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The Wine Ethicist: Boston Mangler Edition

2012 February 14
by Mike

Counterfeit wines are back in the news, thanks to that crazy auction in London last week. For some reason, the UK controversy brought to mind one of the stranger wine experiences that I’ve ever had. A number of years ago, my wife and I were in Boston for a weekend. Our hotel had a well-regarded restaurant with an ambitious wine program that included Château d’Yquem by the glass (I can’t recall the vintage). We had dinner there one night, and struck up a nice rapport with the sommelier. In fact, as we were ordering dessert, he made an astonishingly generous offer: he said he wanted to give us each a glass of Yquem on the house. Twist our arms! We accepted, and thanked him profusely. A few minutes later, he returned to the table with two glasses of what we had thought would be Yquem.

At the time, I had just started to dabble in wine writing and had nothing like the knowledge, tasting experience, and pomposity that I have now. However, I had tried Yquem, and judging by the pale color of the wine that was brought to us, I immediately suspected it wasn’t a Sauternes. The first sip sealed it: although it was a sweet wine, it definitely wasn’t a Sauternes, and it sure as hell wasn’t Yquem. My wife and I were baffled, and we spent several minutes speculating, sotto voce, about what had happened and discussing what to do. Had the sommelier made a mistake, or was he trying to put one over on us? Had one of his colleagues poured the wrong wine? Should we say something or not? In the end, we decided to keep our mouths shut. The Yquem had been offered gratis, and whatever the reason for the switcheroo, we didn’t want to put the sommelier on the spot. But just to reassure ourselves that we weren’t nuts, we went to the bar late the next morning and ordered a glass of Yquem, which confirmed that there had indeed been an imposter in our Riedels the night before.

So did we make the right call, or should we have said something? Have you ever had a similar experience, and how did you handle it? And let me also throw in a bonus question, prompted by all the renewed chatter about counterfeit wines: If you drank a famous wine—say, the 47 Cheval Blanc—and loved it, but later learned that your bottle had been a fake, how would you feel?

20 Responses leave one →
  1. February 17, 2012

    You all seem to be suffering from a case of excessive over-politeness!!! (except for Chris Robinson). If a somm makes a mistake (whether deliberate or accidental) the correct response (for me) is to politely bring the issue up. If the mistake was deliberate, the somm deserves whatever embarassment you’re capable of delivering to him! If it was an honest mistake, then no harm done – these things happen, and he might even learn to be a better and more careful somm in the future. Saying nothing is worse for both parties: it leaves a bad taste in the mouth of the customer (ho! ho!). You still remember the incident after several years, don’t you? And it’s bad for the somm because you haven’t given him honest feedback on the job he’s doing. A little embarassment is a small price to pay for gaining experience and becoming a better somm, no?

  2. Larry Kantrowitz permalink
    February 16, 2012

    That is correct, we were VIP’d also because my wife at the time was working at the Stanhope Hotel as pastry assisant and Jean Vergne was the consulting chef and original partner and chef at Le Cirque and he called Sirio, that aside Daniel (fromage de tete et pied was sublime with the 1979 RSV) was in the kitchen and Jacques Torres bombarded us with a multi-course dessert tasting that wasn’t even on the check. Still very memorable despite the string. I loved Ruth’s review of the place, we sat in front and people kept looking to see who we were, I was maybe 23…oh and we smoked a fatty before in the park LOL

  3. Jim permalink
    February 16, 2012

    I had a related but different experience. In 1992 I took a bottle of wine to a restaurant to celebrate a special anniversary–a 1982 Chateau Lafite Rothschild. The restaurant took the bottle of wine in the back and returned to the table with the decanted wine, empty bottle and cork. The wine was less than I expected but I was more focused on my evening and chalked it up to going through a “dumb” phase. Having since had other bottles from the same case I am absolutely convinced that they gave me something other than my wine in the decanter. Lesson learned

  4. February 15, 2012

    Chris, I used to live in Hong Kong, and have watched with fascination as the wine culture there has exploded. And, yes, a lot of fakes are circulating in China, including Hong Kong. I’ve written pretty extensively about the fraud issue, and it’s a problem that is not going away, as we saw very clearly with that controversial auction last week in London.

    Larry, let me make sure I understand: you ordered DRC at lunch, you were served a piece of meat that had string still in it, and they bamboozled you with the dessert wine that they were comping you on account of the string? Unbelievable. I never liked that restaurant, and the reason I didn’t like it was because of Sirio–if you were a friend of his or a VIP, you got his attention, and if you were neither, you were exiled to Siberia and ignored. When she was the NYT’s restaurant critic, Ruth Reichl wrote a wonderful review in which she talked about the very different treatment she had received at Le Cirque when she was recognized versus when she’d been able to maintain her anonymity. I always thought it was a despicable way to run a restaurant.

