‘It doesn’t matter how much you know about wine, if you can’t handle people you’re not a good sommelier.’
These words have been spoken to me, with minor variations, by top somms, trainers, and hospitality legends many times down the years. And they came back to me again the other week after a pair of sommeliers did their level best to spoil a night out for a friend and me.
The problem, at its heart, is what to do when a customer thinks the wine is faulty and the sommelier thinks it’s fine. Every venue will have its set protocol, but I would hope that none of you do what our hosts did.
Let me set the scene: It’s a Monday evening. Early. My pal and I are meeting up at 6pm for a drink and a bite. We haven’t seen each other for five years and want somewhere relaxed but good for a chat.
Since my pal trained as a winemaker back in the 1990s and has worked in wine ever since, and I’ve been writing about the stuff since 1996 we wanted somewhere that had a good wine list.
We thought we’d found the perfect place. Both being fans of Pinot and wanting something fairly light to match the early hour, we ordered a bottle of German Spätburgunder and settled in for a chat.
The somm brought the wine, poured – literally – a thimbleful into a large glass and waited for me to approve it. There was so little in the glass, I could barely see it, let alone smell it – but it seemed ok. No evident TCA or oxidative notes, and it’s German Pinot after all, so we weren’t expecting Barossa Shiraz exuberance. We said to go ahead and pour.
Five minutes later, I took my first proper taste, and stopped in my tracks. The wine didn’t smell right. A bit pongy, a bit flat. Was it mineral? Smoky? Savoury? Was I missing something? I tried again and screwed my face up. Horrible.
I asked my mate to confirm my judgment. A bluff Kiwi, he was more definite than me. ‘Fuck! That’s fucked,’ was his eloquent assessment.
We called our somm over and told him, politely, we didn’t think the wine was right. He looked pained – as if I’d just told him I didn’t like his haircut or his questionably tight trousers. Then he removed the bottle and disappeared. Two minutes later he was back and he Had A Pronouncement.
‘I have to inform you sir that the wine is perfectly fine,’ he said and stood there triumphantly. I’m not sure what he expected us to do at this point. Maybe cave in to his superior judgement and tug our forelocks in deference to our vinous superior, then go back to dutifully drinking our bottle of crap.
A bluff Kiwi, he was more definite than me. ‘Fuck! That’s fucked,’ was his eloquent assessment.
‘I don’t think it is,’ I said. ‘It tastes flat and dull to me – like TCA has stripped all the aroma and fruit out of it.’
Then our waiter came out with, what I’d suggest, is the one line a sommelier should never use to anyone: ‘The wine is good, sir. Maybe you just do not understand the style.’
My jaw hit the floor. Was he actually playing the ‘customer ignorance’ card? We were now in a situation where we had to not merely justify our reservations about the wine, but our entire level of wine knowledge.
If I was in a bad mood, I would probably have told the sommelier that I’d been drinking German Pinot since he was in nursery school and maybe it was he who didn’t understand how to deal with customers, but I could see my friend turning red with fury and decided that we had better defuse the situation before he erupted.
‘I do understand the wine, but I don’t think it’s very good,’ I said definitely. ‘And I’m not drinking it, so you’d better sort something out.’
He gave a pained expression, as though chewing a wasp and disappeared again. Two minutes later he reappeared with his manager. They loomed over us in vaguely intimidating fashion.
‘Good evening sir. You have a problem with the wine?’
‘Yes. I think it’s faulty.’
‘But as my colleague explained, the wine is fine, sir.’
‘Well we don’t think it is, and we’re the ones who bought it.’
‘Perhaps you do not understand the style…’
I was ready for it this time…
‘I think we do, but this isn’t right. In any case, we’re not going to drink it. It’s horrible.’
Fortunately, the head somm hit on a brilliant solution. ‘I can bring you an alternative bottle,’ he suggested. ‘But I will have to charge you for both wines.’
Now, this is the point where it could have got very nasty. Were they seriously trying to charge us for a bottle of wine that we thought was faulty? And even if it wasn’t faulty, that we clearly didn’t like?
After all, it wasn’t as if we’d drunk ¾ of the bottle and were trying to chance our way to another full one; nor was it a stupidly expensive of bottle of wine. At £49 on the list, it was, I’d guess, around a £12 wine before VAT.
If I’d been more aggressive or was just having a bad day, I think I’d have picked up my coat and walked out. They could either have written off my order or chased me down the street and tried to manhandle us back into the restaurant. Though since my mate used to play state rugby, I didn’t give much for their chances. Then I remembered what all my sommelier contacts had told me down the years when they get a situation like this.
