Unwonk - Episode 15: Vintage

A special episode of Unwonk about wine and what happens at a restaurant when wine things go sour. We learn how not to prepare for your first time drinking whiskey, what can trigger a restaurant customer to attack the owner with a bottle of wine, and we’re thrilled to talk to Leslie Sbrocco, wine expert and host of the TV show “Check Please Bay Area" about what a sommelier does, what a corkage fee is for, and some nice wines for the fall.

Listen with the player below, subscribe in iTunes or Stitcher (links above), or with your favorite podcast app.

Today's Guest: Leslie Sbrocco

Many thanks to our interview guest, Leslie Sbrocco, wine expert and host of the TV show “Check Please Bay Area.” You can check out her site here, and - if you're in the bay area - go to this page to reserve a spot in one of her upcoming Sipping Smarts classes on October 18 and November 14. You can also follow Leslie on Twitter at @LeslieSbrocco.

And make sure to check out Check Please Bay Area - it's a really fantastic show, even if you don't live in the San Francisco Bay Area. [BTW, the restaurant we were cheering for on one of the latest episodes, Wise Sons Deli, fared pretty well with the guests. Personal score!]

Links & Notes

Please enjoy the links to additional information relating to the questions on this episode - for people new to Unwonk, these quotes and links may not make much sense until you actually listen to the episode:

“Wine is the most healthful and most hygienic of beverages.” - Louis Pasteur

[Episode Keywords: Corked, Martini & Rossi Sweet Vermouth, Fight or Flight, Stupid Freshman, Wild Omaha Restaurant Chase, Drink the Wine You Like to Drink]

Episode Transcript


Hi, friend. This is a rough transcript of this episode of Unwonk. What's that mean? It means that we're just pasting the original script for the show plus unvetted transcripts of any interviews. So, you're likely to see content that maybe didn't make the final cut, maybe not see some content that was in the episode but not the original script, and run across a few typos. 

As with everything on Unwonk, the transcript below is for general informational purposes only - this is not legal advice - if you need to have a legal question answered, please seek legit legal representation. 

On this episode of Unwonk, we learn

How not to prepare for your first time drinking whiskey
What can trigger a restaurant customer to attack the owner with a bottle of wine
And we’re thrilled to talk to wine expert and host of the tv show “Check Please, Bay Area," Leslie Sbrocco.

This is Unwonk. We respond to your legal questions with relevant and useful information. If you would like to submit a question, please visit our site at

When you’re there, you can also find where to follow us on twitter, facebook, and all the social things. And make sure to tell your friends about us. Seriously - have you been doing that? You totally be doing all of that.

You can also check out our ask a lawyer column in deadspin by clicking on the banner at our site or going to

Even though the  general information on this podcast is provided by actual attorneys, you’d be an idiot to think it is actual legal advice, and you’d also be the type of person who doesn’t mind the word moist. 

And now, today’s question.

I took my husband to a really nice restaurant for our anniversary a few weeks ago. I don't know much about wine so they sent the "wine person" over to suggest something, and we went with the red that he was pushing. It's not that it was spoiled or anything - it was just completely different from how he described it and neither of us liked it at all. The bottle cost about $100. After some back and forth, I begrudgingly paid for it because I didn't want to make a scene (my husband hates confrontation - won't even send bad food back if it's overcooked). Wasn't the restaurant legally required to guarantee the wine to match what the wine person described?

Wine is one of those things that you can wonk out on as much as you can, or you can just know what you like and stick with that, or anything in between. 

And I think the perception of wine and wine culture has shifted a lot over the last couple of decades from being perceived snobby and pretentious - that’s the perception I had growing up - to something much more fun, approachable, and down to earth. Also, you can get drunk.

Of course, you can choose to be snobby and pretentious about wine, but in my experience, anyone who’s snobby and pretentious about wine, is likely to be snobby and pretentious about a lot of things, so don’t let that bother you. And, anyway, the snob factor for coffee people is off the charts compared to wine people.

