In 1999, a close friend was turning 50. We celebrated by our two families renting a house near Nimbin rocks. I bought him a very old bottle of red wine from a Sydney inner west wine shop which had an extensive selection of vintage Australian wines. I vaguely recall it might have been from the late 1960s and I forked out about $150 for it.
We drove into a Lismore Thai restaurant that had been recommended and I discretely asked the waiter to pull the cork and bring it to the table. He called me over and said the cork had crumbled into the bottle. A tea strainer was used to pour the corkless precious wine into our glasses.
It tasted like vinegar and was completely undrinkable. Corked.
I put a spare cork in the bottle and took it back to Sydney. I explained the situation to the guy at the bottle shop and asked for a replacement to the same value. With a sympathetic look he said “oh, that’s too bad. But I’m afraid it happens. It’s a chance that you take when you buy an old wine.”
That was it apparently. But it flew in the face of everything I thought I knew about basic consumer law. So I said “But the wine was not fit for purpose. I’m not saying it was a wine I just didn’t like, I’m saying it is a bottle that is totally undrinkable. Look – all the wine is still in the bottle, get a glass and see for yourself.”
He shot back, “Look I know what you’re saying, and that’s normally right with consumer goods. But it’s just not the case with wine. You take a punt when you decide to buy a very old wine, and sometimes it doesn’t work out.”
As it happened I had been on the board of the Australian Consumers Association, publishers of Choice magazine, for about 20 years. Till that day, I had never played that card in any interaction with a retailer, but that day I decided I would. “I don’t like to bring this up, but I’m a long time board member of Choice magazine, and I do know a little about consumer law, as you’d imagine. So I really want to insist that you offer me a replacement. This is just a black and white case of me being sold something that was completely defective.”
That would end it, I thought. But I was wrong. He said “You are right in principle, but in this case you are actually wrong. Think about this: I work in the wine industry. I have an extensive selection of very old wines here. Do you really think this means that I wouldn’t know what I’m talking about when this happens? The law is very clear here. It does not apply to old wines.”
I saw my argument collapsing. Maybe he was right. Damn! So I flirted with a response which would see me reach for my bottle on the counter, fumble it, and see it shatter glass and wine all over the tiled floor. But instead I tried this.
“Mate, I live a few streets away and intend to stay in the suburb for many years. I buy wine often. If you don’t replace this bottle, this will be the last time I’ll ever come here. I’ll also tell everyone I know about how you treat your customers. You might like to think about how my story will spread.”
That did it. He paused about two seconds and told me to go and find another bottle.
I’ve told this story many times to friends, and told it again this week to Keren Lavelle, who ran the book program at Choice for 11 years. Within minutes she emailed me this link, saying simply “You were right”. Please read it, it sets out in detail your legal rights and what action you can take if it happens to you.