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Feb 19, 2009 02:20 PM

How high should a corkage fee be? (split from San Francisco board)

I haven't been to Slanted Door, so can't comment on the relative merits of the food. But just a general comment: the phenomenom of "corkage" is a relatively new one, and I think (tho not sure) it began in the Northern California wine country. We have come to think that we are entitled to bring our own wines to dinner and that corkage should be a minimal charge. However, restaurants are not obligated to even offer corkage. It's a courtesy that more and more restaurants extend, but it's not a right. I agree, $35 is high, I'm not trying to assert that it isn't, I'm just saying that corkage should be treated as a courtesy. I don't think we should be trying to "stick it" to a restaurant because the corkage is high. Instead, we should just drink wine from their wine list when we dine there. Of course, if you have a special bottle that is not on the list that would be perfect with the meal, you may want to bring it, but in that case I would always call the restaurant or check the website to see if corkage if even offered (yes, I know it almost always is in the bay area) and if so, how much does it cost. Then use this information to decide where you will eat, and where you will drink that special bottle.

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  1. Perhaps if restaurants didn't charge $30 for a $7 bottle and $9 a glass for a $10 bottle, they would have a leg to stand on. In other countries and less pretentious food areas like New Zealand or the restaurants where I grew up in South Florida, corkage is unheard of. If you bring a bottle of wine, someone will open it and perhaps join you for a toast. Markups are also not 300%.

    It's one thing to charge a modest courtesy fee that covers your wine glasses and dishwashing, another to discourage people from bringing their own bottles, and quite a third to gouge tourists and expense account diners, hoping they won't care. Restaurants that don't build relationships with their customers will not survive in this economy.

    8 Replies
    1. re: Windy

      Comparing restaurants in S.F. with those of other countries and cultures is really not a fair. The cost of doing business in America, and even more so in S.F. calls for a much different pricing structure...and certainly the SD in its current digs (like em or not) is experiencing a lot more overhead than in a building they owned on Valencia St. in the 90's.

      1. re: Windy

        From my trip to New Zealand, it is permissable to BYO if the restaurant does not have a liquor license.

        1. re: baron45

          And I must add that I believe eating in any restaurant in S.F. is still a voluntary affair. If someone prices themselves out of the market...they will suffer the consequences. I don't think SD has to worry.

          1. re: bdl

            Oy, so much consternation! I love the Slanted Door, and I also love Vietnamese food (including what I ate in Vietnam). I think "authenticity" has a place, but that's not TSD's goal. Also, even in Hanoi and Saigon, the chefs are experimenting with new food ideas. Is there anyone here who says their food can't be called Vietnamese?

            What I really wanted to post about: When at TSD, order beer. Their selection is good and goes with the food quite well and is much cheaper than wine. Problem solved.

            1. re: lorien

              thanks, lorien- I appreciate your post!

          2. re: baron45

            The same is generally true here in Pennsylvania, where many restaurants either can't afford or choose to not apply for very expensive liquor licenses. We're really fortunate that there are so many fine restaurants here in the Philadelphia area where we can tote along our own bottles of wine, very often with no corkage fee at all.

          3. re: Windy

            I wonder what Bay Area rent means to mark ups.

            1. re: Windy

              In very broad terms, a B-T-G selection is usually priced at the cost of the entire bottle at wholesale. Now, I've seen it at retail + 50%, in some places, that just do not "get it."

              Also, remember that more goes into that single glass of wine, re: restaurant's overhead, than just the cost of the wine, contained within.


            2. The family is taking my Mom to dinner for her 80th birthday. The restaurant charges on $10 corkage (per bottle) and we are bringing 6 bottles. I thought the charge was very reasonable since we are getting nice bottles of wine.

              1. Kathleen M,

                I know that your thread was split from the SF board, so most of your comments are aimed at that particular market. Still, for a little discussion, on a bit broader concept, there is currently a "BYOB" thread on the Wine board, with some good comments on how local laws can come into play. Take a look at:

                Now, I do not know exactly where BYOW and "corkage" got its start, though Napa/Sonoma sound good to me. I do not normally involve myself with it, with a few exceptions. I have brought special wines to several restaurants, with but a call. To date, I have not ever been charged corkage, but these were all special wines, in special restaurants.

