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Size Does Matter: Dining Out, Corkage Fees and Stemware

What is a Corkage fee? It's the fee charged by a restaurant to patrons bringing their own wines to the to enhance their dining experience. The "size" of the fee does appear to be larger or smaller in price in direct proportion to the size of their pepper-mill, as it has been said, size does matter.

The corkage fee is usually minimal in most places and is considered a convenience charge to the restaurant for opening and serving wines from outside their cellar. The use of a corkage fee is widespread in many parts of the United States, especially in heavy wine producing areas such as Napa and Sonoma Counties.

The corkage fee is not designed to be a penalty for the patron and should not be viewed that way. But in the same breath, under no circumstances is the [BYOB] bottles price to become part of the tipping equation.

Wine corkage policies appear to vary state-by-state and even city-by-city. So while visiting another state you may want to call ahead to find out that states or the restaurant's policy are regarding BYOB. Like it's often said, it's good to know before you go.

For example; with my experience in Arizona; where BYOB is not permitted unless you have a very specialized license. It does appear to be frowned upon by restaurateurs there, well at least that was my experience as I inquired by phone and in some cases in person about their BYOB policy. Many states have widely different laws regarding this practice and have different licensing requirements disguised as revenue generators. 

What are some of the issues or wine service irritations which motivate folks to want to BYOB or even BYOG in the first place? Good question; here's what I've found out via a bit of research.

Stemware: Most folks I've talked with and some of my own experiences say the desire to BYOG [bring your own glass] is brought on by the fact that far too many restaurants idea of a wine glass are cast-offs from Medieval Times. I've seen stems so thick and clunky you could potentially take out a mugger if you need be. Frankly, if that is the case, I'll just have a beer.

Because this oft-encountered scenario; you may see some wine-geeks with what can only be called a "wine-purse" bringing in their own stemware. But please don't laugh too much; as I imagine you would have wished that you too had the good sense [the stones] to do the same.

Wine List Markup: This is the one issue which has most folks boycotting buying wine in a restaurant period.  Why, because ordering wine in a restaurant can cost up to six times [400% markup] as much as drinking the same bottle at home. Most folks believe and I also concur that this kind of gouging is beyond the pale. I also believe this issue alone is what has really driven most vino-sapiens to BYOB, when and where they can.

Commodity Wines: Ugh, this issue is driving a lot of folks bonkers. A few vino-sapiens who consider themselves to be somewhat savvy wine drinkers are oh-so-tired of only being offered "plonk" wine-list chock full of overinflated prices and adding insult to injury many of those wine isn't even properly stored.

Reasonable Corkage: So what kind of corkage fees are reasonable? There as many arguments about what "reasonable" is and is not, as stars in the winter nights sky. But if you really want to get down to where the wine bottle meets the linen-topped table; I would say that $20 and under is a good place to start. In my opinion, that's what I'd call reasonable. Another option [good policy] is having the fee waived if another bottle of wine is purchased from their list. That's what I call good form. 

The fee to simply uncork your wine for you can vary greatly. Some restaurants charge what I consider an outrageous corkage fee, so the safe bet is to always call ahead, before making a reservation. For example, some higher end restaurants [dependent upon the size of their pepper-mills] may charge as much as $50 [IMO rip-off]. But in more reasonable establishments you can expect to pay anywhere from $10 to $20 for a corkage fee [caveat emptor].

More Tips Uncorked:
  • Another trend that I've experienced is that a few restaurants will waive the corkage fee if you purchase an additional wine from the restaurant. Time for some bubbly.
  • This is a refreshing new trend and one I've experienced myself in Paso Robles. Many wine-country restaurants will waive the corkage fee if you bring a wine from the wine region where the restaurant is located. It is my hope that this is a growing trend not only in Paso Robles but around the country.
  • Whether you're dining in your favorite eating establishment in your hometown or any other restaurant that does not have a great wine list, feel free to bring a wine that is preferably NOT on their wine list, preferably one that's of good quality.
  • If you have brought "anniversary" bottle or maybe just something special, consider offering the 'Somm' or perhaps the waiter a taste of the wine, I think it is good form.
  • Let's say you have a bottle of wine that requires chilling before it's served, I would attempt to chill the bottle before hand and once you arrive ask the wait-staff for an ice bucket.
  • Restaurateurs, if you are going have a wine menu, keep it updated and secondly, could you store your wine collection correctly, really tired of being served warm red wine.
  • Restaurateurs get steamed when they see someone bring in a cheap bottle of wine just to avoid the restaurant markup. I can't say I blame them, it would seem that some restaurant patrons are just cheap, please don't be this guy or gal.
  • One great trend that I've experienced is seeing some restaurants have corkage free nights [yay!] to help increase traffic on slower traffic days.
  • Another trend I've seen; some retailers around town who promote 'free corkage' if you bring in a bottle from their store with a coupon.
Okay, folks, those are the trends I see currently and have experienced in the real world. I would love to get some feedback from you all three of the readers. I want to hear about your experiences, the good, bad or just plain indifferent. 

