Friday, March 5, 2010

Corkage Porkage?

I was reading reviews on urbanspoon the other day and noticed a comment by someone regarding the $25 corkage fee charged by Parker's. Needless to say, the writer thought the fee was utterly uncalled for, excessive, and greedy. Hmmmmm. I'm not sure if the writer was implying that any amount was too much or just that $25 was too forking high.

It's an interesting topic, though.

For those who have no idea what a corkage fee is, it's a charge made by restaurants for the privilege of opening a bottle of wine that has been brought along with the diner. This is not to be confused with restaurants that are literally BYOB. (There are none of these I know of in Sioux Falls, but I am familiar with several in Chicago. Great places and you are free to drink on the premises. You just have to bring it along.) Corkage fees can vary. A lot.

So, let's address the first question: Is a corkage fee fair in the first place? You bet your sweet bippy it is! It's a restaurant for crying out loud. You know? A place that serves food, and often offers various beverages, often including cocktails, beers, soft drinks, and wine-- for money? They prepare and serve all this in a hopefully warm and tasteful atmosphere, staffed by knowledgeable, appreciative, and professional persons. In terms of wine, they have hopefully stocked a cellar with thoughtful selections ideally designed to compliment the food they serve. If they have really done a stellar job with the wines, they have a range of styles to suit individual tastes and have a few very special selections to suit individual passions. Someone had to figure all that out, and then the establishment had to lay out the ca-ching to stock the cellar. And, don't forget all the other things today's diners and winers demand- professional staff that knows how to present and open a bottle and good glassware that is appropriate for the wine. (Think Reidel.) All this takes money, all of which goes into the cost of the bottle of wine you order.

Bringing in a bottle of wine is akin to walking into a restaurant with a meal cooked at home, or take-out from another place, and asking for plates and flatware so you can eat it at the restaurant. Seriously. Think about it. These places aren't in business to provide ambiance for free. Actually, we have places like that here in Sioux Falls- they are called parks. Restaurants deserve to make an honest buck. They are going to make something when a patron orders a bottle of wine, or a beer, or a Diet Coke, or a steak. If you bring in your own, the restaurant has to bring you glasses you might break, and that have to be bussed and cleaned. The owners get the risk without any reward. If you think you should get this for free, there is something wrong with you. And, think of this, a private business owner would be well within his or her rights to tell you to put that bottle of 1945 Lafitte back in the Hy Vee bag you brought it in, because you ain't gonna open it here.

So, what is an honest buck? Good question. It's obviously in the eye of the beholder. In reality, it probably depends on the general expense level of the particular restaurant you are visiting. If they don't offer wine at all, you might catch a heck of a break on the corkage fee. If the list trends to the high end- mostly in the three digits and several in the four (or even five) digit range, don't expect a $25 corkage fee. A fee that is more or less in line with a moderate purchase is probably about right.

Tips to avoid corkage problems, and perhaps avoid one. Yes, here it is, the bullet point list of various tips and suggestions in no particular order:
  • Avoid an unpleasant surprise- call ahead. Corkage fees are not always prominently placed on the menu. Bringing in your own bottle(s) might not be allowed at all. Better to know ahead of time and be prepared.

  • BYOB sparingly, and only for special wines. What is a special wine? Easy. If you can buy it at Hy Vee, it probably isn't all that special. A special bottle purchased at a winery on that last trip to Napa- a wine that isn't available in SD, would probably qualify. The bottle of 1996 Dom Perignon given as a wedding gift by your inlaws is probably a winner. A truly rare vintage, lovingly stored, is probably in this category. 1995 Screaming Eagle Cab? You betcha.

  • If you are bringing in a wine that is generally available locally, but not on the list, suggest the restaurant add it. Hell, even if it's not generally available, ask. Restaurants and retailers usually have great connections with their distributors and, believe it or not, it is possible to get new wines into the state.

  • Offer your servers/owners/wine person a little snoot of your special treasure. They might appreciate it enough to waive a fee or two. You don't need to get half the house tipsy. Just be thoughtful and gracious.

  • Don't be a snob about your juice. Jerks are a lot easier to treat unreasonably. Even if it is a 1945 Bordeaux en magnum, it's wine, not water from the fountain of youth or Love Potion Number 9. If you brought it in to make a production and have everyone wonder what you've got and wish they were you, your priorities are out of whack.


Anonymous said...

And above all, do not attempt to bring in a bottle of wine already on the list just to save a buck. Most restaurants won't (and shouldn't) allow you to bring a bottle in that is already on their list.

The Secret Fork said...


Anonymous said...

Great thoughts. I don't supposed you would be interested in sending this to newspapers around the state (larger cities) for printing as a "educational" article?