On the Subject of Corkage

February 23, 2009 at 1:01 am

A couple of weeks ago, I was at Paradise Lounge in San Francisco for the very interesting Twestival SF global Tweetup.  While there and conversing with @JustElle, @Krystyl and @FogFish, we came upon the topic of corkage fee policies of the restaurants that we visit in the Bay Area.

Corkage fees have been controversial for as long as they have been around.  I admit, I have been distressed numerous times in the past at having to pay a corkage fee on wine that I already own.  It’s similar to the feeling I get when I have a fee to withdraw my own money from a bank!  Yet, with friends all over the food and wine industry, I also get a lot of great perspectives on the topic.

My bartender friend doesn’t necessarily see a problem with it…would you allow people to bring in food or wine to your own restaurant and use your facilities for free?  Well…no, right?

My waiter and waitress friends feel the same.  Not only are drinks a big ticket item that greatly impact their tips (which greatly affect their income, wayyy more than their actual wages), but the service that is provided to open the bottle and pour it, just like every other part of meal service, is something for which they’d like to be compensated.

My restaurant manager friends are also big proponents of their corkage policy, combining a mixture of the two opinions above, as well as their own knowledge of the cost associated with purchasing and storing wine and wine expertise in the form of their wine service staff.

After hearing all of these opinions and re-reading the outstanding feature by Amanda Gold in 2006 that was published in the San Francisco Chronicle on this very topic (and the origin of the great illustration above), I have come up with my own opinion and ideas about corkage fees.

Corkage fees are a necessary beast.  I do think that it is something that is abused by many places, however.  If you don’t employ a wine staff, you don’t store the wine in long-term, properly humidified and temperature-controlled appliances/environment then for what are you charging this fee?

On the other hand, yes, it can seem frustrating to have to pay to drink the wine that you’ve already paid for in the past, but…you didn’t have to bring that wine into an establishment that makes no profits from your decision.  If you don’t like it, then don’t go to that restaurant!  But that is the rub right there, isn’t it?  Does the restaurant *really* want you to avoid their establishment, particularly in this brutal food and wine fiscal environment?  Heck no!

I propose a new caveat to the corkage fee:

Charge an advertised set fee, and display that fee where it can be easily discernible on your menu and your website.  But right below that line, add a little message that says “Fee waived for server education.” What does that little line mean?  It means that if I bring a wine into a restaurant and offer an ounce or two  for the wait staff to taste, the corkage fee is waived.  Food AND wine knowledge of your servers are two of the single most powerful components to a good dining experience.  Free wine-tasting experience is thus, invaluable.  Think of all of the wines that your server could taste over the course of a given week, greatly expanding their palate and wine expertise.  All of that knowledge benefits the server and your restaurant. The patrons win by not paying for their meal’s wine more than once.

What do you think about corkage fees and this new twist on that topic?

Ward Kadel - @drXeNo is the founder of Vinopanion wine blog, the West Coast Ambassador & Staff Blogger for WineLog.net and Le Wine Buff for Bordeaux.com (CIVB). He will try any and all wines and tends to write about the parts of his life that include wine...like virtually all of it! He and his wife grew up in Napa and Sonoma and they still live in the Napa Valley. View Ward's WineLog and check out the wines he's recommended with his WKBadges. Follow him on Twitter and Like Vinopanion on Facebook. Contact him: "Ward at WineLog.net". Ward happily accepts samples but does not guarantee a review, positive or negative.

5 Responses to “On the Subject of Corkage”

  1. Dirty says:

    Ward-

    Sorry for the late response.

    I’m a consumer, but have worked in restaurants about 15yrs back, and have a number of good friends in the biz now.

    Iron Chevsky-

    I’m confused by your comment. Why is a $25+ corkage a ripoff? You are denying them business by bringing your own juice, and they have the right to charge what they feel fit. I feel it is high, but it also dictates what I’m going to bring (or if I even patronize that restaurant). Corkage has nothing to do with answering questions or whether or not you pour your own juice.

    Also, waiving corkage after a certain # of bottles? I’m missing the logic here too. They are a business. Bringing in 5-10 bottles (which sometimes I do too) means for one, they aren’t going to flip the table. Also, if you are drinking your juice, they are making very little on you as most restos food costs are huge. They want to make money, and it is up to them to determine what makes sense for their biz.

    I say vote with your wallet, and if you don’t like a restos policy, go somewhere where you do.

  2. Hi Iron Chevsky!

    Thanks for the great comprehensive comment! I agree and that’s something I didn’t touch on…the price of corkage fees. It seems outrageous to charge a “fee” that is as much as most of the wine that is out there. Most restaurants we go to have a $20 corkage here in the Bay Area. Granted, we go to pricey restaurants, but it’s hard to imagine that they need as much as $20 to recoup the cost of their unused wine program (when you bring your own bottle) for the 1.5hr that you are staying at their restaurant…already spending your money. $5-10, yes, that seems a bit more reasonable and yes, shouldn’t there be some sort of economy of scale here as well, like you said??
    Thanks so much for subscribing, and I’ve followed you on Twitter, as well!

  3. Saw a link to this post from your twitter stream. Good article. I am for corkage fees as a general rule. However, when a restaurant charges $25+ for corkage, I consider that rip-off. $10-15 is probably reasonable. I can pour my own wine and answer my own wine questions, thank you very much. Also, I don’t appreciate when the restaurant charge for all bottles that I bring – my friends and I may bring 5-10 bottles – the restaurant should have a policy – anything above X number of bottles is corkage free, since they will already make enough $$ off of me. But they do the opposite – they charge even more! All this does is makes me not want to go to that restaurant. Restaurants should be reasonable about this sort of thing – that will encourage me to come back more often. All my wine friends know which restos have good corkage policy, and those are the restaurants we tend to go back to again and again, and recommend to our friends.

    I subscribed to your RSS feed.
    Best,
    Gary “Iron” Chevsky.

  4. Heyyy Dirty! Thanks for checking out the blog and making such well-thought out comment. You made some very good points about who and when the wait staff might be trained.
    I agree that they shouldn’t necessarily be required to listen to the person who brought the wine. I imagined it more like, they’re offered a sample of Chilean Carménère, taste it and think “ahh, so this is what a Carménère should taste like!” Later, they can go and look up more info on the varietal, but the actual physical taste is what is most important (and pretty quickly done).
    If you don’t mind me asking, do you come from a wait/manager/sommelier/consumer perspective? I’m just curious as I’ve found it very interesting to see the experience that people have when I ask them this question. Thanks G!

  5. Dirty says:

    Ward-

    Corkage fees are a sensitive subject. But even more so than the fee itself is the topic of if or when the fee should ever be waived?

    Often I hear people upset that they were still charged a fee, when they either sent a glass to the kitchen, or to their server. Whether it is what we feel we are drinking is so special, whether we are educating, whether we are being generous, etc… unless it is specifically written out (like you said) it doesn’t nullify having to pay corkage.

    The education waiver is a slippery slope- If I was a business owner, I’d want to determine how, who, and specifically when my peeps are trained (most likely not during dinner service). Though it may be an added boost to help them sell wine- They won’t be selling that bottle (because if you brought it, hopefully it isn’t on their list). It also assumes that the person bringing the juice knows more about wine then their servers (which is probably not always the case).

    I’m more of a fan of waiving the fees for per bottles purchased off the list. (Though I usually just pay the fees)

    This is always a good topic for debate.