Alan Goldfarb was the wine editor at the St. Helena Star, where it is said that assignment must be akin to covering Catholicism in Vatican City. He was also the senior editor for AppellationAmerica.com. His work has appeared in the San Jose Mercury News, Wine Enthusiast, and Decanter. He’s the contributor of the chapter “Chewing on Chile” in the Travelers’ Tales book Adventures in Wine. He was also the technical editor for California Wine for Dummies.
He’s a restaurant wine consultant and advises wineries on public relations projects. (For his “Checking Lists” column, he will not promote his clients.) You can listen to his latest appearance on iWine Radio here. Have a question or a comment? You can email Alan here.
Corkage Fees: Some Restaurants Are Waiving It
I once schlepped to a restaurant in Ojai because I read that it had one of the largest and best wine lists in the world. Indeed, there were a gadzillion wines in a book so big that lifting it could give you a hernia.
I selected my meal, chose a wine (which took about 24 minutes), and anticipated a great experience. The wine, indeed, was beautiful. The food? It made me nauseous. The moral: The food was so bad that this was the kind of restaurant where you might want to bring your own food—and they could charge you forkage!
But what about bringing your own wine to a restaurant? You know, where the restaurant charges you a corkage fee.
The concept of corkage can be confounding. You mean I can bring my own wine to a restaurant? Any wine? They allow this? Do I pour the wine myself? The restaurant charges just for opening the bottle? Wow, I can save a lot of money.
Well, yes, you can save some money, but there are unwritten protocols and manners to adhere to when bringing your own wine. Consumers and restaurants traverse a fine line—on both sides of the table. I used to give the sommelier and/or server a taste of what I’d brought in. The gesture wasn’t totally altruistic; I was hoping they’d waive the corkage fee, though I also truly wanted to share a great bottle with someone who would appreciate it.
But that strategy doesn’t work much anymore. Profit margins have become thin and wine directors are working too hard to lose money on a wine brought into the restaurant from outside.
Corkage fees are charged because the restaurant is not selling you a bottle of its wine. So, if you bring your own, that fee goes toward training the staff, to stemware and the washing of those glasses, and for storage—sometimes over a long period—to keep the wines on its list in inventory. That’s what you’re paying for when you pay a corkage fee, not just to open the bottle.
It used to be a universal rule that if you brought a bottle and bought a bottle, the fee would be waived. While that practice endures to a large extent, one could still be charged a tariff. While bringing your own wine is not de rigueur in most restaurants, it has become an accepted practice. Some restaurants have even turned their corkage polices into a draw by waiving the fee entirely.
If you play your cards right, you can actually bring a wine to a restaurant every night of the week and not be charged, even on weekends. At 231 Ellsworth in San Mateo, you can bring up to four bottles on a Friday night. If you purchase a cocktail or order a dish that costs more than $10 at Andaz in Napa, any day of the week? No corkage. Saturday nights are free from corkage at Palio d’Asti in San Francisco. At Quattro at the Four Seasons in East Palo Alto, corkage is free on Friday nights; and bottles from the list are half-price.
Sunday through Thursday nights, Tra Vigne in St. Helena offers no fee and offers the suggestion, “We’ll take care of the corkage, you take care of the server.” At San Francisco’s Zazie, on Tuesday nights, “bring as many bottles as you can gracefully handle.” At Hillstone (née Houston’s) in the city, if you bring your own, they’ll look the other way and give your dog a biscuit to boot (outside, that is). Up in Forestville, at Corks at Russian River Vineyards, there’s no corkage on rainy days.
Finally, Heirloom in San Francisco’s Mission District has a unique corkage philosophy. If you bring a 2003 vintage and younger, you’ll be charged $25; 2002 and older, it’s $10. Matt Straus, ever the wine-centric restaurateur, wants to encourage diners to bring in only older bottles. And, of course, as with all restaurants, it’s bad form to bring a wine that’s on the list or one that has no special value.
Corkage fees these days are averaging about $20 in midpriced restaurants. I’ve seen it as low as $10, but that’s rare; and as much as $75 in the highest-end places, such as the French Laundry, whose incredible cellar features a lot of incredibly expensive wines. Or if you think the cuisine at a restaurant might leave you wanting, bring your own food. The forkage fee might even be waived.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: NV Scacciadiavoli Rosé Vino Spumante Brut Metodo Classico, Umbria, Italy (App. $26 retail)
There’s not much dry sparkling wine made in Umbria, and especially not from the Sagrantino grape, of which much of this wine is made. I had it at the A16 Festa Della Donna dinner recently and it was gorgeous. It finished bone-dry but there were many layers of flavors, especially in front of the palate. Dark cherries and strawberries, and it went swimmingly with Maria Helm Sinskey’s tender meatballs and outrageous stuffed guinea hen. It isn’t cheap ($8 for a 3-ounce pour). Though I had this wine at a special dinner, it’s still on the wine list.