And if anyone does get annoying about it, you can close your eyes and recall the time when Orson Welles got absolutely smashed filming a commercial for Paul Masson wine in the late 70s or early 80s, resulting in a brilliant set of outtakes that are still my favorite thing ever on the internet. 

Link to the video at our site.

My first non-supervised encounter with wine happened as a result of drinking whiskey. I’ll explain. Freshman year in high school, a friend told me that his brother was having a party, and they were going to have whiskey there. Being kind of green, we decided to practice drinking whiskey when his parents were out one night. His dad had a locked room with a wine rack on one side, and a large liquor cabinet on the other. My friend rooted around in the liquor cabinet near the whiskey bottles - and pulled out one that looked acceptable. And we drank a lot of it on ice. Surprisingly, we handled it fairly well with a light buzz and zero negative effects. It was sweet and went down smooth. Cut to - the party. We were hanging with the older kids and some college grown-ups. We weren’t interacting with them, mind you - just feeling the level-up on just being there. The magical moment came - a bottle of Wild Turkey the size of a bathtub was wielded with much fanfare. My friend’s brother poured us large glasses, at our request. Now experts at whisky, we toasted, chugged, and - you know that snapshot your brain takes when something bad happens? Like a couple weeks ago when I parked, opened my car door a little rand another car immediately crushed my door. Well, in the moment of impact, my brain just took a snapshot of a cracking/scraping sound and a visual of blue Prius rearview mirror folding against my window - kind of a static perception. 

My brain DID that to free up other mental processes to deal with a potentially nasty situation - no time to waste on the senses experiencing the accident - my brain had to divert resources to the fight or flight department. Fortunately, the accident wasn’t serious. 
Now, as I said, my friend and I toasted our goblets of whiskey, chugged, and the audiovisual snapshot of that moment - a hacking cough ordered up by each of our naive brains and the look of panic on each of our faces. The whiskey we had just cavalierly dumped into our mouths was starkly different from our practice whiskey, simultaneously liquid and fire. sure, there was sweetness, but mostly death and pain. I still had had a partial a mouthful, so my cough was an perfect 10 of a spittake, right into my friends eyes, which were at that moment open wider than that scene in Clockwork Orange - making it the worst possible time to receive a fine high proof on his eyeballs. His whiskey mostly just poured out of his face as his hands went to protect his eyes from going blind, and then he inhaled whatever whiskey was left in his mouth, resulting in rapid coughing, and ending with him puking into the sink and washing his eyes out under the tap. 

Keep in mind, we were already socially illegitimate in front of the older kids and the college grownups. Our drive to drink the whiskey was - in our heads - a way to get acknowledged as being socially acceptable. And we had wanted it so bad we practiced earlier in the week. And now - with Howard Jone’s “Things Can Only Get Better” playing in the background - I’m not kidding, it was on a mix tape my friend’s brother’s girlfriend made - we found a quick way to drop further than we had been. 

After the taunting died down and everyone went back to treating us as invisible freshman, we went to the liquor cabinet to investigate our practice bottle we had been drinking. My friend rustled it from the back of the cabinet and showed it to his brother. It was vermouth. Vermouth is not whiskey. It’s wine. It’s fairly high proof wine, but nowhere near the power of whiskey. And that’s why it was so easy to drink. And it lives next to whiskey because that’s what you mix it with. You don’t keep vermouth with the legit wine. We were not very bright. 

I’ve evolved since then. And no hard feelings towards vermouth - it makes things taste really nice. 

Now, back to your question, restaurant recommended the wine, you didn’t like it and it didn’t taste like what they said, and they still charged you for it. This is another situation where there’s a pretty solid legal answer, but the legal answer is the wrong answer, and the common sense answer - which our guest Leslie Sbrocco addresses - is the right answer.

