Crazy Over Corkage

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By Robert Farmer

Recently my wife and I ventured out for an increasingly rare night on the town for dinner without our new baby. To us, such an occasion is special, so we set out for one of our favorite special occasion restaurants in San Francisco.

Though the place isn't one of the high-voltage restaurants that most people in SF correlate with a special occasion, it is a local favorite, which consistently earns high marks with critics and area foodies alike. Also, they have an exceptional wine list to match their gorgeous menu.
But in this case, we decided to bring in something from our own cellar - a bottle of Schramsberg's J Schram, 1999, whose beautiful notes of crisp green apples, pineapple and puff pastry suited the moment ideally. We of course knew that a corkage fee would ensue, and so were therefore braced for impact. But $30? Even in spite of our good-natured enthusiasm for the evening, this hit us with a pronounced sting at evening's end.

This started me thinking: how much is too much for corkage? If a restaurant is going to charge so much to open your BYOB bottle, might they be better off simply doing away with the service? Perhaps not. And I do know that many restaurants in hot visitor destinations can charge as much as $60 per bottle. I understand that something ought to be charged for corkage and that certain etiquette applies when you bring your own bottle to the party (offer the server a taste; buy a bottle from the restaurant, too; don't bring in cheap wine). But how about a little sanity here? When you add the corkage fee to the price of the sparkling wine we brought to dinner, the overall cost of the bottle went up by 30 percent. While I realize that makes me sound a bit like a penny-pinching bean counter, I just couldn't help but consider it--at least momentarily--in those terms. 

Happily, the corkage fee didn't dampen the evening, and we'd do it again in a heartbeat. Still, I wonder, what is your tolerance level for corkage fees?

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I rant about the price of wines and the corkage fees on a fairly regular basis. However, when I bring a bottle of wine to a restaurant, it is always such a good wine that even gouge-level corkage fees *still* make it cheaper than if I'd bought it off of their menu. My collection of Williams Selyem is an example. Running upwards of $250 for a bottle at one of the finer Strip resorts, my bottle is still less than half of that even with a high corkage fee.

I do not and will not allow anyone to bring their own bottle(s)into my restaurant. Why? Because of all of the hassles associated with it...if you don't charge a corkage...sales suffer and the server feels slighted. If you charge a always seems like someone "expects" to get that fee I have had people on numerous occasions call ahead and ask if they can bring a bottle, the hostess says "sure, as long as it is not a bottle from our list" and they showed up with 3 magnums of the cheapest wine was embarrassing that people around them thought I served that stuff!!

Finally, the very last straw came the other evening when one of my long time professional servers came to me with the dilemma that one of her tables was being drunk and rowdy. I run a fun and warm place where everyone gets treated with respect. I went to see the situation and realized that the table had brought in 3 bottles of their own wine (in the $85 to $100 range)for a party of 5. They were on the last bottle (maybe half full) They all seemed pretty intoxicated and LEGALLY it is up to me to cut them off of any further alcohol use. How do I take the bottle? I am responsible for my place and I send all of my bartenders and servers to alcohol awareness training. I mentioned that I was sorry, but that they could not drink the rest of the bottle and that I would re-cork it and they could come back the next night to finish it. I cannot legally give them an open bottle to take on the road...lawyers live for this kind of thing. They started yelling at me and booing when I took the bottle and the guy kept telling me that "I can't take HIS bottle" This is in my own place and people are trying to dictate my business to me. They wanted me to pay for the bottle!! They ended up leaving mad and stiffing the poor waitress on a $500 check!!!

Corkage fee...BYOB forget it. Why not bring your own menu items? I don't serve lamb, so if you want to bring some in with your own wine...that is great...we can turn my place into your living room hangout, bring your own music....

I have been in this business 25 years and I remember a time when people went out...ordered from the menu provided (without a 20 substitutions) had a great meal, great wine and great service and went home happy. Nowadays, people want their own clubhouse, where someone else pays the bills and takes the insurance risk.

If you want YOUR bottle of wine---drink it in YOUR home.

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