                There are several replies, that indicate that with the "right" wines, and a call, others have not been charged a "corkage fee," either.

                The charging for the opening of a client's wine, providing the glassware, and possibly decanting, plus making sure that glasses are not empty, etc., is fairly common, where allowed by the various laws. These service items do cost the restaurant money. Wine sales are also part of many restaurant's business plan. Some chose to charge a "corkage fee" that just covers their additional costs, while some do use it (or so it seems) to dissuade patrons from bringing in their own wine.

                The same seems to exist, though in reverse order, with the patrons. Many just want a special bottle, that is NOT on the restaurant's wine list, while others are trying to "beat the system," by picking up a bottle of $2 Chuck at TJ's, on their way to the restaurant. I am only in the former group and always offer the server, the sommelier, often the chef, and likely the owner, some of my wine. That, plus the call beforehand, is probably why I have never encountered a "corkage fee." It seems similar for many.

                Now, let's look at the wine pricing. First, the restauranteur possibly employs a sommelier to build the list and stock the cellar. Wine is purchased, at wholesale, or through auction, etc. Money is spent up front. A space needs to be created to store that wine, and some of it for many years. Glassware must be purchased, and the staff needs to be trained, unless only the sommelier handles the wine. Some of this wine is used to educate the staff. If a bottle is broken, it is part of the overhead. If a bottle is tainted, it will probably be replaced, free, by the distributor, UNLESS it's a much older bottle, or is acquired via auction. Still, part of the overhead. Then, we have to count the washing of the glassware. Good glassware can, and does break, and must be replaced. Next, though possibly on a laser-printer, the wine list needs to be printed, and then updated. Again, this is overhead. Last, the restaurant should be expected to make a profit, after all of the overhead has been accounted for.

                Yes, that US$50 bottle might cost only US$25 at retail, but there is more to it, than just a brown paper bag, to transport the wine. Some restauranteurs have found more profit, by volume, by setting the markups rather low, and ofen set to the same markup per bottle, regardless of price. Others, do not wish to attempt to make it up on volume and have a sliding scale. It is, after all, their call.

                What should "corkage" be, if the various laws permit? That is a great question, for which I do not have a pat answer. Were I a restauranteur, I *think* that I would set it to US$25, and be prepared to waive it (empowering my staff), if the patorn has called ahead, and has provided a bottle that is not on my wine list. However, if I saw a ton of $2 Chuck showing up, I might quickly ammend my policy. This would be especially true, as I would have a list of fairly priced wines, that went perfectly with my chef's cuisine.

                Always a good question.


                6 Replies
                1. re: Bill Hunt

                  no snark intended here, but what does the price of the bottle a patron brings have any weight in your decision in your example? Personally, the only thing that would bother me(as a restuarant owner, which I am not.....just using your example) is if people kept bringing bottles I stocked. I have seen many a menu/website that refuses(politely of course) to open bottles they have.

                  as far as $2 chuck goes, I would re-evalutate much more then my corkage fee if my patrons were bringing that swill in!? either my target audience is way off, or my food is only worthy of Mr. Shaw's finest...........:-)

                  1. re: nkeane

                    If I am providing a well-thoughtout wine list, it would be a slap in my face, for a patron to bring plonk. Maybe I am just too much of a wine snob.

                    Because of a propensity by the masses to try and "beat the system," is exactly why many finer establishments do charge a high "corkage" fee. They do not want "cheap wine" in their restaurant. This is their choice.


                    1. re: Bill Hunt

                      I do notice some higher end restaurants here in the LA area using "corkage free" Monday's (or whatever day) to entice customers to come in on slower nights. From previous visits to both Australia and New Zealand I found that the locals patronize BYO places precisely to save money. So I am not sure if you can call it gaming the system so much as being a savvy consumer. And these days being savvy about money can't be a bad thing (and the restaurants probably appreciate any business given the current state of the economy).

                      1. re: Servorg

                        I suppose that because of the BYO_ laws in AZ, and also in the places that we travel, I have not observed "corkage free" in any restaurants. Sounds like it could be a good and fun idea.

