Pop my cork? Yes, at a price.
Would you take your own food to a restaurant? Obviously not. Your own wine? That’s a different story – and a sure-fire way to get a heated debate going amongst restaurateurs, sommeliers and diners.
It’s illegal in some states in the USA, and frowned upon in France, but it’s common practice in most countries for restaurants to allow customers to bring their own wine rather than buying off the wine list, and to charge a corkage fee for it.
For the restaurant owner who’s losing a sale and profit while supplying the glasses and the service staff, corkage as a service fee makes sense.
For the diner put out by paying $60 for a bottle they could pick up in the supermarket for $20, taking their own wine too makes sense. If they’ve paid their $20 for their wine at a store and pay the restaurant’s $15 corkage, they reckon they’re winning.
For those who appreciate fine wine and food, who bring a special, aged bottle from their collection, perhaps to celebrate a special occasion or because the younger wines found on most wine lists don’t appeal, a corkage fee is seen as fair exchange for the privilege.
As food lovers, they’re happy to pay top dollar for outstanding cuisine while the restaurant’s mark-up might make a quality wine unaffordable and they’d rather bring their own good wine, and pay corkage, than compromise the experience with the restaurant’s lowest-priced wine.
In the latter case, most chefs would be flattered that a customer sees their food as worthy of a personally selected and stored special wine, and sommeliers see it as an honour to be entrusted with serving a customer’s prized wine – IF it’s an aged Bordeaux, say; not so much if it’s a supermarket special.
And that’s where some of the problems come in, from both diners’ and restaurateurs’ point of view, and which lead to complicated rules around corkage, and an unspoken etiquette.
One could break it down into two broad types of customers – the money-savers and the wine connoisseurs – and two broad types of restaurants.
There are the restaurants with at-best average wine lists catering to middle-of-the-road preferences and little in the way of expert wine service, operating on narrow margins and relying on drinks mark-ups to bolster profits – they charge corkage to make up for lost wine sales. The money-saver will bring their own wine to save a buck, while the wine connoisseur will bring their own simply because it’s better than what the restaurant has on offer.
Then there are the fine dining outfits with cellared wines, curated wine lists featuring older vintages, an in-house sommelier to make recommendations and ensure optimal serving, what they like to call “a wine programme” – all that costs money and they also need to mark it up and make a profit. They charge corkage to make up for lost profits too, and also because they want to discourage customers who might arrive with a supermarket wine (and heaven forbid, lead other diners to think that an inferior screw-capped magnum is actually ON their wine list).
Both are making up for lost sales and discouraging BYO (bring-your-own), each for their own reasons.
The wine connoisseur willingly pays corkage to bring his own better wine to the restaurant with the average wine list, and at the fine-dining restaurant with its own cellar, will either enjoy the opportunity to try something new or rare from their list, or enjoy having his carefully-cellared personal wine served up by an appreciative sommelier – and either way, be willing to pay the price.
There are many sides to this debate. Some top fine-dining restaurants – Le Bernardin and Daniel in New York, for example – don’t allow BYO at all, thereby avoiding any argument; while Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York and French Laundry in Napa, California, charge an eye-watering $150 corkage, said to be the most expensive corkage fee in the US, if not the world. Another way of getting around the problem.
Although with a wine list running to over 100 pages, featuring current and venerable older vintages from America and all over the world, why anyone would want to bring their own is anyone’s guess.
With all types of customers and restaurants in mind, here are some pointers to the unspoken etiquette of BYO:
For the customer:
- Call ahead to ask the restaurant’s corkage policy and fee when making a booking. (Good way to avoid surprises and awkward arguments.)
- Don’t bring a wine that’s on the restaurant’s wine list and see paying corkage as a way to undercut their wine list price. That’s just rude.
- Similarly, don’t bring cheap plonk to a high-end restaurant. That’s offensive. And you’re a cheapskate.
- Do expect to pay corkage equivalent to the price of the least expensive wine on the restaurant wine list or the mark-up on their least expensive bottle.
- Bring one bottle of your own and do the restaurant the courtesy of ordering a bottle from their wine list too.
- When taking an aged or rare wine to a fine-dining restaurant, do offer a taste to the sommelier or chef as a courtesy. It’s not expected, but it is appreciated.
- Don’t expect your wine served at optimal temperature unless you have supplied it that way – no self-respecting sommelier wants to shock your aged Burgundy by plunging it into an ice bucket to get it to the right temperature.
- Don’t complain if your bottle is faulty or below par – you chose it!
- Most of all, don’t be an ass.
For the restaurant:
- Do your homework – check what other restaurants in your area charge for corkage.
- Be reasonable – that means pricing your wine fairly to encourage diners to buy from your list, and setting your corkage fee at a reasonable level. Generally, this means charging the equivalent of the least expensive bottle on your wine list, or the equivalent of your average profit on wine.
- Be flexible. Consider waiving the corkage if it’s a special or rare wine, or a special occasion. That bit of goodwill goes a long way to building customer relationships and repeat business.
- You could also waive the corkage for a customer who brings their own but also orders from your wine list.
- If you really want to discourage people from bringing their own, either don’t allow it at all or charge a discouragingly high corkage. But that won’t win you many friends either.
- Consider that your wine list or service might need improvement in terms of a wider variety and different price levels. When customers bring their own wine, have a look at what it is and ask them how you could improve your list to better suit their needs.
- Most of all, don’t be an ass.