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The Wine Ethicist: Retail Politics

2011 December 14
by Mike

So The Wine Ethicist is off to a great start; the first two installments drew a fantastic response, and my thanks to all who have weighed in. Next week’s edition will feature the first reader-generated question, and as I said before, I hope people will suggest questions and topics.

Last week’s subject was gift bottles, and whether hosts should feel obliged to open wines that have been given to them as presents. The consensus was that hosts have no such obligation; if a bottle is brought as a gift, the host can do with it whatever he or she pleases. If the host is a friend, and the relationship is such that you can ask in advance about the menu and indicate to the host that you’ll be bringing something to match the food, then it’s reasonable to expect that your wine will be uncorked. Otherwise, though, you should bring a bottle knowing that you are probably kissing it goodbye.

I still insist, however, that it was cheeky of my potluck friend not to serve the bottle I brought to her shindig. As luck would have it, potluck is the subject of the lead article in today’s New York Times Dining section. The writer, Jennifer Steinhauer, decries the widespread practice of bringing store-bought items to potluck gatherings, which she says is antithetical to the spirit of such get-togethers. I think she’s right. But people supplying wine for potluck events are obviously off the hook on this one; unless you happen to be a winemaker, the wine you contribute to a potluck supper is probably going to be store-bought.

That provides a good segue to this week’s topic. If I purchase a bottle from my nearby wine shop, open it tonight, and discover that it is corked, I will bring it back to the store tomorrow expecting to be offered a refund or replacement bottle, and hopefully, the merchant will do just that (I hate arguing in public).  But what if I put the bottle in my cellar and don’t open it for a year—should the store still be willing to take it back? What if I don’t pull the cork until, say, 2016? As far as I know, this is an issue for which there are no regulations or guidelines; merchants make their own rules. I would love to hear from people on both sides of the checkout counter. Those of you who sell wine: beyond what point will you not take back a corked or otherwise damaged bottle? Those of you who buy wine: what do you think is reasonable, and what’s the oldest bottle that you’ve tried to return to a store on account of TCA or other flaws?

Since retailing is in the spotlight this week, I’ll toss out another question: If you buy a bottle from a merchant, open it, and decide immediately you don’t like it, should you be entitled to return it?

29 Responses leave one →
  1. Jule permalink
    March 13, 2015

    I am a New York retailer faced with a first time customer with a changing story (strictly told via email) involving an entire case of wine from a local esteemed winery ($20 retail) claiming he and his wife opened every bottle two weeks after receipt and found the wine “bad” speculating it was stored or shipped at too high a temperature (unlikely in winter, plus my place is effectively a wine cellar) and is expecting entire purchase and shipping be refunded. I explained politely I cannot accept and credit opened bottles as this sounded odd, after his insistence it was legal for me to refund “defective” bottles I then pointed out that after the second bottle he should have contacted me. He now claims that 3 bottles are actually still sealed and they split the case among friends and these friends thought the wine was off too…hmmm. After threatening to report me to various state agencies, slamming my business on Yelp and the general public I proposed taking back the three unopened bottles with full refund and asking the winery to sample the wine for any evidence of a “defect”. Incidentally I’ve tried this vintage and sold some inventory without any problems noted. From my understanding in New York all sales are final (and this is clearly stated on the T&C and elsewhere on site, however I will make exchanges if a bottle is bad or corked and it’s usually just one or two bottles in question at most. Some distributors will just swap out with something equal in value, luckily these instances have been in the lower end of the price scale. I’ve also had “changed mind” and didn’t like this vintage exchanges again at my discretion in order to keep a good customer although legally I don’t have to. I’ve also had scenarios where the customer contacted a winery directly with their grievances with positive results. I used to have a bar and it was the same policy a little easier with the wine/beer right before me.
    My distiller friend suspects this is a scam but I am willing to give this consumer the benefit of doubt as they have a second home in the area and may do my business more harm otherwise. It doesn’t help that I’m in a rural area and word spreads fast and wide. I am finding over the years that store policies and terms and conditions are mere words and the consumer with all these avenues to vent has more and more power to get their way regardless of the validity of their claim.

  2. Glen Simister permalink
    December 18, 2011

    I’ve had a couple of corked wines that reared their ugly heads on me. I took a sip, ruminated on the awful taste and put the rest down the drain, taking the twenty dollar hit. I’m not comfortable with re-corking a wine and asking for another bottle (or a refund!). I too feel that “there is danger in wine discovery.” As such, I bought the exact same wine again and the same problem persisted. Now, at this point I should have taken it back for a refund but the others in my party drank it anyway — thinking, no doubt, that it was just a flabby wine. In taking back this second bottle it would have informed the distributor that the entire shipment may have been tainted.