  5. February 15, 2012

    Art, it was definitely a sweet wine–it just wasn’t Yquem.

    Robin, those must have been confusing situations; you knew something wasn’t right, but how wrong was it? In my case, I definitely knew that it wasn’t Yquem in the glass, so it was a bit more clear-cut. Re the 47 Cheval, I have a better solution–I would make that person teach me how to produce such a great knockoff! I wouldn’t sell it, of course; I’d just drink it myself.

  6. Larry Kantrowitz permalink
    February 15, 2012

    I had a somewhat similar experience years ago at Le Cirque. It was our first time there and we were spending lots of money, DRC at lunch. My Blanquette de Veau had a string in it so the captain asked to buy us a round of dessert wine and I ordered the 1970 Taylor (which I was going to order and pay for anyway) and to this day I am sure I was served a simple Ruby Port. I didnt say anything because I was scared that Sirio might come over…silly me

  7. Chris Robinson permalink
    February 15, 2012

    Mike not in the wine trade just in one of the few countries in the world where there is no duty on wine. This means we get everything here (Hong Kong) much of it on its way to China, where faking is now an art. I would say since the mid 1980’s a few European distributors have been notorious in faking fine wines, many of them clearly ending up in the Koch wine collection or those fabulous Rodenstock tastings that have contributed much egg on the faces of some of the most notable wine writers of that period. These are often 19th C Bordeaux in old hand blown bottles. Most of them are clearly old wines that have been enhanced with some fresher wines probably from around the 1980’s, thus most have a telltale freshness that gives the game away. I have had 1947 Cheval twice and it is remarkable, almost black in color, full flavored and clearly showing classic tertiary development. Hard to fake that baby. You are absolutely right re Rieussec and I would add Ch. Raymond Lafon as one of the best value Sauternes around – made by the ex-directeur of guess wh0 – Yquem!!

  8. February 15, 2012

    In retrospect, Frank, that might have been a good strategy. But, again, it would have put the sommelier on the spot, and whether the switcheroo was deliberate or just a mistake, who knows how he would have reacted.

    Chris, I completely agree with your point about Yquem’s quality relative to other Sauternes; in my book, it is definitely not 4-5 times better than, say Rieussec. But in the situation that I described, you would have said something to the sommelier? And further to your comment–so you’ve encountered a lot of fake rarities? Are you in the wine trade?

  9. RobinC permalink
    February 15, 2012

    I have had almost the exact same experience, twice. Once at the Metropolitan Opera at the restaurant on what used to be called the Alberto Villars tier, (and is now the Mercedes Bass tier), I ordered a glass of Château d’Yquem. I had not had it before, and it may well indeed have been Château d’Yquem , but it was quite undistinguished. Then, I went to a champage bar in New York, and order a glass of Charles Krug something; I seriously doubt it was Krug as there was no one else in the bar and I can’t imagine either their opening a bottle for me or having a fairly fresh opened bottle in the fridge. It was not so great, but that can happen.
    If I drank a glass of ’47 Cheval Blanc and loved it and it turned out to be a fake, I would track down the person who perpetrated this fraud and devote my life to making his or her life miserable until the day that I was so old that I forgot why I was doing this.

  10. Art Rose permalink
    February 15, 2012


  11. Chris Robinson permalink
    February 15, 2012

    Are you guys kidding? This has been around for years. How many times have I been feted with a great aged Bordeaux only to look at the color and aromatics and ask myself from what year in the 1990’s was this wine. Usually it is someone’s birthday or anniversary or some such event where to question the wine would be simply bad manners. But if a sommelier put the wine in front of me, they are fair game. Yquem, hand on heart, is never a standout wine. To be honest, it is hard pressed to claim a price differential of 4-5 times the next ranked Sauternes. Winemakers have come and gone at Yquem and usually end up in some of the best other vineyards in the area, taking all those skills with them. To be claiming to be a wine at the top of the Sauternes category requires no special tasting skills other than experience. This is not rocket science. When that duck doesn’t quack it ain’t a duck. If a sommelier served the wine to me I would be absolutely forthright and question the provenance. One minute with the bottle will generally tell you the truth. I have sat through too many 19th Chateau Lafite tastings to be conned by this nonsense. If its red ruby it ain’t old. If it lacks that singing acidity along with the moulleux it ain’t Sauternes.

