Here's What Happens To Rejected Wine Bottles At Restaurants

If you've ever ordered a glass or bottle of wine at a nice restaurant, your server most likely poured a small amount for you to try before they fill your glass. And if you don't know a lot about wine, this might be an anxiety-inducing experience that makes wonder: Why do they do this? What am I supposed to be tasting for? And what do I do if I don't like the wine?

This tasting, which is typically offered to the person who ordered the bottle, is mostly done to ensure that the bottle of wine has not gone bad. As Catherine Fallis, the Master Sommelier at Bright Cellars, told Food Republic: "You should always taste your wine. This is one product where a small percentage of faulty product is allowed." Corks can be faulty, and bottles can be stored incorrectly or for too long, all of which can cause the wine to go off. A bottle of wine can even be "corked," or suffer from cork taint, which will produce an off-putting moldy smell. 

Whether your wine tastes off or you just don't like it very much, you are more than justified in requesting a different bottle. And don't worry about waste — as long as the wine inside is safe to consume, rejected bottles are rarely thrown out, and can generally be repurposed or exchanged by the restaurant.

When bottles go bad

Once a customer has decided to reject a bottle of wine, the sommelier will generally sample it to confirm that it's in proper condition. As Catherine Fallis explains, "Rejected bottles are tasted again to determine if they are faulty or not. If not, the remains can be sold off by the glass, offered to VIP customers, or used for staff training."

2As for bottles that do end up with cork taint or some other fault in the wine, Fallis says they don't usually go right in the trash. "If faulty, the restaurant can return [bottles] to their distributor for credit," she explains. Contamination is an unfortunate yet inescapable part of the wine business; at least, in sections of it that exclusively use wine corks, as there isn't anything that can be done to salvage a corked bottle. Screw top bottles are actually far more reliable than cork when it comes to preventing contamination, which is why they are almost ubiquitous in newer wine markets like Australia and New Zealand.

At the end of the day, a restaurant should be more than happy to replace your bottle free of charge, and you don't have to worry that they're going to lose profits and the wine is going to be wasted. However, things get a little more complicated when you try to return wine to another type of vendor.

Can you return wine bottles to a store?

Just like you can ask to have a bad bottle of wine replaced in a restaurant, you can also return one that you've purchased at a wine shop. Cork taint is not uncommon, and you might pour yourself a glass of your favorite Chablis and find that it smells like a curbside sofa after a few days in the rain. You'll just need to mind a few more factors to ensure that the store will take back your bottle.

Bring the bottle back to your local liquor store and ask them to confirm your assessment of the wine. Make sure to bring your receipt and the original cork, and keep as much of the tainted wine in the bottle as possible. You're more likely to get enthusiastic assistance if you aren't trying to return a mostly-empty bottle, even if you poured it down the drain instead of drinking it. Try to return the wine as soon as possible after purchase, and you may be able to get a new bottle, a refund, or store credit. As with restaurants, wine shops should be able to return bad bottles to their distributors and recoup the loss.