How to return a bad bottle of wine

Part of my job includes answering the customer service calls and emails at the winery where I work. We get the occasional call/email from consumers who feel there is a problem with their wine purchase. It seems that lately I've gotten more of these than usual and I don't think there is anything wrong with the wine.
My theory is since the economy is in the crapper, people are more likely to get upset when spend good money on a bottle that doesn't meet their expectations. But to be honest, bad bottles do occasionally happen. If you follow a few simple rules, you might be surprised to find that returning a bad bottle isn't a big deal.

Here's an example that happened last Friday afternoon. I answered the phone (4:45 pm on Friday- my mistake, I know) and found myself speaking to a caller with a complaint. Here's a reenactment of our conversation.

Guy: "I bought a bottle of your wine and when I opened it the cork fell apart and was wet all the way to the top."
Me: "Which wine did you buy?"
Guy: It was the 2002 blah blah blah Cabernet."
Me: "Did you taste it? Was there a problem?"
Guy: "It tasted kinda off."
Me: "Did you try returning it to the retailer?"
Guy: "They told me to call you."
Me: "Where did you buy it?"
Guy: "I bought it at Longs [Drugstore] in Petaluma"
Me: "Does the Longs in Petaluma usually these sorts of wines? I know the Longs where I shop doesn't sell more expensive wines."
Guy: "This Longs sometimes has some good deals on wine."
Me: "Do you have the wine so we could take a look at it?"
Guy: "Uh, no, I had some and gave it to my friend to drink" I hear another voice in background saying "Yeah, it was kinda off."
Me: "That's not our current release. The 2002 was released to the market in 2005. We haven't sold any of that vintage since then. It sounds like Longs got a deal on some leftover wine and it hasn't been stored properly. I'm sorry, I can't help you with that. You need to talk to Longs about it."

Where do you think this caller went wrong?

1. Buy your wine from a reputable wine retailer. You are more likely to be able to return it if there is a problem and chances are good that you will buy a bottle that has been stored properly. You can also ask the store about their policy about returning bad bottles and that should be a good clue to whether a retailer cares about its customers and wine quality.

If you see a spendy wine marked with a price too good to be true at a place where towering case stack displays of Sutter Home and Franzia boxed white zinfandel are the norm, please keep the following phrase in mind, "Buyer Beware." Who knows what route the wine might have taken to get there. This was the guy's first mistake.

Tip- If your local grocery store always has a killer wine selection, that's great. Try speak with the person in charge of the wine department instead of the 16 year old clerk with way-too-much makeup if you need to return a bottle.

2. Save your receipt. Always a good idea.

3. Save the wine for return. If you open a bottle of wine and something seems wrong, ie: bad smell, musty taste, cork on a newer bottle falls apart, by all means pour a bit in a glass and confirm your suspicions, heck- let it breath for 30 min and see what happens. If it doesn't improve then put the cork right back into bottle and put the bottle aside until you have time to return it. Make a few notes on the aromas or flavors to help you describe the issue if needed. DO NOT under any circumstances pour out the wine, or give it to your less picky friend to drink. This was the second mistake.

You aren't going to get anywhere with an empty bottle. This is akin to eating every last bit of your meal and then telling the waitperson you didn't like it. Retailers and restaurants regularly return bad bottles to the distributor for credit. The winery where I work will occasionally have a bottle of their more expensive wine shipped back to the winery, at their expense, for analysis depending on the problem.

Tip- If there is a problem with the cork and you can't reuse it, then use a cork from another bottle, or take some plastic wrap and a rubber band- be creative- just stopper the bottle and save the bad cork to show when you return the bottle.

Tip- If you are using email send a photo along showing bottle or cork damage if appropriate.

4. Be polite. You know the old saying "You get more flies with honey than with vinegar." This is especially true if you are claiming the wine in question has turned to vinegar. This guy was polite, I'll give him points for that, but I've had other people start out calls and emails in a more threatening mode. If you start out nicely and explain the problem you have a better chance of getting some help. If the clerk or customer service person is rude, you have my permission to express your disappointment in a way that Miss Manners would approve of.

Tip- Everyone is flattered when you ask for advice. It's a good way to start off your conversation or email when you have a complaint about the wine.

The good news is I don't turn everyone down. While I can't speak for every winery, if you call me I'm going to give you a fair shot. I'll ask you to describe what wrong with the wine, where you bought it, how it was stored, and if you have the bottle of wine for us to examine. I'm looking for clues that point to things like wine that is "corked," usually a musty, off flavor caused by fungi growing in the cork, or where wild yeasts or bacteria have given the wine off flavors the winemaker did not intend to be there.

If you can give me legitimate answers to my questions that point to a flaw in the winemaking I will happily replace a bad bottle. You might also be surprised to know that I pass the information consumers give us along to our winemaking staff and ask their opinion on problems when we aren't sure about the answer.
In this case, the evidence pointed to improper storage after the wine left the winery's care, which is one thing the winery does not guarantee. I can guarantee, however if ever buy a bad bottle and you follow these my suggestions you have a much better chance of getting a replacement or your money refunded.

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