  12. Frank permalink
    February 14, 2012

    Any sane person would drink a glass (at whatever price) of Y’Quem dry, let the dregs accumulate in the bottom of the glass, and then try to coax one more drop out. In your case, if you had left the glasses with the wine obviously unconsumed, the sommelier would get the message, but you wouldn’t embarrass him/her by turning back the gift.

    When asked what was wrong, you could tell him/her gently that you were unsure it was what he thought.

  13. February 14, 2012

    Maureen, there’s a good chance it was an honest mistake, and it may indeed have been someone else’s fault. It was a Saturday night, the restaurant was busy–it could just have been a service fail, as you put it. At any rate, I thought we handled it as well as we could, and glad you concur. Re fakes–have you ever had the experience of drinking a rarity that really impressed you, only to later learn that it might have been a counterfeit?

    Ron, that’s a really interesting take, and as with Toby’s point, something I hadn’t thought of. My only concern is that it would have required some very delicate wording, and the chance of causing offense would have been considerable. As I said, it’s possible the sommelier just tried to put one over on us, in which case any probing, no matter how gentle, would have probably elicited a hostile reaction.

  14. Ron Rusnak permalink
    February 14, 2012

    I’d of said something, after seeing and tasting it…perhaps….wow, this is interesting, could I please see the bottle? Then, if prompted , I might offer some vaguely positive expression regarding it seeming rather delicate and atypical, though none-the-less a generous and wonderful gesture and perhaps seen what the somm had to say about vintage, smokin’ deal, source, etc. I would feel like I was doing the somm some degree of favor…or at least a ‘head’s up’…..for if he did the same, ‘generous’ act to the wrong person, he and the restaurant would suffer.

  15. February 14, 2012

    It could also have been an honest mistake – he hit the wrong button in the computer, or another server picked up the wrong order…. It seems totally contrary to the interest of the somm or the hotel to be offering something just to dupe you. That said – I think you handled it perfectly. It was a kind gesture after all, even if it was a service fail.

    On the fake – I dont think are many folks who would have a hard time believing that I would not allow ego to let me, or my clients, eat the loss…

    (disclaimer – I am ITB of private collection management including authentication)

  16. February 14, 2012

    Toby, that’s an interesting theory, and one possibility that I hadn’t considered. It strikes me as plausible; he was a young guy and probably on a fairly short leash, so perhaps the boss told him to substitute something less extravagant. And you hit on a key point: I wasn’t being charged for the “Yquem,” so it would have been a little cheeky to make an issue of it. Had I been paying for the Yquem, I most certainly would have raised a fuss.

    I guess the financial aspect would also help determine one’s reaction to the 47 Cheval. If I bought the bottle, I would definitely be angry. But if the wine had caused me to swoon–if I’d walked away from the table feeling that I’d just tasted one of the greatest wines of my life–then I think it would be hard for me to dismiss the experience entirely. And that’s the thing: a number of the wines that we now suspect were counterfeit caused some very experienced tasters (like Robert Parker) to swoon. It may not really have been 21 Petrus in the glass, but whatever it was was apparently very delicious.

  17. February 14, 2012

    Hmm, another theory – perhaps after your sommelier had made his generous offer someone up the heirachy informed him in no uncertain terms that his offer of free Yquem was TOO generous, and his freeloading customers would have to make do with this open bottle of Liebfraumilch instead…In any event, I can’t see myself making much of a fuss about a couple of free glassees of wine.

    As for the ’47 Cheval Blanc – well, I think my ego could handle a little bruising, I don’t kid myself that a fine label can’t persuade me into enjoying a wine a bit more (it won’t turn swill into nectar though – cough*Latour’83*cough). And who knows, maybe the substituted wine was still well-made and well-aged yet not insanely expensive. But if I had actually paid the ’47 Cheval Blanc price…AND I would still be stuck with the ’47 on my bucket list.

  18. February 14, 2012

    Bob, thanks for stopping by. I was completely intrigued; I have no idea where the sommelier is today, and would probably not raise the issue now, either, but I would love to know what happened. It was just such a strange thing. I suppose I could have gently inquired of the bartender, but that might have gotten back to the sommelier. It was very generous of the sommelier to offer us the Yquem, just too bad he failed for some reason to deliver.

  19. Bob R. permalink
    February 14, 2012

    In your situation, I would love to have known what really happened, but I’m not sure how I would have handled it. So I can’t say you made a mistake. But maybe you could have inquired the next morning at the bar; this way you wouldn’t have had to worry about putting the sommelier on the spot.

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