Corkage

I see the corkage issue has raised its ugly head in the pages of the wine section of the Chronicle, yet again.

So let’s have a brief chat about corkage. (For those of my readers unaware of what corkage means–many restaurants in California will allow you to bring in your own bottle of wine, with the understanding that you will pay a “corkage” fee to drink it, seeing as how you aren’t drinking off the wine list.) Let us first say that I am very supportive of corkage, as a policy, and that I am also supportive of a “no outside wine/food/silverware/whatever” policy.

In a wine obsessed state like California, most restaurants calculate wine into their overall budget, and expect a reasonable profit margin from their wines. When patrons choose to bring in their own wines, it can strike a blow to your anticipated profits–because even with a corkage fee, you still obviously aren’t making as much as when patrons buy from the wine list. And, as Amanda Gold points out in her article today, the more patrons bringing their own wine, the less you make from the wine list, and the more you have to charge in corkage to make your venture profitable. Restaurants do not charge corkage to “discourage you from bringing your own wine,” they charge it because you are choosing not to order from their menu. I can’t imagine any of my readers popping over to the Chinese place, picking up an order of broccoli beef, and then cruising into a restaurant and eating it–it would be offensive, right?

If you can rely on your patrons to eat the food you serve, you can create a wine range of tasty offerings, and keep costs reasonable. Bobby Stuckey, interviewed in Gold’s article, points out that the same holds true for wine: if your patrons are ordering from your wine list, you can keep costs down, and amass a large wine selection, something which benefits everyone. He goes on to say that if a restaurant is not encouraged to cellar multiple vintages, customers lose out–because only wealthier patrons with wine storage facilities can bring in older vintages, and the rest of us miss out on aged wines. (And let me assure you, most restaraunteurs are not in it for the money, they are in it for the food. While you may blanch at the cost of restaurant food, the owners aren’t at home rolling in a pile of money–actually, they are probably slaving over a hot stove in the kitchen.)

Some restaurants have circumvented the corkage debate altogether, saying that guests may not bring in their own wine. There has been some vicious debate over this matter in the pages of the Chronicle, from individuals who think it’s quite reasonable for a restaurant to expect people to order from their carefully selected wine list to people who think it’s unconscionable that they aren’t allowed to bring their own wine to dinner.

Most restaurants have a sensibly ordered and reasonably priced wine list–you can spend a lot of money on wine, to be sure, but you can also order a glass or bottle for the table at a reasonable cost. Yes, this wine is more expensive than it would be if you bought it yourself–but with every bottle of wine, restaurants are paying distributors, wait staff to serve it, bussers to clear your table, dishwashers to wash your dishes, and the myriad assorted overhead costs of running a restaurant. And when you bring in your own wine, that costs the restaurant. The wine they ordered for their patrons is being cellared, unused. Their staff are opening and serving your wine…in the restaurant’s glasses, and presumably recycling the bottle for you at the end of the night, too. It must be extremely frustrating to watch patrons bringing in their own wines, especially when almost half of your patrons are bringing in their own vintages, and completely ignoring your painstakingly constructed wine list.

Many wineries don’t cut restaurants a very extravagant break on their wines, especially smaller ones. Therefore, they may be paying close to retail price for that bottle to begin with. What you pay may represent a very small profit to the restaurant indeed. As a friend and sometime waiter points out, you go to a restaurant for the experience, and part of the experience is the wine, right? As he says “the only reason corkage exists instead of a no outside wine policy is that people have really good outside wines they want to bring in that the restaurant might not stock.” As I said above, when over half your patrons are bringing in their own wines, there’s not a big incentive to keep a large and creative cellar.

I’ve seen corkage fees range in price, from miniscule to scaled (one bottle is $20, the next is $40, and so on). I think the scaled system makes the most sense, personally. But first ask yourself this: would you like to buy a $25 bottle of wine and pay a $25 corkage fee, or would you rather order a $50 bottle from the wine list? One might argue that “fine, if I can’t bring in my own wine, I’ll just drink water.” Well go ahead and drink water, then. Water is factored into restaurant overhead, the staff are used to dealing with water needs, and it doesn’t have the potential for disruption that bringing in unfamiliar wines does.

I enjoy ordering from the wine list, or talking to wait staff about their recommendations, because I’m often introduced to new wineries and vintages that I wouldn’t have tried otherwise. The Bistro, for example, allows you take a small taste of the wine in question to determine whether or not you’d like a full glass, or a bottle.

Personally, I evade the corkage debate by not bringing in my own wine–and partly this is because I trust the chef to discuss the wine list with the wine staff (unless these two kitchen units are one and the same, in which case I trust the chef to discuss the wine list with him/herself), and come up with a good range of exciting wines. The chef knows their food more intimately that I ever will, even though I might enjoy eating it–and would probably have a better idea about food pairings and complementary flavors. Depending upon where I’m dining, I also expect the staff to be educated about their wines and prepared to make a recommendation, should I be caught in the throes of indecision.

There may be cases when you really do need to bring your own wine in–perhaps it’s a special wine you’ve been cellaring for some time, and the occasion has finally arrived. (I have a bottle of Hidden Cellars from my birth year that will have to get opened at some point–it’s either going to be really good, or vinegar. Come to think of it, I’d better open that soon.) Perhaps the restaurant has just opened and hasn’t had time to amass a good wine list. Maybe you’re vegan and you want to ensure that you have vegan wine available. I’m sure my gentle readers would check with a restaurant before bringing in their own wine, and that, in turn, they wouldn’t object to paying corkage.

But get adventurous! Try out the wine list! Especially in California, restaurant staff love talking about wine, and would be delighted to discuss their menu with you. Not only are you being somewhat rude to the restaurant by bringing in your own wine, you’re shafting yourself out of a new beverage opportunity.

[corkage]