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Another corkage thread

dinwiddie Mar 5, 2014 07:12 AM

There are plenty of threads about corkage. Folks have all sorts of opinions about it. I want to just put my view out there and ask that you respond politely and without a lot of thread drift into how much wine gets marked up, etc.

A couple of points up front. I bring wine with me about half the time I dine out and look for restaurants that permit corkage. Unlike in some states, here in DC (and now in MD) in order for a restaurant to permit corkage, they have to have an alcohol license. This is in order that there is a trained alcohol supervisor on site. (At least that is the reason given in the law.)

When I have wine in a restaurant, whether I bring a bottle or buy off the list, after the first pour from the bottle, I do all the pouring. I make it clear to the server that I wish to do so. I do this because people drink at different paces, may or may not want a refill, etc. I usually know the others drinking (usually family or friends) and can gauge when to refill a glass. I would also add that I seldom only have one bottle for our party, more like a bottle for each of us if we are having a big meal.

I do not buy "cheap" wines. Inexpensive wines, occasionally, but I see no reason not to drink really good wine. I also tend to buy very small production wines for the most part. (under 600 cases, and in many instances, under 200) My wife says that everyone needs a hobby, so mine is collecting small production wines from CA, WA, and OR. I do buy other wines, but in that instance more for what I like (or my wife likes) than production size. About 20% of the wines I buy lately are French or Italian.

I never take a wine that is on a wine list with me to the restaurant. (That is not normally an issue since most of the wines I buy are allocated and never make a wine list.) If the restaurant does not permit corkage, that is their right. If they do, I expect that I will get serviceable stemware, and if necessary a decanter. Of course, when I travel to places where corkage is not permitted unless the restaurant does not have a license, it is a different story.

I recognize that corkage is not a right and I appreciate when a restaurant permits me to bring wine with me. I expect to pay a reasonable corkage fee, which around here means in the $20-25 range. On the other hand, I also know enough restaurant owners to know that corkage is also a marketing tool. Some restaurants offer free corkage on certain nights when business is normally slow (Monday or Tuesday normally) in order to encourage folks to dine those nights. I also know that it works.

Many of my friends also avail themselves of corkage. There are a couple of things that they say. They like to have wine with dinner, but they will dine out more often at expensive restaurants if they can bring their own wine rather than buying off the list. Many of them have nice wine cellars and therefor have wines that they want to drink when it is mature. Many restaurant wine lists have some wonderful wines on them, but they would be much better if they were 5 to 10 years older. Let's face it, absent buying of the secondary market, most restaurants do not have the space or can afford to buy the kind of wines that really need to be cellared until they are in prime drinking condition. Thus, I can bring in a nice '01 or '02 CA Cab from my cellar that is ready to drink and I know how it has been stored. Most restaurants cannot afford the upfront costs to hold such wines until maturity. It becomes even more so with classified growth Bordeaux or Burgundy or Barolos and Brunellos. Yes there are restaurants that have such mature wines on their list, and when I find them at a price I am willing to pay, I buy them off the list.

Finally, unless I have been to a restaurant enough times to know their corkage policy, I always call to find out about it beforehand. If they say that corkage is not permitted, so be it. And when I call I not only ask what the corkage fee is, but also if there is a limit on the number or size of wines. That way there are no misunderstandings. As I noted in another thread, I have seldom seen the corkage policy printed on a wine list. Occasionally, but very seldom.

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  1. j
    jpc8015 RE: dinwiddie Mar 5, 2014 07:55 AM

    Is there a question in there?

    1 Reply
    1. re: jpc8015
      dinwiddie RE: jpc8015 Mar 5, 2014 02:15 PM

      No, just some thoughts on corkage and an invite for you to do the same.

    2. z
      zin1953 RE: dinwiddie Mar 5, 2014 08:24 AM

      OK, let's start with how I avail myself of the opportunity for corkage . . . .

      I have some 50-60 (or more) cases of wine, roughly composed of 80-85 percent Old World (French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Austrian, and German, and roughly in that order), with the balance composed of wines from West Coast and New Zealand. Maybe that's what I get for living in California.

      I *never* bring wine to a restaurant where I have never previously dined. This is just my own "personal policy," and is probably a holdover from nearly four decades in the wine trade, much of it selling wine to restaurants. ;^) After all, if I've never been there before, how do I know what's on the list? As a new (and potentially repeat) patron, I'd rather give the place the benefit of the doubt vis-a-vis their list, instead of (theoretically) insulting them by bringing my own wines when I don't know what's available.

      When it comes to places where I've been to before, I still only bring wine in some 25 percent of the time. This is for a variety of reasons: a) I often have no idea what I (or my wife, guests) will want to eat for dinner¹, and so have no idea what to bring; b) we often eat out at the "spur-of-the-moment," say on our way home from work, and so have nothing "pre-selected"; and so on. This is also because I find it relatively easy to find some truly excellent wines on most wine lists at -- and this is key! -- an affordable price. I don't mean discovering a pristine bottle 1945 La Tâche on the list for $100 (though that would be one hell of a deal!), but rather finding truly delicious and enjoyable wines, equal in quality and pleasure to wines costing at least 2x as much, for a very reasonable price. I *rarely* spend over $100-120 for a bottle off the list, and typically much less.

