By Doug Frost
Wine is too much work, at least for many. Too many rituals, too many rules, too much stress. The stress of a waiter or waitress staring at you as you frantically scan the wine list in hopes of finding something familiar. Terror when the server returns to your table and pours you a taste of the wine to approve.
Most people have no idea what they’re supposed to do in that circumstance. Do you look at the glass first? Sip it? Gulp it? Are you supposed to smell the cork? Or should you stick the cork in your ear?
Probably not. A natural wine cork is only a piece of bark intended to keep wine inside the bottle until you’re ready to drink it. Fussing over the cork to see if the wine is good is like turning on the Weather Channel to see if it’s raining outside. It might be easier to just look outside. You’re not approving the cork for consumption; you’re approving the wine. So smell and taste the wine.
If the wine smells like wet newspaper or wet cardboard, stop there. The wine likely has a mold called TCA (trichloroanisole) that seems to grow on something approaching one or two percent of all corks. While it won’t hurt anyone, it’s a sneaky pest; it’s invisible and yet, within minutes of placing the cork in the bottle, the wine smells funky. The fruity character that attracts most people to wine is smothered by a smell like a Boy Scout newspaper drive.
If you think you smell TCA, tell the server. A well-trained server will apologize for the situation (though it’s not the restaurant’s fault) and gladly offer to bring you something else. There’s no reason to find anyone but the cork manufacturer at fault and, in truth, the cork manufacturers have been scratching their heads for years trying to wipe TCA out of their products.
It’s why some wineries use synthetic corks or screwcaps. If the bottle you ordered has a screwcap or synthetic cork, the wine shouldn’t have TCA. But occasionally, some wines still exhibit TCA-like symptoms.
See why people get nervous when they’re supposed to approve a bottle of wine? The experts don’t agree and then everyone else is supposed to know what to do despite that. Well, the rules should be simplified in the following fashion: if you don’t like the bottle of wine, send it back. That’s right. If something bothers you in the way it smells, or the taste isn’t what you hoped it would be, send it back.
Now some restaurateurs are going to get their noses out of joint over this statement. Some will accurately point out that they didn’t make the bottle of wine, so the error is not theirs to rectify. Sure, but restaurants are in the business of selling things we want to drink and eat. If a server brought you a plate of food and you didn’t like it, any decent restaurant would remove it from your bill and bring you something else. Why should what you drink be treated any differently from what you eat?
But, let’s consider the customer’s responsibility in this. First, if you want to send the bottle back, do so right away. Don’t drink half the bottle and then return it. I’d also ask that you give the wine full consideration. Most people drink sweet beverages (soda pop, coffee with sugar, tea with sugar and the like) and any wine, even a so-called sweet wine, has far less sugar than many customers’ usual soda drink or pre-dinner cocktail. There is a slight shock to the system when you taste a glass of Bordeaux right after knocking back a chocolate martini.
Show some respect. Taste the wine twice. Give it a chance. But if you really don’t like it, send it back. If the restaurant gives you grief and refuses, don’t get mad. Try to enjoy the rest of your meal and then consider not going back. That restaurateur may have forgotten that he or she is in the hospitality business and that their purpose is to give customers such delicious things to eat and drink that they want to return and bring more friends and money.
If the restaurant accepts your concern gracefully and quickly offers you some other wine that tastes good to you, tell everyone you know about it.