Wine corkage fees are a major point of contention for some people. On many wine-lover websites, it is a major item for discussion on the message boards. For some, it is considered a personal insult. For others, a necessary evil, and all points in-between. Another point of argument is over how much is considered a 'fair' fee. And I have to admit, there doesn't seem to be any pattern to how the fees are determined, anywhere. So, should you patronize a restaurant that charges corkage fees, or not?
Like most issues involving the restaurant business, the issue is complex, and very polarized. If you don't already know, a corkage fee is an extra charge in a restaurant for opening, decanting, supplying stemware, and serving a bottle (or several) of wine that you have brought in, yourself. Many restaurants, especially nicer ones, charge this fee for various reasons. Their policies regarding this can be categorized as such:
- The Gracious Welcome-These restaurants often waive the corkage fee, or charge a very minimal one in order to attract business. The problem is that this policy is often abused by patrons.
- The Fraternal Welcome-the fee is waived, or reduced for regular customers, or for customers bringing in bottles of local wine. This is to encourage repeat business, and to support local wineries.
- The Reluctant Welcome-Fees are based on the quality of the wine you bring in. Less quality= higher fee. This is to discourage people from bringing in very cheap wines that may hurt the restaurants reputation.
- The Rude Welcome-Fees are ridiculously high in order to discourage anyone from bringing outside wine in.
I have never really understood why anyone would want to bring in a bottle of wine. If you are too cheap to buy what they have in the restaurant, you should stay home, and save all of your money. Most restaurants employ highly skilled somaliers that go to great links to provide the best wines in every price range. If I were a somalier, and someone brought in wine, I would take that as a personal insult. That would be like someone ordering a glass of tea, and bringing in a bag of McDonalds hamburgers. As a chef, I would throw someone out of my restaurant for doing that.
Some people justify BYOB by saying that restaurants have a criminal mark-up on wines. But in a restaurant, you are not just paying for the wine, but also the service of a skilled somalier, who knows how to properly decant the wine, serve it correctly and at the right temperature, and know what wines will go best with your meal. Those same people have no qualms about paying attorneys $100.00 per hour and up when they have legal issues. A somalier, and professional restaurant staff are no less worthy of their wages. And the mark-ups on wine in restaurants aren't as much as you think.
I suppose I could see bringing in a very special vintage, maybe for a special occasion, but you should call the restaurant first and let them know your plans, and how many will be attending, so they can have extra staff available if needed. There is nothing wrong with a restaurant charging a corkage fee under these conditions. Special parties are a lot of extra work, and can take time away from other customers.
Looking at it from the restaurants point of view, they pay good salaries and commissions to highly trained and experienced somaliers, who have spent a good part of their lives learning about wines, and food. They go to heroic lengths at times to prepare a well-balanced Wine-List, that has something for everyone at every price point. Besides the insult, when you bring in a bottle, the somalier looses the commission they would've earned on the sale of their wine. The corkage fee off-sets that somewhat. And you have to remember, restaurants are in the business of selling food and beverages, not providing tables and stemware for your own food and drink.
When a restaurant allows you to bring in your own bottle, remember, it is a privilege, and should not be abused. Always offer the somalier a taste of your wine. They may not accept, but it is a sign of respect, and since you shunned their selections, the least you can do is show them why. Always call ahead, and inquire about corkage fees, so you won't be surprised at the table. If they have corkage fees of $30.00 or more, it's a good indication that they really don't want you to bring in outside wine. Take the hint. Never, never, never show up with a bottle of cheap wine. Nothing would insult the place more. And try to buy at least one bottle of their wine. It's a nice gesture.
On the restaurant side, try to have a good selection of wines for every taste, at all price points. Remember that even if you lose out on some wine profit, people who bring in wine are likely to spend a lot more on food than they would otherwise, so cut them a little slack. Make sure that corkage fees are posted on the wine lists, menus, websites, and make sure that reservationists, hosts and servers know them. Keep your corkage fees in line with the quality of your wine selections, and the quality of your staff, stemware and décor. Try to stay close to what the competition is charging for corkage. If people bring in wine with screw-tops, discuss the fee with them so that they won't consider it a 'screwage' fee.
My best advice is that if corkage fees are an issue for you, then decide if it's worth it to either pay it, buy their wine (recommended, anyway), or go somewhere else, but be prepared for lower quality food, service and wine if you do. Restaurants are just like everything else. You usually get what you pay for....