Professor's House

Returning a Bad Bottle of Expensive Wine

It’s been a delightful evening with a choice group of friends at your home, with appetizers, light wine and cocktails, friendly conversations, and you feel wonderful. You are proud of yourself, your wife, and home, and your ability to entertain the special people in your life.

Now it’s time to ask everyone to move into the dining room for the dinner you two have worked so hard to prepare for tonight. The room fills with the aromas of the meal as you pause to announce the special bottle of wine that you have rescued from the depths of your wine cellar, to be enjoyed with dinner. As you remove foil from around the cap you notice a wrinkling inward of the cork as though it were being sucked into the bottle.

Now you think to yourself, that’s impossible because I have treated it with care, on its side, at optimum temperature for the past eight years, to this year when it was to be at its prime, or so the internet sites said. Feeling the anticipation engulf you, you brush it aside thinking its fine, no problem, it will be excellent. As you insert the corkscrew you notice the cork start to crumble and crack, and then the inevitable “chunk” falls out of the bottle top. You manage to remove the cork, and start to decant the bottle through the stainless steel funnel with strainer you just happen to have at hand.

That’s when the sour aroma hits you in the face, and you feel the slight tremble of your hands, and bead of sweat run down your brow. This bottle of wine is “Corked”! It smells like your dirty gym socks after a marathon run in August! What do you do now? Decant anyway, and pour yourself a taste in a quality glass, with a swirl, sip and don’t barf now, just head to the sink! It’s gone bad and it’s time to tell everyone, and start fresh from the wine cellar with a different wine.

There are a few reasons that a wine “turns” and is not drinkable, with some the fault of the winery who bottled the wine, and sometimes it’s the fault of the person who cared for that bottle since it left its mother winery. In the above instance, a “corked” bottle is one where the cork was contaminated before being placed in the neck of that bottle. Organisms grow inside, and actually eat at the cork, which is why it broke up when you tried to open it. With red wines, especially ones that have aged a while, you will know quickly that there is something wrong. That’s why when dining out, as well as in your home if you are serving properly, you or someone with knowledge, tastes the wine before it is served. Keep in mind that smelling a cork is not going to tell you the wine is bad. Your swirl, sniff and taste, if you even get to the taste part will tell you.

A wine can be bad because it has Maderized, where it has been exposed to excessive heat while stored. Evident usually by the cork appearing to be pushed out a bit, and tasting heavy like a Madeira wine. Another possibility is that some residual yeast remained in the wine, and “re-fermented” in the bottle. Your fine red wine will pour with a fizz like a sparkling wine. And then there is a wine that has “oxidized” where somehow the wine has gotten exposed to oxygen. You won’t notice any odor coming from this wine, but rather should notice that the color is dull, especially with whites that may appear brownish. The taste is flat, lifeless with no excitement, with the exception of tasting like vinegar.

So the question is what you do with this bottle of wine. You know you paid quite a bit of money for it, and the decision comes down to where you purchased it. The special care of fine wines is the responsibility of the person who purchases them, after they leave the store or winery. If you in fact have treated this bottle as if it were your first born, then the fault lies with who handled it before the purchase. If you purchased this bottle of wine directly from the winery, then you need to contact them either in person with the re-corked bottle of wine, or via the phone to explain what happened. It’s a safe bet that no matter what winery you purchased the wine from, they will either offer you another bottle of that particular bottle of wine, or exchange for another, or offer you a refund. Their reputation is on the line, and a bad review is never good for a winery.

Now, the same holds true for an unpleasant experience when dining out. You either have ordered a fine bottle of wine from wine list, or asked the restaurant Sommelier for a recommendation, and asked for a bottle. In most cases, when that bottle arrives, you are asked to inspect the bottle, its label, and if acceptable the bottle is opened for you. The cork is placed in front of you for examination, but really now, the proof is in the pudding, not the bowl, so let’s give it a swirl, sniff and taste. You immediately realize that one of the problems mentioned above is at hand here and the wine is bad. You inform the waiter or wine Stewart, and they will follow the protocol of the restaurant. They may offer to replace it with another bottle of this wine, or allow you to purchase a different bottle.

Another possibility scenario would be the restaurant owner or wine “expert” would pour a glass and taste it themselves to confirm that it is truly tainted. In the few times that this has happened to me, I have never been questioned, and have always been treated with apologies and the owner and staff going out of their way to reverse the situation. You are the customer, and if you believe the wine is bad, then it is bad. One note of caution, and I am just saying for those not having years of experience and training, you must know what that particular wine should taste like, within reason. There are some wines that have very particular nose and flavor to them that might not be pleasant to some, but expected to others, and the wine is fine.

I will end by saying that the best case of avoiding this is a process that I don’t see much of here in the United States, probably because of greed for the wine. I’m talking about the European wine culture, especially in the finer restaurants of Italy and France, where the wine Stewart will decant your wine, and pour a generous taste for him (or herself). It is their profession and their pleasure, for sure, to ensure that the expensive fine wine you purchased to accompany your dinner, is spectacular, and tainted in no way. Here in the U.S. I am sure that if a diner noticed an employee pouring and drinking from their expensive bottle of wine, serious things would happen, and not to pretty.

So, the bottom line is, if you discover you have a bad bottle of wine, from wherever you purchased, at least in the U.S. take it back, send it back, or call, because remember, the customer is always right. And if someone tells you that you are wrong, then pick up your iPhone, iPad or smart phone, in front of them, and tell the world about your experience, on Facebook and Twitter. You will be very surprised how quickly someone from that winery or store contacts you, on their knees.

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