In fact, this legal bit is going to happen now, and it’s not gonna take much time today. Assuming the wine wasn’t spoiled - as you may recall from Episode 12 on food poisoning, food and drinks  have to be fit for consumption and wholesome - there are two laws that are really on point (there are a lot of others that could apply, but not worth addressing them here):

First, when you buy wine in a restaurant - or pretty much anything at any vendor - There’s an implied warranty of merchantability - Basically, your bottle of wine has to be what the label says. This doesn’t address the restaurant’s wine person’s florid descriptions of the nose of the wine, finish of the wine and mentions of hints of berries, chocolate kisses, soil, and circus peanuts. So, your bottle of wine is what the label said it was on a basic level - say, for example, a pinot noir from Anderson Valley.

HOWEVER, there IS an express warranty that something will live up to a description by the seller and that description became part of the your decision to purchase. So if the “wine person” says that your Zinfadel is jammy (can we ban word for wine descriptions? it’s right up there with “moist” for describing food) with a hint of tobacco and cinammon, and you can’t taste it, does that mean the restaurant has breached a warranty? Well, there’s a few things that weaken this (i) I haven’t seen case law on this, but taste here is highly nuanced, subjective and personal, (ii) a “wine person” at a restaurant is most likely going to have expertise in picking up these notes than even a prosumer wine customer, and (iii) when a “wine person” gives their tasting notes, it’s pretty much implied that they’re saying “this is what I pick up… you may not”. In other words, the disparate levels of individual perception and expertise probabnly provide too much variance in the wine description to be the basis for an express warranty. That said, once a year, there’s always a news story about some douchebag financier who orders a $5000 bottle of wine and then refuses to pay because he thinks it’s crap. Maybe we can test out my theory with one of those guys in the next year.

In the meantime, let’s turn to our guest for the real solution here. 

I’m very excited to have our guest on today’s show. Leslie Sbrocco is a noted wine expert and educator, and she’s also the host of the TV show Check Please Bay Area” on KQED here in northern california. Leslie, thanks for joining us today.

Leslie:        Oh my pleasure.  Thanks for having me.

Unwonk:        So you read the question.  I think the person referred to a wine person in quote and I think they’re referring to Sommelier.  Can you let us know what a Sommelier does?

Leslie:        Absolutely.  And actually you pronounced it correctly.  Its three syllables Sum-Mel- Yey not Sam-Mel-Yey or Som-Mel-Lier it’s basically the wine director of the wine, the wine steward and that’s the Sommelier and so I really encourage people to think of the Sommelier as their wine Sherpa for the evening when they’re in a restaurant.  So I don’t… I’m not sure how Sommelier sometimes get a bad rap and I think your question maybe you know, it was an unchain sommelier or maybe not even maybe it was just a server that you know, that the wine duties fell to but typically Sommeliers are really interested in helping guests and building the wine list and so you know, they tend to be a great resource.

Unwonk:        And by the way my pronunciation of that word declines the more visits I have from Sommelier.

Leslie:        Sommelier.

Unwonk:        So regardless of the legalities whichever kind of talked about what is kind of the best practice in this situation where the person’s not picking up whatever notes the Sommelier said or just doesn’t like the wine.

Leslie:        Well really Sommelier’s and Wine Directors are there to you know, to make guests comfortable and to really encourage them to drink wine.  So I think in the situation that was described in your question it really should have fallen on to the Sommelier to come back to the customer and say “Oh I’m so sorry you weren’t happy with the wine I pick” they really have it in their control to be able to pull that one back to take it and pour it at the bar and serve it by the glass you know, they can make up their cause very quickly doing that.  You know, if it wasn’t really intently you know, expensive bottle or rare bottle I wouldn’t suggest necessarily that they would be doing that but it sounded like from the question you know, when you walk into a restaurant and you don’t know a lot about wine and you ask somebody the Sommelier or the Wine Director or the Wine Steward there you know, can you give me some direction it really does fall upon the Sommelier to say yes you know, tell me what you like and let me try to help you.  So they probably should have taken that wine back and made the customer happy as opposed to really battling it out to $500... yeah.

