Yesterday I spent a couple hours chatting with a gentleman from Chalon-sur-Saône and his Irish friend. The subject of natural corks came up, in the context of my commitment to using them over screw caps. The French guy currently works for a respected tonnellerie but before that worked for a high-end cork supplier. He told me a story that was too marvelous to keep to myself:

One day he was visiting one of his customers, a well-regarded Burgundian producer. While he was in the middle of taking an order for corks, the producer gets a phone call from a local restaurant: “Oooh, we have a BIG problem! SIX bottles out of the last case you sent us were CORKED!” Producer: “One moment, please…” and he puts them on hold while he explains the situation to my new friend.

Apparently, this restaurant was calling the producer every week complaining of “corked” bottles and asking for replacements; this AFTER demanding a 10% discount off every invoice against the possibility of returned bottles. With the restaurant on hold, the producer expounded to his supplier that he did not believe the rate of corked bottles was anywhere near 10%, much less 50%.

My new friend asks for the phone: “Hello, I’m a representative of the company that supplies the producer with the corks you are having trouble with. This is very worrying to me! Please, put the bottles with the problem corks aside and I will be right over to pick them up. I want to take them back to our lab and have them tested.”

Restaurant: “Puf…uh…well, two customers who complained ended up accepting the bottles after all…and we used several more in, um, sauces and other cooking…and, well, they are not here.” Supplier: “Then PLEASE, next time you encounter a corked bottle call me immediately and I will come over to pick it up for analysis. We are very concerned!” Restaurant: “OK we will. Thank you.”

After that, the calls from this restaurant to the producer about corked bottles stopped. The producer stopped giving the 10% discount. And the restaurant never complained.

I have heard of restaurants playing this scam, but never anything this egregious. My friend proposed that this game might be more common in France. He explained that businessmen taking their colleagues, clients, and—especially—secretaries out for a meal are inclined to reject a bottle or two in order to show how confident and important they are.

I wonder if this approach actually makes them seem more confident and important to their colleagues, clients, and secretaries (um… no, I don’t).