Sweet Rejection – Returning Wine in a Restaurant

WineSnark Snobby WaiterLately I’ve come across several articles about the uncomfortable task of rejecting a flawed bottle of wine when it arrives at your table. I thought I’d join the conversation since I’ve been married for over 30 years and that qualifies me as an expert in rejection. It’s actually been a great 30 years and my wife openly admits it’s been the best ten years of her life. If she could turn back time she wouldn’t ask me to change a thing – except maybe the white suit I wore for ten years following Saturday Night Fever.

Years ago a new restaurant opened in our neighborhood and given the high praise it received from the gourmand filling my gas tank I decided to put on my white suit and take my wife there for her birthday. It’s these kinds of decisions that make me the unequivocal rejection expert I am today.

After a meal that was as tepid as the wine service I ordered a glass of dessert wine and found myself in the unusual position of having to send it back even though it was perfectly fine. It had no discernable flaws and was in fact, quite good – in other words, it was a wine that had nothing in common with me.

I was in the mood for something full-bodied, sweet and voluptuous but since the odds of getting that were slim I settled for a glass of port. Ordering port by the glass in a restaurant is a slippery slope and in this case the slope was littered with banana peels.

Many restaurants labor under the misconception that once opened, all port wine will remain vibrant indefinitely. While it’s true that some ports remain stable for a couple of months after opening, others, such as those in the high-priced “Vintage Port” category, will only last a few days  once exposed to oxygen. The shelf life is even shorter if the Vintage Port is fully mature, a condition my wife hopes I may someday attain.

Oxidation brings about the demise of all wine in due time but Tawny Port undergoes a process that gradually oxidizes the wine before bottling, making it somewhat immune to the negative effects of air. Age-designated Tawny Port spends an average of 10, 20, 30, or 40 years in an oak barrel – a device that somehow allows oxygen to come and go while simultaneously keeping its precious liquid contained. This slow oxidation process gradually changes the finished wine into a golden tawny color and assures quality drinking for a few months after opening.

Okay, that’s all well and good if you’re a Tawny Port guy but I prefer port from the ruby side of the spectrum – wines like Vintage Port. Unfortunately, ordering Vintage Port by the glass is a surefire way to get an oxidized lump of sediment in your glass, and while this really upsets me, it doesn’t bother my wife who claims she’s been dining with an oxidized lump of sediment for years.

Thankfully industrious port producers have come up with some ruby style ports that have an extended shelf life once opened and as an added bonus they’re a lot cheaper than Vintage Port. Of course price is insignificant to a big spender who spares no expense when he takes his wife out for her birthday. I know because there was one sitting next to us.

Late Bottled Vintage port is a wine produced from a single vintage that has been matured in oak casks between four and six years so that it is ready to drink once bottled. Over lunch many years ago, Bruce Guimaraens, the late winemaker for the Fonseca and Taylor-Fladgate port houses, told me that LBVs can last four to six weeks after opening but I’ve had a tough time confirming this as my bottles rarely survive the night.

I ordered an LBV from a reputable producer; the waiter brought me the glass and turned to leave.

“Excuse me, but this isn’t what I ordered.”

He turned and said, “Oh yes sir. That is the Graham’s 1996 Late Bottled Vintage Port that you asked for.”

My wife shot the waiter a quick glance – a glance laden with meaning if only the poor, oblivious soul could read glances. Understanding the unspoken words inherent in a woman’s glance takes years of dedicated study and perseverance, or a few weeks of being married. My wife is multilingual – she speaks glance, glimpse, glare, and even some gander. I have become an expert at understanding her silent communications and let me tell you, this glance had meanings for both the waiter and me.

To the waiter her glance said, “Whoa. Step away from the table there big fella. This cannot end well for you.” To me the glance said something along the lines of, “If you ruin my birthday you’ll be writing about rejection for the next thirty years.”

I’m not a wine snob. Really, you can stop laughing – I’m not. I believe in education not humiliation, which is why I’m unqualified to work in a trendy Brooklyn bistro. “It’s okay.” I replied, “Really. I’ll drink it but I just thought you should know that the wine in this glass is not Graham’s LBV.”

I sipped the wine before me, felt its familiar warmth and caramelized, nutty nuances and said, “This is a fine glass of wine … too.”

Our waiter got a little indignant and walked off in a huff, which left me wondering, “just what is a huff and how do you get into one?”

I snuck a peek at my wife and the glance said, “Why can’t you just let it go?”

I pretended not to notice and sipped my wine. I remember thinking something like, “Port is to man as a router is to oak. It takes the hard, splintery edge off, transforming the rough hewn into the polished” or maybe it was, “I hope I can afford this dinner.”

I felt the wine’s comforting familiarity warm my throat and course through my veins. The rough edges of my day fell away like splinters from a board and for one brief moment I closed my eyes and could no longer tell where my flesh ended and the chair upon which I sat began. Some talk of “becoming one with nature.” When I drink I become “one with Ethan Allen”.

And then he returned.

“Sir,” he said sweetly, “I checked with the bartender and he assures me he gave you the Graham’s LBV.”

“Thank you for checking but I don’t want you to be embarrassed the next time someone orders this wine so you should be aware that the wine I ordered is not the wine you brought me. But don’t worry, this is a fine glass of wine and if not for your interruptions I would really be enjoying it.”

Picture a glance that rolls its eyes without actually rolling its eyes and you’d get an idea of the glance my wife shot me. This is very advanced linguistics I’m talking about. The kind of complex semantics that can only be deciphered by those with advanced degrees in semasiology or husbands.

He retreated again and I resumed the reverie with my delightful dinner companion and my wife. Just as the wine began to weave its magical spell over me again the waiter returned. My wife, exhausted from so much glancing, excused herself.

He held out a bottle of Graham’s LBV and proudly proclaimed, “You see sir! I have brought you the bottle of wine that you are drinking.”

I politely leaned forward and examined the bottle of wine he presented. “Ah yes, the Graham’s LBV. A very nice bottle of wine, and coincidentally the wine that I ordered, but it is not the wine I’m drinking.”

The offended waiter protested, “Look, I brought this bottle over here to prove that I served you the Graham’s LBV. You said it was the wrong wine without even picking up the glass! You didn’t smell it! You didn’t taste it! What makes you so sure it’s not Graham’s LBV!”

I set an empty glass next to the first and asked him to pour the wine he held in his hand. Once he poured the opaque, ruby-hued Graham’s LBV I held up both glasses. The difference between the dark ruby LBV and the transparent, copper-hued tawny port was unmistakable.

Like a spectator at Wimbledon he looked from glass to glass to glass to glass. He examined the bottle in his hand and then turned back to the different colored wines before him. His mouth opened as if to speak but then he simply turned and walked away.

My wife returned and smiled knowingly. “Were you nice at least?” she asked.

“I was as sweet as port.”

“Good,” she said, “maybe you won’t be complaining about rejection tonight.”

“Check please.”


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