evidence that the wine was "corked," tainted by the invisible cork-borne mold that ruins a significant percentage of wines stoppered with natural cork. My spouse confirmed my judgement: The wine was spoiled.

What to do? Frankly, I would have felt more comfortable complaining about a "corked" wine in a restaurant with a serious wine program and a knowledgeable sommelier on staff. But this eatery, pleasant as it is, isn't really oriented toward wine enthusiasts. Its wine list is simple and short, and the bar is more oriented toward malt than the grape. I doubted that our friendly waiter would know what "corked" meant, and didn't have a lot more confidence that the bartender would.

What to do? "Put it to the test," a small voice whispered in my ear. "You can always write about what happens."


I called over the waiter and tried to be pleasant but firm. "I think this wine had a bad cork," I said. "Take a sniff of it. Do you get a musty smell?"

He looked puzzled but eager to please, and at my suggestion took the glass back to the bartender for his opinion. "He says he just opened the bottle," he reported back. "But if you like, he'll give you a glass of something else."

That was the right answer. I'm reasonably certain that they weren't up on the mysteries of "cork taint," but it didn't matter. Faced with a glass of wine that obviously didn't smell right, they replaced it, courteously and without argument.

And that, my friends, is the lesson for today: When something is wrong with your wine (or your food), you have a right to ask for a replacement. And any decent establishment should respond positively to a polite, reasoned complaint. Mezzaluna's positive response left me feeling good about the place, and inclined to recommend it to friends. After all, as the old saying goes, "the customer is always right." Within reason, anyway.

Have you ever had occasion to send wine back, in a restaurant or wine shop? What was your experience? If you have a good story to tell, I hope you'll share it in our Wine Lovers' Discussion Group. Join in an interactive round-table online discussion on this topic.


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