    I think that you should be able to either A) receive a refund if cork is obvious or B) get a replacement bottle if the wine was bought and opened within a reasonable time frame (within a year). After a certain passage of time it becomes far too hard for a retailer to know if it was purchased tainted or simply mishandled over time by the buyer. As said above, reason needs to be taken into account by both the merchant and purchaser.

    As for simply finding a wine to be incongruous to your style and wants, you shouldn’t be able to get a refund because of the the wine is not well suited to your tastes. It’s akin to taking a film you have purchased back to the retailer and pleading for a refund because the film “sucked.” You own up to what you purchase. Occasionally your going to purchase a less-than-stellar wine. It comes with being a wine excavator.

  3. Sherman permalink
    December 18, 2011

    Rick, I agree that true TCA contamination is not affected by storage, as it existed when the bottle was produced at the winery. My experience has been that the majority of wine buyers have a hard time distinguishing between the various flaws in wine (and how they’ve come about), but they’ve heard the term “corked” and seen that it gets the most immediate reaction from a retailer in terms of getting them a refund/return.

    Thus my comments about furthering their education as to various flaws, what their characteristics are & how to distinguish them, and trying to educate the consumer. I want to make sure that they can distinguish between a flaw that went into the bottle at the winery, and some other problem that occurred after that fact.

    Since TCA contamination is quite distinct (but some are less sensitive to it than others), it’s a bit simpler to distinguish from, say, a wine that’s been cooked in transit or suffers from a dry defective cork.

    A good number of consumers will attempt to return a bottle, crying “Coked!” to get a reaction from their retailer, when it fact, the flaw was something else. And I can’t count the number of times something like this has happened when there’s only about 25% of the wine left in the bottle! Guess it took them a few glasses to decide that they *truly* didn’t like it! 😉

  4. David permalink
    December 16, 2011

    For many of the people who read and comment on this website, the retailer may not be who we think. Joel touched on this, in part, when he mentioned a wine brought through a wine club. I suspect that a lot of people reading this purchase a decent amount of (American) wine directly from the winery. At that point the winery is the retailer. And there is no way to physically return the wine (except for the select few that happen to live near the winery). I think this changes the equation a bit.

    Second, while a lot of wine is purchased the wine store on the corner (or the supermarket), for a lot of people reading this, I suspect a lot of wine is purchased online. And many of the major online sellers have very restrictive return policies.

  5. rick permalink
    December 16, 2011

    Sherman…. “When talking about cellaring a wine and stretching the time between purchase and discovery of a flaw in the wine, the paramount issue to me then becomes “How was the wine stored?”

    Storage is irrelevant to true TCA, so, assuming the wine is in fact TCAed, there’s zero reason to not take the wine back because of storage conditions. ONe might have a limit on returns for other reasons, but using storage conditions as a reason not to take back a truly corked wine makes no logical sense.

    Woo Wine Girl – AS for the distributor taking the hit… so? Should the wine consumer take the hit? Obviously, the winery should (again, I’m talking about truly corked bottles here), but the chain has a way to mitigate the impact of corked bottles that the buyer does not… allow for the returns in one’s margins. It’s a cost of doing business, so cover it in your pricing. The consumer, on the other hand, cannot do this and has to absorb the entire cost of the bottle.

  6. December 16, 2011

    Hah! You must have been listening at our dinner table last night as we opened a corked 2006 Syrah from a respected Paso Robles winery, acquired on release through their wine club.

    I’ve been debating whether or not to contact them. After reading the rest of the comments, the answer is “yes”, since the producer and seller are one and the same.

    I don’t think that time lag should ever be a determining factor. A winery that builds wine to age — and a retailer that sells those wines — should expect that it’ll be years until some corked bottles turn up.

  7. Frank permalink
    December 15, 2011

    Who is the retailer? Bringing back a non-corked bottle you’ve had for more than a few months to your local merchant is only slightly less perilous than telling a lover that the sex wasn’t great. And maybe the most important consideration in either case is how much you value the continued relationship.

  8. Peter Lampen permalink
    December 15, 2011

    Last question first, I can see no reason why a retailer should accept back a bottle just because the purchaser did not like it. If you had never tried artichokes, bought one and didn’t like it, would you expect the grocer to give you a refund? I would hope not. I have worked selling and serving wine and am also a consumer, and would only considered accepting back something “not liked” to preserve a relationship with a good client.

