The $169 Wine Ordering Mistake

I went to Morton's Steakhouse in July 2008. Ironically, I went there because I was having a discussion (argument) with my mom over wine prices. She felt certain restaurants (i.e. Morton's) overcharged vastly for wine. I felt that restaurants had a hard enough time staying in business - nine out of ten of them fail in the first year due to bankruptcy. I felt if they had to charge up for wine to cover their incredible costs of quality food, rent, staff salaries and the like, that it was a fair trade-off. Since she had brought up Morton's (of Hartford CT) as her example, I felt it necessary to take a trip out to Morton's with a friend to investigate their wine prices. My aim was to prove my mom wrong of course :) I was fully expecting the prices to be within some sort of reasonable range, to show that this is simply what restaurants had to charge to cover their costs of staying open.

I went with my friend-from-childhood Kris. The staff was friendly, the atmosphere warm. When we got to the dining table, I popped open the wine list. Kris likes reds that are not super dry, so I turned to the Zinfandels. I even took a photo of the Zinfandel wine list area.

Morton zinfandels

Bob and I have a pair of Ridge Zinfandels at home - a 1991 and a 2001 - which we have been saving to open and taste-compare. So when I saw they had Ridge 2003 Zinfandel on the list, I was happy. I love Ridge Zins. I thought this was perfect. It was $80 - which was about the highest I'd paid in a restaurant for a bottle of wine - but this was a fun occasion and I was willing to splurge.

Just as a comparison, here are the two Ridge Zins I have in my wine fridge. We had gone to the Ridge Winery on a trip to investigate the Wineries in the 1976 Paris Tasting - Ridge's wine had come in 5th in that famous tasting. We adored the Ridge wines when we were out there and brought several back with us.

Ridge zinfandels

So I told the waiter - who was wonderful and very friendly - that we wanted the Ridge Zin, Spring Mountain. I had written this down on my notes (I always take notes at restaurant) so I was reading this off my notes and not off the menu - but I was very specific about Ridge Zin, Spring Mountain. I told him I had a Ridge pair of Zins at home and was looking forward to this.

He brought the bottle and I looked at it. Ridge. I clearly recognized the label as matching the ones we owned. It was a 2002, but restaurants are often off by a year or two on the wine bottles they bring. I've given up on worrying about that :)

Ridge Montebello

So I said sure, that was the Ridge I ordered, and he poured it out. It was very tasty! Kris liked it too. I even offered the waiter some, and he poured himself some to try in the back room. I was happy. The meal was delicious, the service was great, the atmosphere was lovely. Kris and I had a great time catching up on things.

Now, the sharp eyed ones amongst you might have realized the problem here. When I got the bill, it looked like this -

Mortons Bill

So I was charged $250 for the bottle. I took a look and mentioned to the waiter, in a friendly fashion, that it was my own fault for not really examining the bottle he brought over and showed to me. Obviously it wasn't the bottle I had asked for - but he had shown me the bottle. I had looked at it and approved it. I had seen "Ridge" and felt it was right. I just wanted to make sure he paid more attention in the future to other buyers, so that it did not happen again.

The manager came over with a plate of liqueurs to offer them to us as part of recompensation, but I had a long drive to get home. I said we would pass on the liqueurs, and it was OK.

The manager came back and apologized again, and gave us a gift certificate for $100 in apology. Meaning we would have to come back again, and would probably spend far more than $100, but that we got partial credit for the mistake. Kris and I immediately planned to come back with both of our mothers to give this another shot. This means that they now get four peoples' worth of money in exchange for their mistake, so maybe they come out even more ahead :)

The total bill for Kris and me came to $403. This is with the $249 bottle of Ridge Monte Bello. That means the bill pre-wine was $154. We had a two-for-$99 coupon but we chose to go a-la-carte so I could have tuna and we both could have asparagus. In addition, the wine costs were:

What we wanted:
Ridge Zinfandel York Creek Spring Mountain
Restaurant cost: $80
Actual retail cost: $32
Markup: $48 / 150%

What we got:
Ridge Monte Bello
Restaurant cost: $249
Actual retail cost: $180
Markup: $69 / 38%

Note that restaurants don't pay retail - they pay wholesale cost, so they are making a larger profit than shown here. One could say this is an indicator that you should buy "expensive wines" at this restaurant since you get a far better deal on those vs on the cheap wines.