It does not matter if you agree with me or not. I hope you'll think of this as just a conversation, not my soap-box where communication is only one way. So please join in, and I look forward to hearing from you. Until next time sip long and prosper cheers! 

BTW: There are a some great comments below, check them out and/or add a few of your own. 


DanG said…
Great post Bill!
Cookie said…
We've just recently started bringing our own bottle to restaurants for a nice meal. I used to think people were just being cheap but now that we've discovered a few (not cheap) favorite bottles, we like to bring them since we won't really drink them at home for no special reason. Our favorite non-corkage place is Hillstone's, which is part of the Rutherford Gill family. We always order a few cocktails so that the restaurant can make some money and it's not like 1 bottle is enough anyway!
Bill Eyer said…
Thanks Dan, so what Pinot Noir are you swirling around in your glass at the moment?
Bill Eyer said…
Hey Cookie,

I have to admit the first time I brought my own bottle of wine to a restaurant, I thought they would just point and laugh. After the first time though, it's rather seamless.

Way to go a few cocktails before dinner is a great idea, a savory Martini is just the ticket to get the party started, stirred but not shaken. Ha, I really like your one bottle is not enough comment, couldn't agree more.

Shawn Burgert said…
Hey glad to see "Wandering Wino's" in your blog, I defiantly fall into that group! :-) I spent some time working high end restaurants and have a little experience in this area.

There is a major faux pa that should be considered. Read the wine list prior to bringing a bottle as you never want to bring the same bottle offered in the restaurant......highly frowned upon and will peg you as a cheap @$$.

It is also considerate to offer a small pour for the server and/or sommelier. I've brought bottles that have intrigued their interest and they were very appreciative and in some cases managed to waive the corkage fee and even a complimentary glass of Champaign with desert. Just being nice can go a long way.

Keep in mind a larger format bottle will likely be a higher cost, or in some cases not permitted. In many cases the number of bottles has a limit....nobody should think they can roll up with 6 "special" bottles of wine to share with their group.....keep it to 1 or 2 tops unless arrangements have been made.

I dig the fact that 805 wines corkage fee is waived in Paso.....normally by dinner time I'm drinking water in desperate need of hydration.
Bill Eyer said…
Hey Shawn,

Thanks for checking in, you make some great points and had added greatly to this important topic.

Yeah, pretty cool about "Paso" area restaurants waiving corkage for locally purchased wines [Paso Robles Inn]. And I hear ya on the hydration issue, my palate is normally tuckered out, but Mrs. Cuvee and I still manage to put away a bottle during dinner.

By the way luv the blog, it looks great and yep I like the phrase "wandering-winos" glad you don't mind if I reference it now and then, cheers!
winepredator said…
I often wish I had my own wine when the one that is served is too warm! Ugh!

And a nice wine in a tumbler is also a loser. While I've never brought in my own glass, you've given me a good idea!

And high mark-ups for corkage will keep me away from a restaurant.

Restaurants, are you listening?

Thanks for the post, Bill.
Bill Eyer said…
Hey G,

I hope they are listening, I really don't know if some of these places will ever get it and oh-man you're right the warm wine thing really "bugs"!
Dave Stewart said…
Another trend I have encountered at a couple of places in Portland, Oregon, is refusal to open wine bottles if they have the same bottle on their wine list.

And I suppose if a restaurant has made a special effort to select wines with the food they serve, it would be silly to BYOB. It would be like saying, "Hey, I just pulled this cabbage out of my garden, can you make my salad with it?" Or "I just caught this fish this afternoon, can you prepare it instead?" Absurd in those cases.

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