Ordering expensive wine by mistake

By Felix Salmon
January 26, 2010
order a $2,000 bottle of wine by mistake -- or even a $6,000 bottle, for that matter -- you have no one to blame but yourself: getting angry at the restaurant is silly, even if it's psychologically understandable. But I think there's something missing from the commentary about these cases: part of the reason for the anger is that the drinkers in question didn't get anything like full value out of the wines.


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If you order a $2,000 bottle of wine by mistake — or even a $6,000 bottle, for that matter — you have no one to blame but yourself: getting angry at the restaurant is silly, even if it’s psychologically understandable. But I think there’s something missing from the commentary about these cases: part of the reason for the anger is that the drinkers in question didn’t get anything like full value out of the wines.

When people enjoy ordering and drinking expensive wines in restaurants, an enormous part of the the pleasure they get is a simple function of the amount of money that they’re paying. If you know that you’re drinking an expensive wine, you pay it more attention, and you discover and delight in aspects of its structure that you might not otherwise notice or even particularly like. If you served a thousand-dollar wine in a twenty-dollar bottle and charged $20 for it, not a single person, no matter how sophisticated their palate and no matter how deep their pockets, would ever take a sip and declare that they would happily pay $1,000 for it. If they buy it and know what they’re drinking, on the other hand, they’re as likely as not to declare it cheap at the price.

As to the question of what restaurants can do to avoid situations such as these, I think a little bit of pomp and ceremony goes a long way — further than simply just letting your hand drift over in the general vicinity of the price column when confirming the order. If you make a show of polishing new glasses for the wine, and ask if the customer wants it decanted, and generally make it clear that they’ve chosen a very special wine, then no one is likely to be offended, while someone who ordered the wine by mistake might well get the message that they’ve ordered something unusually expensive.

16 comments

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… you have no one to blame but yourself …

How come when other businesses like banks take advantage of unwary consumers Salmon is sympathetic but when it comes to wine it is suddenly buyer beware?

Posted by JamesBShearer | Report as abusive

Yeah, I’d be a lot more sympathetic to, say, $2000 in bank charges; they actually provided me with a service.

Anyway, regardless of whose “fault” it is, I think staying away from the restaurant is a reasonable step to take; if you’ve just discovered (painfully) that you are prone to screw up that way in that restaurant, maybe you’re safer in a restaurant that prints its wine list differently, or doesn’t have wine nearly that expensive, or differs in some other way. On the other hand, if the restaurant had prevented the mistake (or comped it somehow), it would make more sense to rely on the restaurant’s protection — again, whether there’s any kind of moral obligation or not.

I bought some pizza a month or two ago, and immediately after paying for it I dropped it on my pants (from which it fell to the floor). They immediately replaced the pizza. Did they have an obligation to do that? Absolutely, positively not. I knew what I had ordered, and I dropped it on myself without any responsibility by them. Did it make me feel like returning to the shop on some future occasion? Well, yeah, it kind of did. (It’s more likely that that is worth the cost of the pizza to them than that a customer who doesn’t want to order expensive wine is worth the cost of a bottle of expensive wine to that restaurant, though.)

Posted by dWj | Report as abusive

Why would it be so taboo for the resturaunt to have a policy of confirming exceptionally priced items. Would diners ordering a $2,000 bottle of wine really be offended if the waiter says something to the effect of “I’m sorry sir/madam, but resturaunt policy is that I specifically confirm any wine order over $500. Can I confirm that you want the 2001 Screaming Eagle?”

Posted by Ledbury22 | Report as abusive

Yes; when choosing how to behave where a rich man may get offended or a poor man get screwed, it’s pretty clear where the dividing line falls.

Screw the chump.

Posted by BarryKelly | Report as abusive

It’s absolutely taboo to reconfirm the price and will be annoying at the very least, for someone who intended to order that wine. God forbid if it happens to a minority, the restaurant would either be sued out of business or get such bad press that it would have to close due to lack of customers. I hate stuffy, presumptuous wait staff and I would not eat at a place that was rumored to be racist or so elitist that they will “confirm” a high priced wine if you don’t look like you are the type of person who could afford a $2000 wine. If anything, I’d be pissed at the idiot who picked the wine without carefully looking at the price. That’s very rude behavior, to stick your host with a huge bill (unless it’s a business dinner and the host expects it).

I’m not a wine connoisseur by any means, but even I’ve heard of Screaming Eagle, a cult wine from Napa made famous during the tech boom when a $2000 bottle would be considered a mid-range frugal choice.

Posted by azxcvbnm321 | Report as abusive

The NYTimes article mentioned a sommelier wondering how much of the value of the wine to comp in cases of genuine mistake.

I would think it is pretty simple.
You take the gross profit you would have made on an “ordinary” bottle, say $50 on a $100 bottle or whatever.
You add that to the actual cost of the bottle (to you, the restaurant) and that is the charge.

For example, with a rough 50% gross margin, a $2,000 bottle costs the restaurant $1,000.
The restaurant should charge the diners $1,050.

The restaurant shouldn’t LOSE money over the mistake, so there is no way they should charge LESS than the cost price.
However, the diners have had a bottle of wine and know of course that some of the price of ANY wine is profit to the restaurant.

The question is how much profit should the restaurant make?
It should be commensurate with the experience their diners have had and were expecting to pay for.
Hence, add a more “normal” gross profit (in absolute terms) to the wine wholesale cost.

Of course, this doesn’t apply if it is such a rare wine that finding another bottle will be troublesome since that may limit the restaurants profit in the future when it could be out of stock for a willing knowledgeable diner.

Posted by TinyTim1 | Report as abusive

azxcvbnm321, I think that the proposed policy is more like getting carded when you buy alcohol – it’s done all the time, not just when the customer doesn’t “look right.” That protects the store from being sued for discrimination. Of course, that doesn’t solve the problem of people being offended by the policy.

I must say, though, I don’t see the real problem when the wine is mis-ordered. Just charge for the wine they ordered, and top up the expensive bottle with something else. From the way Felix describes it (“an enormous part of the the pleasure they get is a simple function of the amount of money that they’re paying”), the quality of the wine doesn’t matter, only the knowledge that you are drinking a $1000 bottle of wine. Social signaling at its finest.

Posted by KenInIL | Report as abusive

but did you like the wine?

Posted by DavidBoston | Report as abusive

KenInIL, the problem of being offended is huge if it’s a high end restaurant, customers expect to be pampered and treated as if they were rich and famous, even if they’re not. People are willing to pay several times more for food not several times as good in part due to the better overall experience which includes better service. There’s really nothing worse than poor service at a high end restaurant because the diner expects it–he’s paid for it and feels ripped off, even if the food was great. You only need to check the comments on restaurant reviews to confirm that service is increasingly important as the price of a meal increases.

I think a better analogy to carding for alcohol which is mandated by law, is to profile for terrorists at airports and other high density public places. There is no doubt that most people would be greatly offended by profiling even if the officer was tactful about it–I do not want to be profiled at a high end restaurant either.

There’s no reason to be snotty over social signaling. Social status always has and always will be important to humanity (I should say as long as women find higher social status to be appealing).

According to another commentator on another board, Screaming Eagle for $2000 at a restaurant was a bargain. Another had this to say,

“To Garbanzo. Restaurants are allocated 3 to 6 bottles a year of wines such as Screaming Eagle. It is an investment for them with an expected return. They can not comp the profit away and then just get another bottle later. The guest made the mistake of not reading the listed price.
— tspoon64 “

Posted by azxcvbnm321 | Report as abusive

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