    Likewise a retailer should take back a corked bottle if the vintage is still being sold, because as stated it should be recorded with distributor and producer. But after three months or more I think home storage is likely to be the source of spoilage. As noted above, think most don’t know the difference between spoilage from overheating, or dry cork from standing up as from TCA. Considerable problem for wineries given inevitable percentage of bad corks, decreasing quality and rising price of top grades of cork.

    Mike – perhaps a question for further discussion – do you think top quality wines must have a cork? What are opinions on the glass stoppers used in Austria and elsewhere, the composite corks appearing in Burgundy and the high-quality screwcaps in Australia?

  9. December 15, 2011

    A customer should always return a corked bottle of wine and it should always be refunded or replaced! The ultimate fiscal responsibility should be the producers, but the retailer is the middleman and needs to move it up the distribution chain. Failure to take action on off wines is counterproductive for the wine business. We need to create trust with the customers.
    On a related but different subject, I have had two large cork leaking problems over the years. In both instances the corks started leaking six to eighteen months after I had bought the wine. Very slightly oversized corks crimped when the were bottled and created a seam for the wine to travel. One was five cases of a first growth bordeaux from the 1983 vintage and the other twenty cases of a prominent Chateauneuf du Pape from the 1989 vintage (well documented). The winery and negociant left me hanging with the first growth. The importer and winery of the Chateauneuf on the other hand, was able to replace every bottle that was returned, some three years after the sale. The expense was significant, but the relationship remained strong and contributed to more sales over the last two decades.

  10. Lee Newby permalink
    December 15, 2011

    Mike,

    I had that case problem with a 2000 Troisièmes Cru Bordeaux that started drinking in 2010 and the retailer took 9 bottles back (1 had been ok, 2 corked in a row), he may have put them in his own cellar, so it was 6-7 years after receiving the case, if that happened to me I wasn’t the only one in the world with the problem.

  11. December 15, 2011

    Christina, thanks for that. So from you’ve seen, distributors are the ones who get stiffed–they don’t get compensated by importers or wineries? That seems wrong. The producer should be the one who bears the cost. I’m not sure I agree with the brownie analogy–a corked wine isn’t flawed because it was made poorly, it’s because it was given a defective stopper, which strikes me as something different. But, anyway, as you, Clark, and others suggest, dealing with corked or otherwise damaged bottles requires a lot of diplomacy and tact on the part of retailers.

    Louise, you make a great point about stepped-up monitoring, and that should go some way to mitigating the problem. If you bring a defective cell phone to the store, they can immediately check to see if suffered water damage; that’s useful information for a retailer. Wine retailers could clearly use that kind of informatino.

  12. December 15, 2011

    As Dan and Sherman point out, there are likely many instances in which the bottle is not corked, but rather has not been transported or stored in proper conditions. Unfortunately, many people can’t distinguish between “corked” and “cooked” wines and they are simply left with a bad impression. When wines are damaged by heat, the aromas and freshness suffer. Major temperature fluctuations cause more damage to wine than is generally understood. While only the most egregious instances (corks pushing) result in visible damage, significant damage occurs inside the bottle before visible signs appear. Testing has shown that temperatures in excess of 30 degrees Celsius (86 F) for more than 18 hours permanently degrade the wine in terms of flavor, aroma, color, and longevity. 30 degrees Celsius appears to be the “danger threshold” for wine. Between 30 degrees, when the damage begins, and 40 degrees Celsius (106 F), when the cork pushes, there is no indication of damage until you drink the wine, which may be years later. That brings us back to the question of how the retailer or winery handles the situation. As the industry begins to adopt the practice of monitoring wines during transport and storage, there will actually be a record of the conditions. Making this data available will hopefully help wineries to protect their product, motivate importers to verify quality conditions, give retailers more information to share at point of sale, and lead consumers to check the quality of what they are buying.

  13. Clark permalink
    December 15, 2011

    +1 Sherman’s remarks. The return barometer is influenced by a variety of factors. It takes a confident and tactful manager to handle these delicate situations to avoid setting a precedent or fanning any negative emotion. It’s important to steer around the trap of returning product to keep a relationship or the other trap of frying a return sale because the product was fine and/or the customer was difficult.

