Wine Consumer's Rights in the UK
Those who know me well are aware that I have no qualms about returning faulty wine. Whether it be corked, cooked, oxidised or otherwise, wine that is unsuitable for drinking is returned to the retailer in question. Being in the wrong, however, hasn't prevented one or two shop assistants manning the customer service desk from trying to make an argument out of a simple return. These experiences prompted me to do a little research on my rights as a consumer. What is written here is bent towards wine purchases and returns, although much of it applies to all goods purchased in the UK. Note also that although Scottish law often differs slightly to the law in England and Wales, what is written can be applied to the whole of the UK.
Returning Faulty Wine
When you buy wine from a supermarket, off-licence, bricks-and-mortar merchant, internet retailer or any other business, you enter into a contract that is controlled by the Sale of Goods Act 1979, subsequently amended by the Sale & Supply of Goods Act 1994. This act of law gives you certain automatic "statutory rights", which states that goods must be:
of satisfactory quality - meeting the standard a reasonable person would regard as acceptable.
fit for their purpose - including any particular purpose mentioned by you to the seller.
as described - goods should correspond with any description applied to them.
Although any of these three statutory rights can potentially be applied to wine, probably the most fundamental is the second one. Wine is, under the eyes of the law, a consumable product, and therefore must be fit for consumption. Faulty wine, perhaps suffering from one of the faults mentioned above, is not fit for consumption. Thereby, under UK law, consumers who find themselves in possession of such wines not 'fit for their purpose' are entitled to demand a refund. These rights apply to all products purchased in the UK, including those sold at reduced price in a sale, unless any faults or other problems were pointed out at the time of purchase.
Do I need a receipt?
Contrary to what many retailers will insist, UK consumers are not required to produce a receipt when returning faulty wine, or indeed any other faulty goods. This is only common sense - traders are not legally required to provide a receipt upon the sale of goods, so it would be unfair to put in place a law which demanded that consumers had to produce one when they return to the store. Nevertheless, the vast majority of retailers do provide receipts, and it is not unfair to expect them to want some proof of purchase, although this may be as simple as a cheque stub, bank or credit card statement or perhaps a credit card slip.
When returning faulty wine in this manner the trader is obliged to offer a full cash refund. Many will also offer a replacement, some may encourage you to take a credit slip or gift voucher. Although I may occasionally take a replacement, I do not advise accepting any other form of recompense. Credit slips cannot be exchanged for cash at a later date should you not be able find anything that you wish to purchase.
I bought this corked wine years ago. Can I get a refund?
Under UK law, once you have held onto any goods purchased you are deemed to have 'accepted' those goods in the state in which they were sold to you. The law lays down no specific time for you to 'reject' purchased goods, although in most cases a week or two would seem like a sensible time for the consumer to realise that a product is faulty. Unlike toasters, kettles and other goods that we use immediately after purchase, however, we may not realise that a wine is faulty until the bottle is opened many years after it was bought.
Nevertheless, in this situation we may still be entitled to return the wine, although it is a grey area. UK law suggests that consumers are entitled to return faulty wine, and any other faulty goods, to the retailer up to five years after purchase. With such a long passage of time, however, the retailer may argue that the consumer has 'accepted' the wine in the condition in which it was sold. This may be so, but the consumer may still be entitled to 'reasonable compensation'. This usually means replacement, which doesn't sound too bad, until you begin to consider whether you want your corked Pichon-Lalande 1990 replaced with a fresh bottle of the 1997.
The responsibility of credit companies
If you pay for wine using a credit card (not a debit or charge card), and the value of each item purchased is £100 or more, then the credit company providing that card has an obligation to you. These rights are given under Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974 under a principle known as 'equal liability', which means that the credit company and the retailer have the same responsibilities to you for the goods being satisfactory. In the event of faulty or misrepresented goods you can complain to both the retailer and the credit company. Some companies will accept responsibility at lower price levels, say £50, and they will also accept liability for accidental damage, although they are not legally obliged to do this.
Note that the £100 limit applies to individual items. Hence a bottle of wine costing £100 is covered, whereas a mixed case of wine, with individually selected bottles costing less than £100 each, is not, regardless of the total value of the case. Wine purchased as an unmixed case is covered, however, providing the cost exceeds £100, as the transaction involves the selling of the case as a single item. I once dropped three bottles from a mixed case, the total value of the three bottles exceeding £50. The credit company (who operated on a £50 limit, and covered accidental damage) behind the card would have compensated me had the bottles been purchased as a single item, but as each were purchased individually (although at the same time in the same mixed case) I was not eligible for compensation.
Using a credit card can also be a useful safeguard against non-delivery of wine, which may occur following collapse of a retailer's business. This is particularly relevant with wine purchased en primeur, where payment is made one or two years before delivery of the wine. In this situation, claiming from the credit company under 'equal liability' may be the only means of reclaiming your funds.
Before I finish, there is one myth that needs to be dispelled. Despite popular opinion to the contrary, a mislabelled bottle of wine does not have to be sold at that price by the retailer. Goods on display in a retailer's display area, whether that is a high street shop or high-tech website, are there for you to make an offer to buy, and the retailer in question is not obliged to accept your offer. Hence the retailer is under no obligation to sell you the bottle of Mouton-Rothschild 1945 that mistakenly bears the price tag of £5.99. In fact, the retailer is under no obligation to sell you the wine at all, regardless of how much you offer for it. You can argue the point, and many retailers will give some reduction as a measure of goodwill, but do not be disappointed if they refuse to budge.
In the UK, the consumer has good support from the law. Take appropriate advantage of this, and never be discouraged from returning a bottle of faulty wine. It's worth noting that many wine retailers will taste and maybe even perform laboratory analysis of a returned wine, and they will seek compensation from the wholesaler or winemaker for corked bottles. The more cooked, corked and otherwise substandard wine is rejected, the more likely it is that wine retailers, wholesalers, shippers and growers will realise that the consumer will not stand for such abuse.