Unwonk:        Right.  Right and you may even focus on the Sommelier but what if the customers just randomly pick the bottle that they wanted and it comes… and it’s not corked or anything.  It’s just they don’t still like it.

Leslie:        Personally I don’t think they have a leg to stand on you know, the whole reason to send the wine back is because of a flaw.  So you just mentioned corked.  Corked wine is wine that’s been affected by a bad cork and it makes the wine smell kind of musty or moldy.  It doesn’t necessarily when you pick up the cork it’s not gonna smell like it necessarily or you know, so it’s really about smelling the wine.  And the incident of cork taint has really dramatically decreased in the last you know, five or six years.  And so yeah I come across cork bottles but it’s much less common now.  But if it doesn’t smell right certainly bring it up to the you know, to the Sommelier or ask for the Wine Director or somebody and say this just doesn’t smell right to me.  You know, I’ve had this wine before or something like that.  And they should be able to say oh yeah this one’s corked or not just because you don’t like it, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should send it back.

Unwonk:        Right.  You know, I had a friend when I was living in New York who would bring a bottle of wine to a party and then taste it and tell everyone not to drink it.  The wine was corked and it turned out it wasn’t corked she just always brought a really crappy wine.

Leslie:        That’s right, you know.  So it’s not the flaw of the wine it’s the flaw of the taster at that point.

Unwonk:        Yeah I figure that in that case.  So…

Leslie:        Yeah.

Unwonk:        I was doing some research for this and came across the kind of a funny incident that kind of goes with the wine service aspect and I’m gonna summarize it to you.  And it’s from a news story Omaha World-Herald, it’s in Nebraska so…

Leslie:        I just was in Omaha two weeks ago.

Unwonk:        Oh.

Leslie:        There’s a wonderful restaurant called Heritage Food and Wine so Omaha actually has a great restaurant, there’s a couple of them.

Unwonk:        Well you ran at this restaurant especially a regular at a restaurant in Omaha brought in a few bottles of his own wine.  He did that because according to the article apparently nobody like the wine list and even told the owner that nobody drinks your wine.  

Leslie:        Oh God.

Unwonk:        So he received his bill that night and there was a twenty-dollar corkage fee on the bill.

Leslie:        Right.

Unwonk:        He then chase the owner on the restaurant with the full bottle of wine wielding it, pushing them on the floor and then smash the owner’s cell phone against the wall.  So my question for you is two more question what is a corkage fee and is this the normal reaction to one?

Leslie:        Well that is not the normal reaction.  Obviously he was embodying too much of his own wine or maybe some [inaudible] on the fire or something.  The corkage fee is basically the fee to… for somebody to bring their own bottle in.  So the corkage fee can vary you know, incredibly much it can be ten dollars, it can be a hundred dollars.  It can be one step fee it can be a sliding scale depending upon the value of the wine.  It’s at the restaurant discretion to set the corkage fee and to be able to bring in your own wine.  So you know, it’s really up to the restaurant and certainly up to the legality of the state the people are in.  But corkage fee typically covers you know, the service.  It covers washing of the glasses [inaudible], if there’s any breakage.  And so I love restaurants that have a great corkage policy.

Unwonk:        Right.

Leslie:        Because what that means is that if you’re really bringing in a special bottle or something fun then they are encouraging that.  So there’s couple of things to keep in mind.  If you are bringing in a bottle of wine if you’re planning to bring in a special bottle of wine call the restaurant ahead period.  Say “Do you allow me to bring this in and what is your corkage fee” just say you’re established and you know what you’re paying.  And… and then also make sure it’s not on the wine list, go online check the wine list.

Unwonk:        Right.