  14. Woo Wine Girl permalink
    December 15, 2011

    I realize that my opinions on this are not typical, and I don’t necessarily think they should be the rule, but I personally would not return a corked bottle, let alone a bottle I just didn’t like. I agree that people SHOULD be allowed to return them, however. My feelings on this are shaped by the fact that I’ve worked for both a distributor and a retailer, and it seems the distributor ends up eating the cost of the bad bottle, even though it’s not their fault. I should ask my boss if agreements are made with the wineries for them to pay for flawed bottles. As a retailer, I was appalled once when someone brought back a bottle they didn’t like and expected a refund. While this seemed unreasonable to me, I realized it is better to eat the costthan to offend a potentially good customer. I think the reason it bothers me is because one wouldn’t return, say, a package of brownies because they were too sweet and expect a refund. But I’ve learned to realize that the world doesn’t live by my rules, and I have to deal with that! :-)

  15. December 15, 2011

    Dan, thanks for this; a couple of very interesting paradoxes there. I’ve always had the sense that a lot of “corked” wines that are returned to merchants aren’t actually corked; people will just say, “It was corked,” when what they really mean is that they found it disappointing or not to their taste. When I do tastings, I always hope that one of the bottles will be corked (so long as we have a backup bottle, of course!); I will pour some of the corked wine into a glass, pass it around, and tell people to commit that smell to memory. It’s a useful exercise, because a lot of people don’t know that that wet cardboard aroma is a flaw. They just assume that the wine isn’t good, or that their palates are somehow deficient.

    Matt, I wouldn’t go back to the winery unless the wine had some age on it. If you buy a wine today, open it a month from now, and discover it is corked or otherwise damaged, I think the retailer should be able help you out. At that point, the merchant may even still have recourse with the distributor or importer, so he or she could be compensated, as well.

  16. Dan McCallum permalink
    December 15, 2011

    I’ll offer this food for thought…
    Most of the bottles returned as “corked” are not in fact TCA contaminated. However, the percentage of bottles that are returned is far lower than the extent of TCA contamination indicated in controlled studies, professional tastings, and the like. And the corked bottles that are not returned? Well, I do believe a lot of those are in the population of wines found to be “disappointing”.
    Wineries in general fail to recognize their indirect costs of TCA. If one in a hundred bottles is disliked because of unrecognized TCA, there is an ever accumulating base of wine buyers who would simply not buy again the wine that disappointed. I’d go a step further and say that this is one of several reasons that so many wineries have a 5-10 year meteoric rise on the wine scene, and then fade away in a 10-20 year sunset.

  17. Matt permalink
    December 14, 2011

    For the retailer, I agree with Hugo on not returning the bottle if I didn’t like it, regardless of their recommendation, unless I felt there was some intentional dishonesty when they made it. If they described it accurately and I chose wrong, well, that’s my fault (maybe I don’t like vanilla overtones as much as I thought I did…).

    For a flawed bottle, I guess I would contact the winery directly and explain the situation. I wouldn’t expect the retailer to reimburse me, because there’s no way they could know that the bottle was flawed when they sold it.

  18. December 14, 2011

    Hugo, thanks very much for the comment. That’s a great policy regarding corked wines, and no, I don’t think it’s the norm. From what I’m told, past a certain point, retailers are indeed stuck with the bottle if they agree to take back a corked wine; neither the distributor, importer, or producer will compensate the retailer at that point.

    “Disappointment is part of the process of discovering wine”–that’s a wonderful line, and a great point. It is unquestionably true–you have to drink a lot of bad stuff, too, to gain an appreciation for the good stuff and to develop your palate.

  19. December 14, 2011

    Thanks, all, for the comments.

    Matt and Bob, I agree with you–if you buy a wine that was recommended specifically to you by a merchant and you decide you don’t like the wine, the merchant should be willing to take it back. If you buy a wine of your own volition, I don’t think the merchant is similarly obliged, and especially not if there was a shelf-talker with a score :)

    Greg, in fact, alluded to shelf-talkers in one of his comments. You make a fair point, Greg, as far as issues of taste and quality go; it could plausibly be argued that shelf-talkers indemnify the retailer.

    Sherman, thanks for stopping by; very interesting stuff. “Reasonable” is the operative word. I think retailers are obliged to take back corked or otherwise flawed bottles that have been purchased recently–say, in the last few months. Beyond that, though, it is murky, and it would certainly behoove the customer to be reasonable. At that point, you can’t demand a refund or a replacement bottle; you can request one, and you should probably be nice about it. From conversations with retailers, I also have the sense that a lot of this hinges on relationships or lack thereof; retailers are more apt to be accommodating if it is a regular customer as opposed to just a one-time-only buyer. That may be unfair, but it’s business and understandable. And Bob underscores the point that relationships do matter on this particular issue.

