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Are we being screwed?
Fill levels of screwcap wines
© by Sue Courtney
18 January 2004

Are we being screwed?

I ask the question because of an incident that happened in a Napier (Hawkes Bay) restaurant earlier this week. It was one of those restaurants with a perpetual wine list Ė just the wine names and no vintages listed.

The Vidal Estate Riesling was listed and the current release, the 2003 vintage from Marlborough, is a wine I really like. When it is served straight from the fridge Ė as it would be in this restaurant situation - it is crisp and refreshing with dry lemon and honey and then, as it warms up, it's full of tropical fruit with pineapple and a spritzy zesty backbone with just a suggestion of ginger. A lovely wine with good weight and length. Our fellow diners were Riesling fanatics and I knew they'd like this and with its slight sweetness it would be good with the Thai food that this restaurant dished up.

"What vintage is the Vidal Riesling? Is it the 2003?" I asked?

"Yes, it's the 2003", the waitress replied.

We ordered the wine and a few minutes later the bottle arrived at our table. "Sorry, we only have the 2002" she said as she plonked the already opened bottle down. She turned to walk away.

"Excuse me", I called after her. "We asked for a 2003."

"That's all we have", she said with defiance.

I was not happy and now noticed that the fill level of the wine was about an inch below the bottom of the skirt of the metal capsule.

"Have you poured some wine out of it?" I asked.

"No, itís just been opened", she replied.

I wanted to ask if it made a crack as it opened and the seal was broken but she walked away again.

I poured a tiny sample in my glass to taste. It tasted like Riesling but did not taste like the Vidal Estate 2002 Riesling that I knew well, a wine with an earthy limey richness, a ripe, full-bodied riesling with a long toasty finish. The wine in my glass was rather dilute.

Two of the others had a taste. "Perhaps they filled the bottle with the House Wine", suggested Neil. I had suspicions too.

I looked around. Our waitress was now at the counter at the front of the restaurant. I got up and went, with bottle, to the lady in blue who was in the bar area at the back.

"It's no good", I said.

"It's just been opened", she said.

"There's something wrong with it", I said. "The fill level's wrong. Either some wine has been taken out or it has leaked."

"It has just been opened, nothing's been taken out of it", she replied.

"Well, it must have leaked". I tried to explain how it should be. She stood her ground, shaking her head the whole time.

Our waitress came back. Unlike the lady in blue, her English was good. She had either been born here or had come here as a baby.

"What should the fill level be?" She suddenly seemed very interested.

"About this much below the bottom of the seal". I made a gap of about a centimetre with my first finger and thumb.

"If the bottle is closed with a cork, which comes to here", I pointed at the neck of the bottle about where the bottom of the cork would come to, "then the top of the wine will be here". I pointed to a level about a centimetre below that. She nodded her head in acknowledgment.

"But if you have a screwcap, the bottom of the seal is here", I said as I pointed to the top of the bottle, "and so the top of the wine should be here, about a centimetre below. If it is not, the wine will have more oxygen in the space and the wine will start to go off".

"So it should be filled to here", said the waitress pointing to the place I was indicating. "I see", she nodded.

"Look", I said, "it's no skin off your nose replacing it. You are just one step in the supply chain, like me, so all you have to do is tell your sales rep the story, give him this bottle and ask for a replacement."

By this time the woman in blue had left in disgust. She still didnít want a bar of it. To make matters worse for me, it was their last bottle of Riesling and it had been the only screwcap wine in the place as well, as far as I could see.

I ordered another bottle from their wine list. Thank goodness it wasn't corked. I donít know how I would have coped with rejecting a second wine.

Incidents like this send alarm bells ringing? Why was there only the one bottle of this Riesling in the place? It was a Thursday evening, it was not busy and no other bottles of this wine were on any of the other occupied tables.

I wondered if the restaurant had been screwing their less wine knowledgable customers. This restaurant was BYO and any wine savvy person who knew this, would probably bring something yummy from their own cellar to accompany their meal. People like us, people in transit as they travel the country, would order from the list.

I've learnt a lesson and must heed my advice, which is to request that the bottle be opened at the table so the customer can inspect the bottle to see that it is the vintage of wine they want and that the tamper-evident seal has indeed not been tampered with.

If the fill level is genuinely low, it can be pointed out before the bottle is opened. Leakage can happen. I've sent one such bottle back to the producer before but I was alerted to it not by the fill level, but by the smell of the leaking wine.

© Sue Courtney
18th January 2004


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