Wino Wally's 






Bait and Switch

There’s nothing I hate more than the old bait and switch.  Swindlers have used the technique for hundreds of years.  Wine retailers, primarily restaurants and shops, use it also.  Since I had several occurrences recently, I felt the urge to write and warn the newer wino’s about the dangers lurking in the real world.

Typical Story #1 – Restaurant lists the John Doe 1997 Napa Cabernet Reserve on its menu for $65.  You order it and the waiter/waitress delivers a 1998 John Doe Napa Reserve.  In my earlier wino days, I would express some mild disappointment that the 1997 was what I ordered and usually the waiter would say “this is all we have”.  I would accept the bottle and pay the price.  Lately, I refuse it.  The only way to refuse it, is to read the label BEFORE the waiter opens the bottle.  I  witnessed three interesting variations of this scenario in the last two months. 

The first time, I was at a reputable establishment when the waiter brought out a 1998 instead of the 1997.  I said that I had ordered a 1997.  The waiter brought the beverage manager out and the beverage manager said that the restaurant had run out of the 1997 and 1998 was all that they could obtain.  I thanked him and declined to order any wine at all.  I would have kept the 1998 if the manager suggested a lesser price, but he did not.

The next time, I was at a different reputable establishment when the same thing happened with a 1997 Cabernet.  I pointed out to the waitress that I had ordered a 1997 and that she had brought me a 1998.  Again, she brought the beverage manager to my table.  This time, the beverage manager looked me in the eye and said, “sir, I don’t have any more 1997 and you were right to refuse the 1998, it’s not as good and it shouldn’t be priced the same as the 1997.”  Well, I didn’t like the result (no 1997), but I appreciated the manager’s honesty and I ended up ordering a 1997 Merlot. 

The third time, I was at the venerable Park and Orchard (Wine Spectator Grand Award Winner and a restaurant listed on’s review list).  This time, the waitress came back to me and said “we just sold out of that wine, you’ll have to order another”.  Given the extensive list carried by the Park and Orchard and their high ranking in Wine Spectator,  I was shocked.  I ordered another outstanding wine and asked the waitress if it was possible to get a tour of their cellar.  She said that the owner was on the premises and she would check.  Sure enough, he was willing to give us a tour.  While I was downstairs, I asked him why he had sold out of the particular 1997 Cabernet Reserve that I had ordered.  His response:  “I haven’t sold out.  We only get a certain number of cases in our allocation of that wine.  If I stocked all of it on the premises, I could sell it out in less than a week with all of the New York expense account dinners consumed here.  Instead, I maintain a few bottles at a time here and when the supply is exhausted, I replenish it the next day, thus keeping more wine for more visitors.”  I didn’t like this answer at first, but knowing some of the California winery allocation issues, I believe it’s a better answer for everyone.

 Typical Story #2 – You’re in a wine shop and see that the column of Whitehall Lane Merlot has a “Rated 94 by Wine Spectator” sticker on it.  Without consulting with any of the staff, you grab that bottle and bring it home.  Only after consulting with Wino Bob or another wino friend, you find out that the 1998 Whitehall Lane received an 87 rating; the 1997 was the 94 rated wine.  What happened?

In the case of the retail outlet, most of those establishments stock their wines to move and/or be moved.  There may have been no skullduggery involved.  Instead, one of the stock boys may have seen that the Whitehall Lane Merlot column in the rack was empty, grabbed a case and restocked the column with 1998.  Of course, the pricing should reflect the 1998 price, but the sticker on the column generally isn’t replaced by the stock boy.  Unfortunately, what this means is that you should generally consult the store’s wine expert before buying a wine because of its rating.  If the wine expert tells you that the 1998 Merlot is rated a 94 and you find out it isn’t, don’t go back.

The more devious “gotcha” device that I see in retail establishments is the sticker that says “rated 89 by Wine Press”.  Those of us in the know aren’t even sure who Wine Press is.  I believe that these generic stickers are provided by the wine distributor and are designed to move a particular wine.  I don’t see these stickers in the higher class establishments and recommend moving your business elsewhere if you see them in the shop that you frequent.

Be also careful when you see pre-printed stickers saying “rated 97 by Parker”.  To the best of my knowledge, Robert Parker does not accept advertising money, nor does he promote wines through stickers with his name on them.  I have seen handwritten tags from the store’s wine expert with the notation, “rated 97 by The Wine Advocate”.  The chance is high that these stickers are more accurate since the wine expert would have to be a Parker subscriber to verify the rating on that particular wine from “The Wine Advocate”.

Working with ratings is difficult.  For those of you who frequent establishments while on an expense account, I can recommend the Palm Pilot Wine Score software which will give you an average rating for that particular wine if you’re ordering one that you’re unfamiliar with and the restaurant does not have a sommelier.  For those of you who journey to a wine shop to purchase wine, I recommend getting to know the store’s wine expert and building a trusting relationship.  You’ll receive invitations to tastings which will be a fun way to learn which wines you like and which wines you want to purchase based on your taste.  It may cost you less in the long run too.  Lastly, you can subscribe to the Wine Spectator and/or The Wine Advocate.  When you take your copy to the store, be prepared to be disappointed with the fact that few 90+ ratings survive more than a few days in the retail establishments.  To get around that, you’re going to have to take a chance and buy wines from quality vineyards before the ratings are issued.  Once in a while, you’ll hit a home run.  Good luck

July 7, 2001


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