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When the Customer is Wrong July 31, 2008

Posted by Alex Sawit in In My Opinion.

By Alex Sawit

31 July 2008

[Revised 06 August 2008]


It was a busier than usual Wednesday night when two young women walked into the shop and asked if we had a ladies room. I answered yes and welcomed them in (I know firsthand what it feels like to be in a pinch, so I don’t refuse polite strangers who enter the shop seeking personal relief, regardless of whether they are giving us business or not).

After I pointed them in the right direction, the girls ordered two glasses of house wine, which they said they would come back for. So while they were gone, I opened a fresh bottle of our house red and poured two servings, leaving the glasses on a spare table for them.

About ten minutes later, I was busy with my other customers when I noticed one of the girls standing in front of the store counter, smiling as she waited for me to attend to her. I thought she wanted to settle the bill, so I was feeling at ease when we came face to face.

“There’s something wrong with the wine,” she complained.

That caught me off guard. Had I inadvertently opened a damaged bottle? Feeling apologetic, I listened as she confidently expressed her opinion.

“It smells old,” she asserted, “and acidic.” She proudly suggested that the wine, a French vin de pays Cabernet Sauvignon, had turned harshly unbalanced and was well past ideal condition. Neither she nor her friend bothered to drink it, she assured me, because she insisted on returning the wine.

I looked at her with a blank stare. I was not amused and I let it show.

“Didn’t you notice it?” she asked after seeing the displeasure on my face, realizing that I wasn’t taking her word for it.

“I didn’t try it,” I replied curtly.

I told her to bring both glasses back to the counter and she complied, after which she and her friend left. Once they were out of view, I waited a few more minutes to give the untouched wine extra time to breathe. When I picked up one of the glasses, I twirled it to further aerate its contents.

I took a good whiff and then tasted it. True enough, the wine was exactly as I expected. It was perfectly fine. Here was an uncomplicated, fruity Cabernet blend that smelled of blueberry syrup and violets and evoked the taste of sweet cherries at the end. It was nothing special but it was pleasant. Unfortunately, the young woman didn’t understand that the old and acidic smells she was complaining about were clues that the wine just needed some air.

Old and acidic… yeah, right. It was beneath her to even taste it, good grief.

To be fair, she had complained quite cordially. The problem was that she didn’t know what she was talking about. I have to think that some ignorant wine snob must have taught her and, worse, told her that it is fashionable to show off one’s “knowledge” about wine as a complaining customer. Luckily for her, I was not in the mood to unsettle my other guests by embarrassing her in front of everyone over a mere two glasses of generic house pour. It was my prerogative, so I gave her a pass. Had this been a whole bottle of wine from our main selection, however, I would have corrected her outright and flatly refused to allow the wine to be returned.

Entertaining complaints is a fact of life at Cyrano, so I make it a point to attend to such matters as quickly and fairly as possible. Nevertheless, I also have a strict policy when it comes to complaints about our wines. It is a policy that I have steadfastly enforced ever since our doors opened.

My policy is simple: In any dispute over wine, my judgment alone rules.

I am the final arbiter. If a customer complains and it is my judgment that the customer is wrong, then the customer is wrong. End of story. My decision is beyond contestation no matter how much a customer may disagree. And if you also happen to be a pretentious wine snob, then be ready to get what’s coming to you.

That’s the way it is. I won’t have it any other way. At Cyrano, wine snobbery is not welcome.

Needless to say, I’m sure that any other wine shop would regard it as business suicide to do what we’ve been doing for the last couple of years. But as our loyal patrons can tell you, Cyrano is not any other wine shop.

“He’s the only bar owner I know who argues with his customers,” one of our patrons once bragged admiringly about me to his friend while they were at Cyrano (thanks for the compliment, Joey, although I should point that we are actually a wine shop, not a bar). Other patrons have over the years voiced similar pride in our willingness to stand our ground. In fact, that’s actually how some of them became our friends.

Take the following story. About a year ago, an American customer walked in with his Filipina wife and asked me to recommend a bottle of wine they could drink on the premises. The fellow described what he wanted, so I selected a powerful, densely packed reserve Malbec from Argentina. I served it and then went about my business. A short time later, the American called me to complain that the wine hadn’t turned out to his liking; he asked that the bottle either be replaced or be priced off. So I reached for a clean glass and tasted the wine for myself. Without flinching, I told the fellow that there was nothing wrong with it. I reminded him that I had cautioned earlier that this heavy style of red required at least half an hour to breathe before it could be appreciated properly. But he continued to disagree, so I put my foot down.

“I’m sorry, but there is nothing wrong with the wine,” I said firmly. “If there was something technically wrong with it, if it had been damaged by heat or some other kind of spoilage, then I would have been the first to say so and I would have replaced the bottle immediately. But if the wine simply disagrees with you, then I’m afraid it can’t be returned or discounted. In this place, I am the final arbiter, therefore my judgment is final.” Having ruffled some feelings in the room, I decided to offer him and his wife complimentary glasses of white wine as a show of good will and I left it at that.

Believe it or not, less than an hour later the American was chatting with me and my Friday group at the dining counter, eating cheese with us and, above all, enjoying the Malbec that he had earlier complained about.

“You know, you’re right,” he finally admitted. “It really tastes better now after half an hour.”

All’s well that ends well. Ted and his wife Naty have been visiting us ever since, dropping in every so often for good vino and friendly conversation (and, once, to listen to our Boz Scaggs Greatest Hits Live concert on DVD). The fellow even had his birthday party at Cyrano last year.

Yeah, that’s the way it is here.

There are lots of things we do at the shop that wouldn’t work most anywhere else. But at Cyrano, when we honestly tell customers when they’re wrong, things still manage to go right. Funny, isn’t it?

So to all the wine snobs out there, like those who are clueless about “old” and “acidic” smells, please feel free to be wrong anywhere else. Here, I will make sure that you answer to my rules.

Like I said, I won’t have it any other way.





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