To summarize, my mistake was not "really" verifying the wine that was brought to me. I only verified the winery, label and year. The mistake cost me $169. Be very careful when you order wine, that you check the bottle carefully and know what they are about to open for you!

Bob Says: "Lisa took 100% responsibility for a mistake that's at least 50/50. They should have taken some significant chunk of money off the bill if not charging her the $80 for what she ordered. The idea of compensating her with a gift certificate against a future purchase effectively still puts all the responsibility on her. With their markups and since she might never have gone back again this really costs them next to nothing. And Lisa still paid $250 for a bottle of wine she didn't order. I think a fair solution would have been to charge $125 on the bill for the bottle of wine and leave it at that."

From Jocelyne, a site visitor: "In this situation, I think a compromise would be acceptable. I agree that you owned some of the responsibility in approving the incorrect (more expensive bottle of wine) but the restaurant(staff) owns some as well in serving the incorrect wine. The responsibility should be shared 50/50. With regards to tipping, I believe you should have tipped according to the cost of the bottle of wine you originally ordered. That way you would not have ended up compounding the cost of your mistake and the restaurant (staff) would not have ended end up profiting even more from theirs."

From Sallianne, a waitress: "Responding to the wine mistake. As a past waitress, which I have been in the business for the past 30 years and which I now own my own wine shop. Just thought I would add that in. I feel it was the waiters fault for bringing the wrong wine. If there are different Ridge Zins, then the waiter should of made sure to check with you when he brought the wine out to make sure it was the right one before opening it. I would of not tipped him on the mistake bottle. Even if the service is good and you were generous enough to share your wine with him I think that was enough. Hopefully he will check with the customer next time a bottle is ordered. (Before opening it.)"

To be fair, the waiter brought over the bottle. He did the traditional presentation of holding it before me. I did look at the bottle! I saw it was a Ridge bottle. I recognized the label design from the ones I had at home, so I knew it was "really a Ridge" (and not some sort of similarly named winery). I'm not sure I can fault him for not waving the bottle around under my nose and saying "really? Are you sure you are sure? You wanted THIS bottle? The $250 bottle?" That might have started to seem rude and presumptuous to me, that I (as a woman) couldn't afford to order a $250 bottle of wine. It would almost seem condescending to me if he had done that. So that is why I took on responsibility for the situation. He did all he could reasonably do as a proper waiter. He showed me the bottle! He waited patiently for me to examine it. If he had done more to "question" me on my purchase, it would have been improper from my point of view. If he had mentioned the price (which would have been a dead giveaway) it would have been rude.

Now, pondering this some, what he COULD have done is said "here is the Ridge Meritage, I really like the blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in this wine." That would have made me immediately perk up and say "HEY I ordered a Zinfandel!!" And had he brought over another Zinfandel, he could again have been more explicit and said "here is the Ridge Turquoise Mountain Zinfandel, it is a rare release only seen in certain years." And I would have said "hey wait, I didn't order a Turquoise". So in that sense he could have been more clear about what he was presenting. But really, he held the bottle in front of me. I could have taken it from him and read the label more closely. I did not. To be honest I've never taken a bottle from a server's hands to look at it closely. I just look at the main big letters to check the winery name. Going forward, I will look at bottles more closely.

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All content on the WineIntro website is personally written by author and wine enthusiast Lisa Shea. WineIntro explores the delicious variety and beautiful history which makes up our world of wine! Lisa loves supporting local wineries and encouraging people to drink whatever they like. We all have different taste buds, and that makes our world wonderful. Always drink responsibly.