      When I *do* bring my own wine to a restaurant, I *never* bring in a wine that is already on the wine list (a BIG "no-no," IMHO). I also generally buy one bottle for every bottle I bring (e.g.: I buy a bottle of Champagne or white wine, and then bring in an aged red). Often, though by no means always, the corkage fee is waived². I also make sure I offer a taste (approx. half a glass) to the chef and/or the Maître d' and/or sommelier and/or the server, depending upon who we know best, and who's waiting on us. (Rarely does this "cost" is more than the equivalent of one glass.)

      I no longer "travel" with wine³. I used to bring older bottles of wines in my carry-on(s) for enjoying with dinner when visiting places like Washington DC, New York, Chicago, New Orleans, etc. No more. Obviously taking wines on the place is prohibited since 9/11, and despite the fact I have ways to transport wine in my luggage with no fear of breakage, I don't want my wines "bounced around" that much prior to drinking them.

      ¹ I tend *not* to go out to steak houses, for example, where the obvious meal would be "steak." Besides, my wife happens to be an outstanding cook; we often entertain professional chefs for dinner.

      ² Some restaurants do this as a matter of course; some do not. Some have it printed on their wine lists; some do not. Some do it because we've become "regulars" (or true friends, outside the restaurant).

      ³ The exception is when I travel to visit friends who are winemakers, typically in Europe. Then, I bring California wines as presents (not for immediate drinking), generally wines that I have some association with . . .

      2 Replies
      1. re: zin1953
        dinwiddie RE: zin1953 Mar 5, 2014 02:39 PM

        I don't disagree with any of your points. However, my wife and son are both excellent cooks, and we open a bottle with dinner at home fairly regularly. On the other hand, as good a cook as any of us are, some restaurants just do it much better, for a variety of reasons. (I also seldom go to steak houses because to be honest, my son makes one of the best steaks I ever ate.)

        The dining scene here in DC is varied, excellent, and exciting. Since we have probably the widest variety of ethnic restaurants outside of NYC as a result of the huge number of embassies here and the resulting population of foreign visitors, often wine is not exactly the most appropriate beverage with dinner. In those cases, it is not an issue. However, we also have excellent "fine" restaurants and some excellent wine lists. That said, many restaurants with great lists welcome corkage because they welcome knowledgeable and interested wine drinkers. My friends who own restaurants also tell me that offering corkage is a good thing to do because the type of folks who are "into" wine tend to dine out more often at more expensive restaurants than folks who are not. If you make them welcome, they will return and tell their friends if they like your place.

        Yes I always offer some wine to the somm., chef, or other staff as appropriate, but a taste is not a tip. Bring wine or buy it off the list, I also make sure to tip accordingly and well, but that is the subject of another thread. Unless it is just my wife and I, I normally buy at least one bottle from the list whenever appropriate. Of course, I am talking about dining out as a couple or as a group of intimate friends, having a wine dinner at a restaurant is an entirely different kettle of fish.

        When I travel by car on vacation, I always look for BYOB restaurants in the cities I visit because I to take wine with me. One of my favorite cities in North America is Montreal partly because of the great variety of BYO restaurants. When I fly, I don't bother unless like you, I am bringing it as a gift for someone.

        As to what we are going to order and what wine to bring, I normally bring several bottles with me and then open what is appropriate. That normally means a white and a red. Because my wife has a decided preference for certain types of food, I know that bringing a nice Pinot Noir will almost always work. Lately I have been bringing a CA Syrah as well to share with friends and it has been well received. let's face it, there are seldom foods that will not pair reasonably well with a Pinot Noir or a lightly oaked chard or white burg.

        1. re: dinwiddie
          zin1953 RE: dinwiddie Mar 5, 2014 03:11 PM

          Without meaning to sound like this is a "mutual appreciation society," I don't disagree with any of the points you made either.

          And I *do* wish to make it clear the taste/glass of wine(s) offered to staff is a) as a courtesy, and b) because I/we know the individual(s) are "into" wine. It is NOT in lieu of a tip, nor do I view it as a part of the tip. Indeed, I'll sometimes ask if the individual if they've tried the wine even if I buy it off the list.

          Now that IS a holdover from my being a sales rep. ;^) If the server(s) knew MY wines, they'd be more likely to recommend it over wines that might not have tasted.

          Oh, and as an aside . . .

          >>> On the other hand, as good a cook as any of us are, some restaurants just do it much better, for a variety of reasons. <<<

          Absolutely! We tend to dine most often in restaurants where the food is something we cannot (or don't wish to) recreate at home.

