Trying new things is one of the most exciting parts about dining out. From dishes made with unusual preparations and ingredients, to signature cocktails crafted with unfamiliar spirits, restaurant menus are filled with items that give diners the unique opportunity to branch out.
This is perhaps even more true when it comes to wine — with lists often incorporating unsung varietals and obscure regions that make trying a new-to-you wine a rather easy task. But what do you do if branching out backfires, and you end up with a bottle of wine you don’t like? We asked Robin Wright, beverage director at NYC’s Ci Siamo, for advice on how to navigate this unfortunate situation.
First, Wright says, it’s important to be honest. While some guests may begrudgingly drink the wine they were served, even if they aren’t enjoying it, she insists that most somms would rather find a different bottle that the guest will love. “We can tell when people aren’t enjoying a wine,” she says. Instead of politely choking it down, “we would rather have the guest come back and remember that we will get the correct wine for them,” she says.
In some cases, before taking the bottle off your table, a somm might decant it in the hopes that opening up the wine will help the situation. But if that doesn’t work, somms at upscale establishments will immediately get to work on finding you a new bottle. “We have a new age of somms who are young, eager, and hospitality-focused. They really do want to find the right wine for you,” Wright says. To help your somm do so, it’s important to tell them what, exactly, it is about the initial wine that you didn’t like. Was it too light? Too full-bodied? How does it differ from the wines you typically drink and enjoy? Be specific with your somm, avoiding terms like “good” or “bad” to describe the wine. This will help the wine pro understand how they can better serve you with the next bottle.
While some patrons may be nervous to send back a wine that their somm hand-picked for them — especially an expensive one — Wright says any hospitality-focused restaurant would prefer to eat the cost of a wine than have a guest leave with a bad taste in their mouth. “We didn’t make the wine, so we shouldn’t be offended,” she says. And whether the bottle is $20 or $1,000, she assures guests that no bottle goes to waste. “If it’s actually flawed, we might be able to get a credit.” If the wine isn’t corked but is simply not pleasing to a guest, Wright says the somm will either sip it themselves at the end of the night, share it with a server who’s been working particularly hard, or, in some cases, sell it by the glass to other guests.
Of course, Michelin-starred restaurants like Ci Siamo will likely handle the situation differently than your local dive, where sending a bottle back may not be taken as kindly. “Don’t expect too much at a restaurant without an extensive wine program,” Wright says. In these local haunts, she says, it may be best to restrain your more adventurous side — sticking to regions, styles, and producers that you know you like.