Returning corked wine in a restaurant
A few days ago, my better half and I were kindly invited out to dinner by a William Nash, a retired US general, and his wife Elizabeth Becker, a journalist and author. We first went to my favorite wine bar, Le Sobre, on the Quai des Chartrons for an aperitif and a platter of nibbles (charcuterie and cheeses). The bottle of Champagne (LPM, for La Petite Montagne, Extra Brut barrel aged, 100 Pinot Meunier from Ullens) we shared was delicious.
We then went to Symbiose, a nearby restaurant I was unfamiliar with, but which had a good rating on Trip Advisor. We skipped the first course and our host ordered a 2016 Ch. Grand Puy Ducasse for the mains. This unfortunately turned out to be corked. We pointed it out to the server and asked him to replace it. He replied that he was incompetent to say one way or other and took a glass to the chef, who insisted that it was fine and just needed a little air.
Needless to say, this left us in somewhat of a quandary, because my wife agreed that the great growth wine was unquestionably corked.
Fortunately, the sommelier, who was off work that day, just happened to come by the restaurant. He was solicited for an opinion and concurred that the wine was indeed corked (admitting to a face-saving “a little”). This was a huge relief and defused an awkward situation, especially seeing as it wasn’t me who was paying the bill. A bottle of 2016 Haut Marbuzet, a reliable Saint-Estèphe, was substituted for the Grand Puy Ducasse. This proved to be delicious and saved the day. I was very glad that things had worked out well, especially as the automatic reaction is to replace the corked wine with another bottle of the same wine. This means, of course, that the risk of running into another corked bottle is magnified…
This is not the first time I’ve encountered such a situation. I was once was in Tunisia, where I had ordered the most expensive wine on the list. Being Muslim, none of the staff knew enough, or admitted knowing enough, about wine to deal with my complaint. They probably hadn’t run into this problem before either. After conferring, they replaced the bottle.
Of course, a huge percentage of the population is unable to identify the presence of 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole (also known as TCA) in wine and another segment can, but doesn’t want to make a fuss… Also, there are degrees of TCA contamination. A slightly corked wine can still be just about acceptable. It’s all a question of concentration and sensory thresholds.
TCA is produced by fungi, mold or certain bacteria in the bark of the cork tree. There’s a good article about it from the Wine Enthusiast site: https://www.wineenthusiast.com/culture/wine/cork-taint-wine-fault-guide/
I was struck by the following statement: “Humans have a remarkable sensitivity to cork taint, with people able to smell TCA between two and five parts per trillion, and some even below one part. That’s like being able to identify one teaspoon of water from 1,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools”.
In my opinion, restaurant policy should be that “the customer is always right” and that they should replace any bottle identified as corked. On the other hand, I can understand a restaurateur’s point of view if he is convinced the wine is not flawed and does not wish to lose money unfairly. It’s a delicate situation.
Waitstaff at restaurants, sometimes even very good ones, often receive little or no training with regard to the wines they serve or how to serve them. I hope that Symbiose kept the wine back and showed their employees what a corked wine tastes like for future reference. Unless they purchased it years ago, it should be possible for them to contact the négociant that sold them the wine and obtain a refund.