Leslie:        Make sure you’re not bringing in something they already have, right?  It’s really about being able to bring in a special bottle and make sure you give the Sommelier or the Wine Director a little taste of that.  Treat them to the taste of the bottle as well.  And believe it or not they will be much nicer on the corkage fee so…

Unwonk:        I grew up in the bay area.  And I moved away in the early 90’s.  I lived in Boston and I was in New York for ten years.  I move back from New York in 2009 and that’s when I discovered Check Please Bay Area and for people all over the world download our show but for people who don’t know Check Please Bay Area is hosted by Leslie and it has three people, three guest were selected and each one picks a restaurant and then the other one is good and we tried these restaurants and then Leslie host the discussion of each person’s restaurant.  And it’s amazing because I was blown away at the microcosm of the bay area culture that you capture with the collection of each of these guests is like… it’s so many of the guests are so distinctly bay area from how they look and talk and interact.  And then there’s this healthy dose of San Francisco pass of aggressiveness hovering around sometimes.  How do you select the guest for the show?  Because it seems like there’s always this perfect combination of like happy person and kind of the cranky person and then there’s the swing boat person it’s really interesting.

Leslie:        Well that’s the producers I have to say we have been on air for ten seasons having into our eleventh you know, [inaudible] for reason and it’s really because the producers select great guest.  And the process to get on the show is people apply online from cab drivers everything and they recommend one of their favorite restaurants and then we… and the producers go to the applicants who are articulate online and then they call them up and see if they are articulate you know, on the phone and then they… for the third step bring them in to interview them.  And then they might put their face up on the wall with their restaurant selection and move mall around and you know, see what restaurants fit where and what personality they think fit where.  So I don’t actually ever meet the guests until we get on set.

Unwonk:        Oh wow.

Leslie:        That’s when I see them for the first time yeah.

Unwonk:        And part of it is even when you’re watching an award show and they name all the nominees and they keep the camera on their faces when they announced the winner do you prep your guests like hey by the way guest number three really hit it at your restaurant.  Or all those reactions because the camera is on the person’s face then the other person is saying you know what I do…

Leslie:        Absolutely not.  They are not allowed they get in the green room.  They get in the green room we do ply them with wine…

Unwonk:        My other question was exactly how much wine are these folks drinking?

Leslie:        Oh I will answer that one too.  But so basically no one they get into the green room we tell them under no circumstances that they are allowed to talk about the restaurant with the guest you know, they will all sit there and meet each other in the green room and they all come out and say hello and meet them and we go on set.  And… but we don’t allow them to talk about each of the restaurants.  So there reactions are real.  And we shoot live to take so it’s pretty much… it’s pretty much a live show.

Unwonk:        Yeah I’m always rooting for the person with my favorite restaurant out of the three…

Leslie:        Yes.

Unwonk:        And luckily most of the time my restaurant win so I’m very not that it’s a competition but still…

Leslie:        But I think the appeal of the show is that somebody… you can always relate to one of the three guests.

Unwonk:        Do they… do they all walk out together kind of okay that happened or some people genuinely riled up?

Leslie:        You know really are they overly riled up.  It’s interesting, it’s fun when there’s a little bit of dissention on the set and people you know, call that clam chowder, that’s not clam chowder and I think the viewer like when that happened too but because it’s a real conversation you know…

Unwonk:        Right.

Leslie:        It really is the way and it’s a [inaudible] experience and unlike you know, yeah for some of the other sites where people can just go on and complain it is really about… about the positive aspects of the restaurants and so many of the restaurants [inaudible] that have contacted us afterward said that you know, you have kept my business open.  I mean being on [inaudible] has been such an incredible experience for us you know, we’ve been able to stand because of the reaction to the show so it really is tend to be much more of a positive experience.

Unwonk:        Right.

Leslie:        Than negative and I think it’s only somebody’s favorite restaurant so you know it definitely has a positive impact ninety you know, plus percent of the time on the restaurant.

Unwonk:        Oh fantastic.  And I have one more question it’s purely [inaudible] it’s about wine.  So I just put my favorite summer wine to bed because the weather is stuck around longer than usual.

Leslie:        Don’t tell me you put rose to bed.

Unwonk:        No it was an Assyrtiko from Santorini, lovely wine.

Leslie:        It’s a great wine.  

Unwonk:        And I’m shifting to the fall I have nothing to go to what would you recommend for some nice, cool evening you know, seasonal vegetable dinners?

