In Vino Veritas LXIV – skunked wine as service excellence

For all of my fellow oenophiles out there, it’s one of the worst feelings in the world. You pop open a bottle, pour yourself a glass, take a sip and your mouth is hit by a musty, astringent splash that eviscerates any lingering flavors. The wine is skunked and utterly worthless.

However, in a hospitality capacity, corked bottles can serve as an opportunity to wow your patrons. It all comes down to one of the hallmarks of a service culture. It’s not just about how well you provide for your guests but how well you recover from any errors or experiential gaps, with the term of ‘double deviations’ epitomizing this concept.

The biggest worry about a bottle going stale is that you never can tell until it’s opened. Of course, you can make assumptions based on the winery, varietal and vintage, but it’s still always a question mark. A litmus test of sorts before you even let a guest take a sip is to sniff the wet end of the cork. The aroma will, as per the title, obviously have skunky elements, while other telltale signs of decay are any notes of wood, mold, manure, barnyard, hay, potato skins or asparagus. If you have never encountered a corked bottle, you’ll know it when you smell it!

The taste will follow in stride and more strongly than the funky fragrance, but if the smell is palpably wrong, the last thing you want to do is let a guest endure the displeasure of having even one drink. Right there, just with a simply whiff, is the chance for your servers to demonstrate their knowledge and deepen their rapport with customers. There are also other visual signs to note so that your team can best service their patrons by preventing them from tasting a skunked drop, including the liquor having a brownish, opaque color, a fizzy structure when it’s not a sparkling wine or perhaps the cork pushed out slightly from the neck.

Regardless of when or how the rot is discovered, though, what matters most is what your server does next. The most basic form of follow-up is to go back to the cellar, put out another bottle of the same label and open it to see if it too is off. In all likelihood it’ll taste just fine. However, you must keep in mind that by this point the table has been waiting for its drinks for an additional five to 10 minutes, delaying the regular course of the collective meal experience and letting frustration set in to reduce overall meal satisfaction.

A little something extra is needed to balance the books, even if the deterioration of flavors was in no way your restaurant’s fault. The fact remains that guests will perceive this as a slight on your part and they are thus justified in their nonverbal desires for a gratis gift for their troubles. While I’m not suggesting you comp the entire purchase, a free dessert or an extra round at the end of the meal will go a long way to both positively surprising this customer set and building more advocacy for your restaurant than if everything had gone smoothly from the start.

This has happened to me twice at restaurants. The first was at Gordon Ramsay Steakhouse in Paris Las Vegas where I ordered a bottle of Clos Vougeot 2009. The sommelier tasted it before me – the correct approach – and promptly rejected the bottle before bringing out a second bottle of the same wine, which was perfect.

The second was at the Le Champlain in the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac in Québec City, where I ordered a bottle of Fixin Premier Cru, an above-average burgundy although the vintage escapes me. This time the sommelier poured the wine for me to taste, and when I remarked that it was terrible he too tasted it then concurred that it was off. Afraid to bring out another bottle of the same wine, he upgraded me to a grand cru of an even better year for no additional charge.

Although the recovery incentive was better for the latter incident, what’s remarkable is that, despite both incidents occurring years ago, the adept handling of events is still quite memorable.

The key here is that whenever there is a fault, your recovery efforts must be speedy and forthright. And instead of leaving these types of situations up to the moment whereby a manager is forced to make a decision extemporaneously, you might go about setting up a protocol in advance for how to best compensate guests for their troubles.