‘If you think it’s fine, why don’t you just put it on by the glass and sell it tonight,’ I suggested patiently, as though speaking to an idiot. ‘But whatever happens, I’m not drinking it, and I’m not paying for it.’
The sommeliers scuttled off for a third time before returning with their next brilliant solution.
‘Sir,’ said the head sommelier, ‘I can inform you that I will not charge you for the first bottle, and I will offer you a replacement.’
He beamed triumphantly as though he’d just solved Fermat’s Equation. The fact that we’d actually had to supply him with the answer in the first place conveniently overlooked.
My pal and I exchanged glances. It was the obvious solution all along. Why had it taken us so long to get here? We chose a bottle of Cru Beaujolais, and it was fine. The food was more than fine, and we had a good night. But in spite of, rather than because of, our waiting staff.
And I was left with several questions running round my head as I got the train home:
- Is it ever OK to question a customer’s wine knowledge?
- Is it ever OK to contradict their opinions to their face?
- Is it ever OK to ask a customer to pay for something they clearly don’t want?
My guess is that the answer to all of these was ‘no’. But I contacted some people who I respect to see what they would do in the same situation. Their comments are below. But safe to say that not one of them would have suggested to my face that I didn’t ‘understand’ the wine. And all would have replaced it instantly. Which, of course, is exactly as it should be.
If my friend and I had been less confident in our wine knowledge and less used to dealing with waiting staff the whole situation could have deteriorated rapidly. Either a stand-up argument or, worse, a cowed customer embarrassed in front of their friends and having to drink something they didn’t like.
This is not hospitality, it’s bullying; wine knowledge used as a weapon. It’s depressing to think that in the 21st century there are still sommeliers out there who can act like this. They weren’t even old-school. Both were under 30.
If they read this, I hope they remember the evening. And I hope they’re thoroughly ashamed of themselves.
So, what should you do if a customer thinks a wine is faulty and you think it’s fine? We asked five top somms who’ve been there and done that.
Ronan Sayburn MS, 67 Pall Mall
‘Diffusing the situation is very important'
‘First thing is we would agree to change the wine, no problem. This will make the customer happy and relaxed. If we thought there was not a problem with the wine we would suggest they try something different as the second bottle would probably be the same, and not to their taste. This is where diplomacy comes in.
‘We had a magnum of 90 Mouton sent back at 67 Pall Mall recently. It was fine but we didn’t say anything. After a couple of bottles of similar wine they asked to retest the Mouton and when they did realised it was fine so drank it.
‘If we had done the "there’s nothing wrong with it" line they would have never asked to re-taste and drunk it and probably would have had issues with all the other wines.
'Sometimes sommeliers can take it personally if customers question wines. It’s not the sommelier’s fault obviously if a wine is faulty, but they can take complaints badly.’
Andrea Bricarello, ex Galvin
‘I always tell customers that if they don’t like it to tell me and I will take it back. I compare it to tourists going to Venice and being ripped off.
'It doesn’t reflect well on the place, the wine or our profession. I’ve replaced bottles that have cost hundreds of pounds without the blink of an eye. The customer has to enjoy the wine and things like that can ruin the whole evening, and for what? It takes two seconds to change a bottle.’
Laura Rhys MS, ex Terravina
‘When I was a sommelier, I would always take it back. If the wine is sound, the open bottle can be sold by the glass throughout the evening to cover any costs.
'If the wine is indeed showing as it should, I would politely suggest an alternative wine as replacement. If a guest isn’t enjoying a bottle, nothing good can come out of that.’
Christine Parkinson, Hakkasan
‘The answer is simple: we would replace it. The only caveat is that if it's a situation where the wine tastes exactly as it should, then we might encourage the guest to choose a different bottle. We would then sell the remainder by glass, if we could.
‘The worst case scenario (which we had a couple of weeks ago) is where one guest approves the wine, and another one rejects it after it has all been poured out. Really annoying, but we would still replace the bottle. At that point, however, the GM or senior manager might well be involved, and dealing with the guest.’
Laurent Richet MS, Sat Bains
‘We rarely get this situation. If we have a guest choosing a wine we rarely sell because of its style then we will explain what they are about to drink before we open the bottle. If they choose an unusual wine such as a natural wine without being explained beforehand what they were about to buy then it is our fault.
‘In this case we would take the wine away and suggest a wine more in the lines of what they are most used too.
‘In any case, if a guest sends a bottle back because the wine isn't to his taste, we would take it back and discuss with them a better choice to his palate.
‘We always taste the wines before the guests in order to avoid our guest experiencing a faulty wine. If the wine happens to be as it should and indeed not faulty, we would suggest it by the glass on a special price in order to sell it fast and not lose it.’