Years ago I was served a bad bottle of wine -- a young Petite Sirah -- at a trendy grill in Manhattan's Tribeca neighborhood. As the waiter poured my "taste," I didn't have a good feeling. The wine should have been an inky purple; instead it had an unappealing rusty tinge. I pointed this out even before I smelled it, and when I took a sip my suspicions were validated: The wine had clearly been cooked at some point in its short life. It smelled (and tasted) like a glass of grandma's cheap cooking sherry.
"That's how it's supposed to taste," the waiter claimed. The sommelier was summoned, and he insisted (without looking at, smelling or tasting the wine) that it wasn't spoiled. Perhaps they thought they could bully me into accepting the bottle because I was young.
Eventually, inexplicably, they offered us free desserts if we'd drink it.
We refused, of course. The wine was undrinkable. Finally, they relented and took back the bottle.
I was reminded of this event recently when I returned an undrinkable Spanish rosé to a local higher-end "healthy" food market. I explained that the wine was tainted by TCA (a compound called 2,4,6 trichloranisole), which caused it to smell like a musty basement. The manager reluctantly took the bottle but explained it was their corporate policy "not to accept returns of open wine," so he really shouldn't be doing it.
Shocked at this breach of customer service, I contacted the corporate offices to confirm their inane policy. They were very apologetic and promised me they had contacted the manager to inform him that their actual policy is to gladly take back open wine that's been spoiled.
Now there are lots of opportunities for wine to get ruined before it ever hits your retailer's shelf or lands on your table at a restaurant. For example, it can get exposed to oxygen and/or high heat for a prolonged period. (Wine that's been treated this way might have telltale leakage from under the foil capsule, and the cork might be slightly pushed up.) Additionally, it's said that 5 to 10 percent of bottles closed with natural cork might be affected by TCA before they ever leave the winery.
So if your waiter or retailer gives you a hard time about refusing a bad bottle, don't eat or shop there again. After all, you're the customer, and you're always right.
CONTACT MICHAEL SCHIAPARELLI: Mschiapa@(at)cinci.rr.com