                        There was one little Italian place in Scottsdale, that fell within the BYO_ laws here. Friends took us and we did bring our wines. They had 8 stems stored by the restaurant, so there was also good glassware.

                        I only know of a very few places with any form of BYO_ and these are tiny (table number is part of the law here), and are also attached to, or very, very near, a wine shop

                        It will be interesting to see how various restaurants handle "corkage," as the economy changes. We might see smaller wine inventories, with encouragement to BYO_. Or, maybe not.


                    2. re: nkeane

                      nkeane- asking restaurants to have gigantic piles of inventory that moves very slowly (wine) is a huge investment, so they gotta set their rules. What if I wanted to mix my own cocktails at the table? That would be unheard of, but I could save quite a bit of money, also I don't meter my own drinks. :)

                      I agree that I wouldn't open a bottle that I had in the cellar.

                      1. re: P. Punko

                        just to be clear, I think a restaurant has every right to make whatever rules they want about their wine program. To be honest, I dont know if I would allow outside wine in to my place at all! Like BillHunt, Im a bit of a snob when it comes to food and drink.

                  2. Some NYC corkage fees:
                    Blue Hill - $35
                    Grammercy Tavern - $40
                    Museum of Modern Art - $45 and you are not welcome to bring in wine that is already of
                    their wine list.

                    Somehow it all makes sense to me if wine is a good park of the profit.

                    1. Gulp (!)-so I guess I shouldn't have been cranky when the club we helsd a colleague's retirement wine and cheese do charged $13.50 for wine corkage! Toronto charges are apparently a bargain.

                      But I remain unconvinced of the logic of this...what is the logic of a corkage fee double the price of a bottle, when the effort of opening is so little...the effort of turning $10 worth of ingredients into a $20 entree is so much greater?

                      4 Replies
                      1. re: LJS

                        I'm curious about your comment of "corkage fee double the price of the bottle" - I don't think that they people at, say, Gramercy Tavern expect you to show up with a $20 bottle.
                        And it isn't just opening the bottle - it is also providing glasses, someone to pour, etc. Or are you saying you brought a sub $7 wine to your colleague's retirement?

                        1. re: Dan G

                          As DanG correctly points out, there is much more, that goes into BYOW, than just opening the bottle. Others have gone into great detail on most of the particulars. I would suggest that anyone, who still thinks that it is only a deft flick of the waiter's friend, expand the replies and give them a good read.


                          1. re: Bill Hunt

                            The amount of markup on wine and the levels of corkage fees always generates a lot of discussion on this board. Oddly, the markup on ice tea or soft drinks generates much less discussion, but on a percentage basis is generally much higher. Personally, I object more to outrageous markups on pedestrian mass market wines than to corkage fees. (There is not much cellaring of stuff that is delivered weekly by the pallette, and they are not generally using fine glassware for this plonk.) I do, however, see the value in a well planned wine list and a well stocked wine cellar. I appreciate the added costs to the establishment beyond just the juice in the glass.

                            Ultimately, each customer will vote with their wallet. I tend to not return to places where I do not think I get a value equal to the cost, whether it be the food, the wine or the service. At some point, even the finest restaurant could markup the wine to a point I would not see the value and also charge a corkage fee that would cause me to stay away. Most restaurants where I have dined have not done this.

                        2. re: LJS

                          My reference to double the price of the bottle was not to my own experience, but to others I have read about here. Ours was approximately equal to the price of the bottles.

                          The retirement 'do' was a pairing of wine and cheese courses, each representing an event in the life of our colleague: the Verdicchio and mild peccorinno and honey dish for the time she covered a story in Le Marche in Italy, the Dan Ackroyd Merlot and Balderson Cheddar for when she interviewed that comedian/vintner. The bottles averaged $14-15.

                          But we had already paid for wait staff so why the corkage fee? or more accurately, how do they justify them being so high? For our group of 30, we paid for 1 bartender and 2 wait staff in addition to a service charge gratuity of 15% on the food.

                          My point was I don't see the value added of corkage being at all consistent with the value added of ingredients plus a chef's work added to the waiter's work, on which I am only expected to leave a tip of 15-20%?