Wine Whiner

Dear Helena,

I went out for dinner recently, and I didn’t like the wine the sommelier recommended to me. I didn’t feel comfortable sending it back, as the stuff wasn’t corked—it just wasn’t to my taste. I ended up ordering a second bottle of wine and paying for both. I don’t want to do that again. Can I return a wine simply because I don’t like it?—Sour Grapes

Dear Sour Grapes,

If you had ordered from the wine list without consulting the sommelier, then you couldn’t have returned drinkable wine. But the understood rule among sommeliers is that the onus is on them to find out what your taste in wine is, and satisfy it. Therefore, if the sommelier recommended the wine, you can send it back if you don’t like it.

This may seem unfair to the restaurant, as taste is subjective. After all, it wouldn’t be right to send back your entrée simply because it didn’t tickle your taste buds. But part of being a sommelier is knowing how to find out what the customer likes, even if the customer isn’t very good at describing it. Curious, I asked Eugenio Jardim, sommelier at San Francisco restaurant Jardinière, to share some of his techniques.

Strategic questions. Often the diner knows whether he prefers white or red, but hasn’t thought much beyond that. Jardim narrows it down with questions such as, “Do you prefer full-bodied or lighter wines?” or “Do you like wines with power or finesse?”

Spotting misnomers. Jardim is on the lookout for commonly misused wine terminology. “A customer might tell me, ‘I want a dry white wine,’ but really they don’t want a dry wine like sauvignon blanc,” says Jardim. “What they really mean is they want a somewhat dry wine, maybe with a buttery, oaky flavor, like a soft and almost dry chardonnay.”

Requesting examples. “Some people say they don’t like fruity wines—then ask for a zinfandel. Or else they say they like lighter-bodied red wines, then say they like merlot,” says Jardim. He asks for examples. “I ask them to tell me one wine of the category that they’ve really enjoyed, then extrapolate from that.”

Psychological cunning. Sometimes a customer insists he doesn’t need help but obviously lacks the knowledge to make an informed decision. Then the sommelier must use psychological cunning to convince him to accept advice. Recently, a customer waved Jardim’s assistant away from the table. “He was obviously trying to impress the ladies,” Jardim says. “I approached his table, told him how my assistant had told me he was a great appreciator of wine, and that I wanted to show him the most fun things on my list. Then he accepted my recommendation.”

So the sommelier is skilled at figuring out what you like, even if you’re not fluent in the language of wine. But you have to give him something to go on, however small. He’s not psychic. If all you say is, “I don’t know what I like, but I like great wine,” you can’t send back his choice without paying. But you might note down its name, so that next time you can at least tell him what you don’t like.

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