Leslie:        Do you wanna stay with white wine or red wine?

Unwonk:        Probably shift to red.

Leslie:        Okay so as you were talking to [inaudible] from Santorini has an amazing wine and it’s a crisp white that’s just… it’s such a beautiful drink.  I absolutely adore that wine.  So you have very, very good taste.  

Unwonk:        Thank you.

Leslie:        So moving in to… into fall it’s not… it’s not cold weather yet.  It’s not you know, we still got some sunny warm days.  I recommend something like a Spanish campanile maybe from Rioja.  I love the wines of Rioja in Spain next into classic region in Spain.  And you can [inaudible] for twenty-five, thirty-five dollars Campo Viejo makes gorgeous ones.  You got all sorts of beautiful Riojas and you can go as you know, inexpensive as just the next [inaudible] plus affordable prices.  

Unwonk:        Fantastic.

Leslie:        And there’s another really kind of up and coming wine made from Grenache and its called Carinena.  C-A-R-I-N-E-N-A… it’s a region in Spain just outside of Zaragoza, very historic region and it’s really getting a lot of craft now and it’s a historic region but you can get wines under fifteen bucks and made either from Grenache or Carinena.

Unwonk:        Fantastic.  I just took detailed notes even though I’m recording this.  Well Leslie we appreciate you teaching us all about wine today and I understand you have some upcoming classes available about wine.

Leslie:        I do if you live in the San Francisco Bay Area I’m doing two classes coming up.  I’m doing a class at Napa Valley and the wonderful Caribbean Wine Estate.  And it on October 18th in afternoon and I’m doing a look at global wine.  So I’ve got one from Italy and Chili and Argentina and Portugal.  I just came back from a harvest in Portugal [inaudible].  And then I’ve got a bourbons, bubbles and big red that’s going to be November 14th at Schroeder’s a really fun restaurant in the financial district in San Francisco.

Unwonk:        You might see me on November 14th.

Leslie:        It’s gonna be a good one.  Who doesn’t like bubbles and bourbons right?

Unwonk:        Yeah you can’t really miss.

Leslie:        No you can’t.  

Unwonk:        We have some information about your website in our website as well.  Do you want to give the name for your site right now?

Leslie:        Yes it’s just my name and that’s L-E-S-L-I-E-S-B-R-O-C-C-O .com.

Unwonk:        Fantastic well Leslie thank you for joining us today we really appreciate it.

Leslie:        Thanks Daniel.

And there you have it, Hope. There are some potential legal argument to be made here - including the ones I mentioned earlier  and even some unfair business practice and deception arguments, but for $100, I wouldn’t sue over it. As Leslie suggested, it looks like the restaurant missed this one from a customer service perspective and the som - el - yay really let you down, especially since the som - el - yay’s job is to enhance your experience. But I wouldn’t let that dissuade you from going for it in the future. If you’re going to throw down a lot on a bottle, don’t let someone push something on you. And - failed to mention this at the top - there are tons of fantastic wines that aren’t expensive anyway. Regardless of where you are, if you order straight whiskey and they give you a glass of pure sweet vermouth, run. Just get up. And leave.

Thanks for listening to this episode of Unwonk. 

And thank you again to our guest leslie sbrocco. You can check out her site at, including more information on her sipping smarts classes. Link is also at our site.

Speaking of which, please visit our site at to ask your questions, and for lots of bonus material about the topics on today’s episode. You can also find us on twitter, and facebook, and you can also - well, this is mandatory - tell everyone you know to listen and subscribe.

And don’t forget check out our deadspin column, updating every couple-ish weeks. 

On the next episode, we learn:

  • 7 more stupid things I did with alcohol in my teens, including what has come to be known as the crunchy snail incident,
  • Why crappy wine doesn’t seem so bad after two bottles of it, and 
  • A list of things I regretted eating after two bottles of crappy wine but only remembered the morning after and then felt bad about myself all day.