Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Winesday: "There was Corkage, Jerry! Major Corkage"

"Corkage" is a fancy term for bringing your own bottle of wine into a restaurant. You may often hear the term "corkage fee." This refers to the amount a restaurant charges you wither per bottle or a lump sum to bring in your own wines and have them poured for you. Opinions on the issue of corkage fee are as varied as the wines they are subject to, but here is a generalized rough outline of the debate.

From the Restaurant Side

A restaurant, like any business, has to make money in order to continue to operate. After subtracting food costs, labor costs, rent, insurance, and other expenses, a typical restaurant's profit margin is around 5%.

Restaurants depend on wine and other beverage sales to help boost the bottom line. Ordering a bottle of wine is roughly the equivalent of adding an extra person to your table without the expense of cooking for that person. The more wine sold, the more revenue added.

Restaurants know this. They also know most people enjoy drinking wine or a cocktail or beer or iced tea with lunch or dinner. To maximize the jolt to the bottom line, they typically mark up alcohol by as much as 400% wholesale (iced tea is around 1000% - the lesson, as always, is drink up). So a bottle of wine they purchase from Republic for $8 is $32 on their list. That same wine may be $16 in a shop.

Restaurants have a vested interest, as they should, in having you order wine from their list. They know their food, the chefs seasonings, and the provenance of the wines on their list. A restaurant, if it is any good, puts time and effort into selecting wines to match their food. If you bring in a wine that doesn't mesh with their food, you may leave with a bad opinion of the restaurant.

The Diner Side

I've heard one or both of the above arguments from industry folks as to why they discourage, albeit lightly, customers bringing in their own wines. And for a while, I sort of believed it or at least their argument discouraged me from bringing wine to restaurants. But lately, I've gotten frisky and started bringing wine to restaurants for special occasions. Because I've spent considerable amounts of money acquiring wines, I want to drink them with great food. What's more, sometimes I want to do so without having to cook the dishes myself.

Discussing food, restaurants, and the vinification techniques of Spanish winemakers is the new "water cooler" talk. As our awareness of food and wine grows, it is important for restaurateurs to recognize that it is in fact a good thing when Joe Diner wants to bring in a very special bottle of wine. It is an affirmative statement by the diner that he trusts your chef, your wait staff, and your restaurant with his best wines.

Secondly, the markup on wines leads to a law of diminishing returns. Now, say we are just popping out for a few pizzas. There I don't mind paying $30 for a bottle of wine that may only be $15 in the store because the overall cost of the meal is much less. But what about when you dine big with apps in the high teens and entrees in enjoying their thirty-somethings? Paying $150 for a $70 bottle of wine just doesn't seem to be a good value on the expense to pleasure ratio.

Please note that typically the more expensive the wine, the lower the markup. And that not all fine dining experiences gouge you on wine prices. In fact, we ate at Stella! recently and noticed the wine list runs the gamut from very affordable bottles in the $30 range to a wallet busting $20,000 3L of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild. The latter has the Pope's name all over it.

So where are you on the corkage debate? My view is this, sometimes it is preferable to bring a great bottle of wine to a really good restaurant. But your opinion may and should differ. In the end, corkage will always be an interesting debate with varying viewpoints. With that in mind, here is a personal corkage policy - mostly pirated from elsewhere - that I try and follow.

1) Don't do it often. A Friday lunch at Mandina's, doesn't need that bottle of wine you got on closeout from Martin's. Just pay the tariff.

2) Call ahead. Always call the restaurant to make sure a) they allow outside wine b) what special conditions they have in regards to their corkage policy. If you don't like their answer to b), it is not their fault. Either suck it up or go elsewhere.

3) Never bring a bottle that is on the restaurant's list.

4) If you bring something like Yellow Tail into a restaurant, don't be surprised if you get kicked in the balls. Note: if the restaurant doesn't have a liquor license, feel free to bring something inexpensive. Again if it is Yellow Tail, you will get kicked in the balls.

5) Make sure the carpet matches the drapes. Have a great Napa cult cab that you bought on your honeymoon and are dying to taste again? Don't take it to a sushi restaurant.

6) Offer a taste to the waiter, sommelier, manager, etc... Just that simple gesture goes a long way. Also, you may find that any corkage fee will disappear if you order another bottle of wine or a cocktail/after dinner drink.

7) Don't be an asshole.

That wine in the upper right? A killer bottle of white burgundy that Lindsay and I brought to Meson 923 the other week. Opened with notes of crushed nuts and pastry cream (translation: tasted like wedding cake at first), then evolved into a stone fruit bonanza (translation: it was very good). The dishes the wine was able to dance with included a shrimp, ham, and melon appetizer, grilled quail with Jamaican sauce and chow chow, duck with corn and sweet potatoes, and scallops with asparagus.


Becky said...

I don't think you mentioned anything about restaurants that don't have a liquor license but still charge corkage? These places always have really crappy glassware as well, which they won't replace between bottles, and the waitstaff are very likely to break the cork when they try to open your wine. Talk about deserving a kick in the balls. (I'm talking about Baru here, FYI)

Rene said...

Kind of mentioned it in Rule #4. But you are right. In general places without a liquor license fall into one of two categories:

1) They are prohibited from serving booze for religious reasons. Many middle eastern restaurants fall into this category, but I've always found they are usually pretty accommodating.

2) Places that wont or cant get a liquor license. I've heard competing stories about why Baru doesn't have one (neighborhood doesn't allow, grandfathered clause, don't want one). If a restaurant falls into this category, they ought to be overly friendly towards people bringing in booze.