I was alerted to an article in the New York times a few weeks ago by their food critic Frank Bruni. The crux of the article was a letter Mr Bruni had recieved from a gentleman who had been dining at one of New Yorks upmarket restaurants. In the letter the gent tells Mr Bruni of an experience where as part of a group dining out, one of the guests ordered (inadvertantly apparently) a rather expensive bottle or red wine - Screaming Eagle no less, with a price tag of $2000. The price of the wine wasnt raised until the bill came, upon which the party were rather surprised. That said they paid their bill, left a tip and left, never to return again. Now the diners primary issue with the experience was that at no point after the wine was ordered were the group made aware of the expense of the wine, and they felt that the restaurant had an obligation to highlight the cost before it was served. The article has attracted a huge number of comments online (http://dinersjournal.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/01/28/the-answer-man-a-mistake-on-wine/) - mine included! So are they right, should the restaurant have made an issue about the cost of the wine? Heres my thoughts on the matter.
As a sommelier we have a ritual that we like to run through when someone orders a bottle of wine, any wine whether it is £15 or £5000. The first is to verbally repeat back the order to the guest to confirm that we have not misheard or misunderstood. Thats the first check. Then we will retrieve the bottle from our stock, we will check that the wine and the vintage match the wine-list - doesnt always happen but thats why we check. If the vintage doesnt match we will notify the guest that the vintage has changed and offer them the opportunity to accept or change the wine. The wine is then presented to the person who ordered it, the name of the wine and the vintage being specially highlighted verbally. This is the third check. It is incumbent then to the guest to confirm the wine is indeed the wine they ordered. Once they have accepted the wine, then the "contract" is sealed, they have agreed to it it has undergone three checks and they are obliged to pay for it. We would then open the wine and check the condition of it, if it is fine we take it back to the guest and offer them a sample. This is check number five. All being well we would now serve the wine and the customers would enjoy it. Should they wish to order another bottle, the process is pretty much repeated verbatim. At the end of their meal when they ask for the bill, we print out their bill, it is then checked by the sommelier, the head waiter and sometimes the restaurant manager before it is given to the guest to check. At this point all being well they will check their bill and pay before leaving to wherever they may be going. So there are quite a few checkpoints along the way before any nasty surprises come with the bill. But despite that, I have to say that I had customers who when they have recieved the bill have had an unpleasant surprise (although nowhere near the two grand for the screaming eagle.). Who is at fault? My view is that they are at fault as long as we have followed the prescribed proceedures. If they have chosen to ignore me when I repeat back their order and when I present the wine then really they havent got a leg to stand on. But this being the hospitality industry, we will try to reach an amicable solution to the situation, which sometimes might mean we suck it up, sometimes it might mean you suck it up! The moral of the story boys and girls is to check very carefully what you are ordering, especially in restaurants with very expensive wine-lists.