I recently overheard a fellow diner inform her server that she just didn’t like the wine she ordered. A moment of silence followed. The bottle had been opened. A glass — or maybe two — had been poured. Servers like to please their customers. Small restaurants have small to nonexistent profit margins.
I dragged my attention back to my own dinner companion, so I don’t know the outcome of the impasse, but it did make me think more clearly about a common dilemma: You order a bottle of wine knowing just what you want and the first few sips make clear that this is not the wine you anticipated. What can you do?
The short and brutal answer: If you can’t be with the wine you love, love the wine you’re with. Chances are good that it will grow on you, that more exposure to air will improve it, that it will taste quiet different once you sip it with your appetizer. Give it a chance.
If, halfway through the meal, you still don’t like it, well, write down the name and avoid ordering it — and perhaps others from the same winery — in the future. Unlike a sweater or necklace that you return to a store, the bottle cannot be re-sold by the restaurant, and it’s unfair to request that they bring you another that you might (or might not) like more.
As with most simple answers, though, there are exceptions. The most obvious: something’s wrong with the wine. If the wine is “corked,” for example, you not only can but should send it back. It wouldn’t harm you drink it, but no self-respecting winery would want you to think their product smelled and tasted like wet dog or rotten cardboard. Sometimes the taint is barely detectable by most drinkers. I was once halfway through a glass when the winemaker told me it was slightly corked. I wouldn’t have noticed. I just thought it tasted a bit dull. Other times I’ve known as soon as I sniffed that something was seriously wrong.
It’s not usually necessary, by the way, to taste the wine to find out if it’s corked. Just smell the sample that the server pours and if it has a nice aroma, it isn’t corked. If it smells a bit moldy, it might be corked (or it might just need a few breaths of air) and you should go ahead and taste. I know they do it in the movies, but don’t bother to inhale the cork — that will tell you nothing since most corks smell a little funky.
Luckily, fewer and fewer bottles are corked these days, thanks to improved cork quality and screw caps. I’ve only opened one corked bottle in the past year. Chances are that your bottle is just fine.
There’s another exception to the “suck it up” answer, an even more complicated one. Say you don’t see anything on the list you know you like or say you’re just in the mood to branch out and try something new (which I encourage you to do). So you say to your server, “Could you recommend a bone-dry white?” She or he gives you a glowing report of a perfect riesling. You order it. She opens it and pours you a sip. It’s sweet. Really sweet. Then I think you have good ground for requesting a replacement. You trusted your server to bring something at least in the “dry” range, and she didn’t. She should have been better trained.
On the other hand, say you merely asked for a wine that would go well with your crab salad and the server says, “This riesling is one of our best sellers and my own favorite white.” If it’s too sweet for your taste, well, you should have been more specific. Even a sweetish riesling might work very well with a crab salad, and it’s not your server’s fault that you would have preferred something drier.
In a central coast fish restaurant I once ordered a supposedly dry white, recommended by my server, and was dismayed when I tasted the sweetness on my tongue. But I must admit that it nicely complemented my fish, and by the time I had finished my first glass, I was quite happy with it.
After all that, I’ll tell you about a wine you won’t want to send back. At least if you’re looking for that bone-dry white. I had and liked a bottle of the 2011 Vin de Savoie Jongieux, so when John at Valley Wine company suggested the 2012, I brought a bottle home. Lovely. Just what I wanted. Crisp with a bit of lemon and a bit of apple and some nice mineral at the end, it’s even better than the 2011. Lovely straw color. Food-friendly. Low in alcohol (11.5 percent) and only $11.
Another delicious white I tried recently — not bone-dry — is the white table wine from Brookes. A blend of pinot gris, pinot blanc, rielsing and gewürtztraminer, it comes from biodynamically grown grapes in the Willamette Valley and has a lovely floral aroma and taste. Citrusy with lots of stone fruit — think apricot — and a tiny touch of honey, it’s refreshing and delicious for summer drinking. You can try a taste for just $2.25 at Vini. You can buy a bottle there, too.
I don’t usually recommend wine that you can’t get locally, but since Berkeley isn’t that far away and since the wine store, Vino!, is just a couple of blocks from the Berkeley Amtrak station, I’ll share my latest pinot noir discovery. I almost passed this beauty up because the tall slender bottle looked just like an Alsatian riesling or pinot blanc.
Well, the wine is indeed from Alsace, but it’s 100 percent pinot noir: 2009 Gustave Lorentz, a family winery with about 100 acres in central Alsace that has been making wine since 1836. Added attraction: Gustave Lorentz is currently in the process of having all its vineyards certified organic. This cherry-infused pinot is light but intensely flavorful. At only 12.5 percent alcohol, it pairs easily with all sorts of food. Try it with anything mushroom. Or with some wild salmon now that the season for that treat approaches.
One way to be sure you won’t be sending your wine back would be to bring this elegant bottle with you (and, of course, cheerfully pay whatever corkage fee you’re charged), especially if you want to excite the curiosity of your server and your fellow dinners. They’ll never guess you paid only $13 for it.
— Reach Susan Leonardi at firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com