      2. SteveTimko RE: dinwiddie Mar 5, 2014 10:54 AM

        One problem in the Reno area is that the wine lists absolutely suck. Even in the good restaurants. There's three or four restaurants (outside casinos) that will dare to have red Rhones. White Rhones are pretty much non-existent.
        So that means if a wine list has a dozen reds, seven or eight will be cabernet sauvignon and the rest will be pinot noir, merlot and zinfandel. White wine lists are oaky, ripe chardonnay, pinot gris and maybe a Washington riesling that retails for $8.
        So corkage at many restaurants in Reno isn't a matter of getting a preferred wine or a great wine, but getting a decent wine.

        2 Replies
        1. re: SteveTimko
          TombstoneShadow RE: SteveTimko Mar 5, 2014 11:01 AM

          What's the corkage scene in Reno like?

          Do you not have at least one good wineshop where you can buy good stuff and BYOB?

          1. re: TombstoneShadow
            SteveTimko RE: TombstoneShadow Mar 5, 2014 11:03 AM

            Typically it is $15 to $20 a bottle. The worst is a place that charges $35 a bottle and notoriously has one of the worst wine lists of any Reno restaurant. But it's probably one of Reno's better restaurants.
            A few places have free corkage nights.
            We have Craft Wine and Beer, which has the best selection of Kermit Lynch, Louis/Dressner, Neal Rosenthal and De Maison. Plus there's good wine to be had at some other stores.

        2. t
          TombstoneShadow RE: dinwiddie Mar 5, 2014 10:58 AM

          " I would also add that I seldom only have one bottle for our party, more like a bottle for each of us if we are having a big meal..."

          That's my preferred style too... MOL 1 bottle per diner, but we're all there in no small part for experiencing the food and wine matching so we want to try a good variety, often order the food family style. Kind of a bacchanalian mess if I'm honest.... sometimes the proprietor puts us in a separate room :)

          Ditto for the self pours, unless it's a classier occasion like an anniversary or something... We drink at our own pace, and we don't expect to be fawned over by the staff.

          " Many restaurant wine lists have some wonderful wines on them, but they would be much better if they were 5 to 10 years older. Let's face it, absent buying of the secondary market, most restaurants do not have the space or can afford to buy the kind of wines that really need to be cellared until they are in prime drinking condition."

          That's a fact. Whether it's they don't have room to store bottles until maturity, or they just don't have what I want on their list... I'm bringing a specific wine they don't have.

          "Finally, unless I have been to a restaurant enough times to know their corkage policy, I always call to find out about it beforehand."

          Yes, and get the name of who you talked to if you've never been there before. Nothing like a corkage fee disagreement to &^%$# up the enjoyment of your meal.

          Would add that oftentimes we're the last out the door.... if there's any wine left we make a point to make sure the servers know they are welcome to it.

          1. eatzalot RE: dinwiddie Mar 8, 2014 02:21 PM

            "Many restaurant wine lists have some wonderful wines on them, but they would be much better if they were 5 to 10 years older. . . .most restaurants do not have the space or can afford to buy the kind of wines that really need to be cellared until they are in prime drinking condition."

            Outstanding point, which belongs in any modern tutorial for budding wine enthusiasts.

            It also (like US retail wine marketing) reflects its era. I checked a 1978 wine list saved from a then-prominent SF-region restaurant where I was an occasional customer, a place known for a longish wine list (only about 25%, i.e. about 100, Calif. wines). Of wine types with ageworthiness (including most reds, from CA, Bordeaux, and elsewhere), average was 8-12 years old, some considerably older. (Not counting the "Complete List of Older Vintage Wines" available by request, mentioned on the list.) Evolution away from vintage-deep wine lists may have contributed to the rise in corkage custom in the same region since those days.

            I also remember, vintage depths of 10 years or so were common in retail wine shops, for well-known ageable reds produced in quantity, like Bordeaux. The older vintages were closer to prime consumption age, and naturally priced higher. Older wine mentors told me this had been the situation for decades.

            I saw that change, around the time of the rise of new-consumer reliance on a few critics with numerical ratings, and of wine marketing that stressed those ratings. By the late 90s a strange thing had happened, the retail market by vintage had "inverted." Consumers took to ignoring older (traditionally more desirable) vintages of wines that were now being sharply hyped at release, with pre-arrival bidding frenzies, so that brand-new, unaged years sold for much more than more mature bottles, even from good and proven vintages!

            1. d
              DavidT RE: dinwiddie Mar 9, 2014 10:19 AM

              Regarding your final comment about seldom seeing "the corkage policy printed on a wine list," my sense is that is not the case among many, if not most, of the restaurants in the San Francisco area.

              I do not dine out a great deal, but I would at the very least expect to see the corkage fee listed on the wine list of any reasonably "serious" restaurant in this area.

              Regarding whether or not you like to pour your own wine, I do prefer to do it myself as well. When discussing this with a waiter recently, he told me his manager got worried if he saw patrons pouring their own wine, as it might be a sign the waiter of that table was ignoring the table and giving the poor service.

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