    Lee, a question for you: How long after you’ve purchased a case will you do something like that?

  20. December 14, 2011

    As for corked bottles, we make wine and anytime someone asks about returning a corked bottle we don’t even argue. It’s in our best interest independently of how old the bottle is. I don’t think that’s the normal policy, which means that retailers might get the worst part of the deal if they accept an old corked bottle and the winery doesn’t. As a buyer I do it with retailers I know and feel comfortable with.

    As for disappointing wines, I never return them and I don’t think people should. Disappointment is part of the process of discovering wine. The only exception I might accept to that rule is if the wine was a strong recommendation from the retailer. I can see how a buyer can get upset in that situation. In any case, I wouldn’t return it because that implies that you should tip the retailer whenever they give you a good recommendation.

  21. Lee Newby permalink
    December 14, 2011

    Long term cellared corked bottle, I eat it unless another from the same case shows up then I return the 2nd bottle and the rest of the case with the information it was the second corked bottle from these, singleton I’d eat it.

    I’d never return something I didn’t like that was not faulty, I just wouldn’t buy it again.

    Check out Dr. Lewin MW comments on this topic in restaurants at:
    http://winespecific.com/2011/12/07/when-should-you-send-wine-back-at-a-restaurant/

  22. Bob R. permalink
    December 14, 2011

    I’ve returned at least one bad bottle after a couple of years, and that was to a retailer who I felt comfortable doing so because of a long-term relationship and knowledge of their policies. I feel that a couple of years might be the outer limit, and even then only with very few retailers, and only if I felt confident that the bottle was bad when purchased and storage was not a factor.
    As far as returning a bottle after tasting it and being disappointed, I’d only do so if the retailer recommended it and indicated that he’d take it back if I was unhappy. I do know of at least one retailer who frequently explicitly states that as his policy, but I would think that’s pretty rare.

  23. Sherman permalink
    December 14, 2011

    I’ve been in retail management, sales and customer service for the better part of four decades and will do most anything to make a reasonable accommodation of a customer’s request — *if* the customer is being reasonable. I want to maintain a good relationship with the customer and my supplier needs to know if there are problems with his product.

    We do get to the outer reaches of “reasonable” at times and then we have to look at each case on its own merits. When talking about cellaring a wine and stretching the time between purchase and discovery of a flaw in the wine, the paramount issue to me then becomes “How was the wine stored?” Much of the decision will be based on the feedback I get from the customer and what our relationship has been (assuming there is an existing prior relationship). If I feel that the wine was properly stored and the flaw existed when I sold it to him, I’ll take back the bottle and exchange or credit the price paid by the customer.

    If the bottle hasn’t been stored properly, then it comes down to whether I want to keep the customer happy — and most folks (again , “reasonable”) will recognize that I’m working to keep them satisfied. Perhaps a partial return credit towards another purchase…

    If I feel that the wine hasn’t been stored properly, and *that*is what has lead to the bottle being damaged, then there’s a good chance that I’ll educate the customer about his storage needs (no, keeping on top of the fridge during summer in Arizona isn’t good storage strategy) and might decline to accept the return. I’ll do all that I can to correct a customer’s lack of information, but please don’t *expect* me to subsidize their learning curve.

  24. Greg permalink
    December 14, 2011

    Incidentally, the above comment about Parker is not meant to be an endorsement of Parker. But he’s just an useful placeholder for the whole industry of wine experts.

  25. Greg permalink
    December 14, 2011

    Typically, retailers offer a 30 day return policy (give or take) and I suspect that that is probably the best case scenario in this instance as well. It is reasonable, though as you say not always guaranteed, that wine sellers will take back corked bottle within a day or two of opening. Once the calendar starts to stretch, I don’t think it is reasonable to expect a wine merchant to take back a bottle.

    On the issue of taste though, I certainly don’t think so. Caveat emptor, as they say. And this is precisely the reason why people like Parker exists, to help provide a bit of a guide in an otherwise murky world.

  26. December 14, 2011

    For the corked bottle, the fault ultimately lies with the winery. If the wine is in current release, the retailer can pass the return (or its cost) back to the distributor, who can then deduct the cost of that bottle from what the distributor owes the producer. This is also a good way to let the winery know about the occurrence of corked bottles out there. So the retailer should certainly accept a return of any TCA-bearing bottle in current release. For other wines I think it would depend on the relationship between the buyer and the retailer.

    As for immediately returning a bottle you don’t like, I think that would be acceptable only if the retailer provided help in selecting it.

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