Jerry Horn: Ask Your Doctor if Corkage is Right for You



I've been in the retail wine and spirits industry since 1972. I owned a well-regarded store in Tiburon called Marinwine and Spirits for 12 years. I'm now employed with the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant in the Ferry Building--perhaps you've heard of us. My focus and passion for Champagne started when I discovered that women just love the stuff, which made me like it even more. Having Champagne is the wine equivalent to being in the band. The Dr. Champagne nickname grew out of that.

We've all been here before: you're finally seated for a reservation you made months ago at one of our finest eating establishments--maybe one that's named after somebody like Michael or Gary. You've just finished ordering four carefully selected courses and now it's time for the wine decision. You check the Yellow Pages-sized Captain's Book and realize there's nothing worthy of accompanying the fab meal you are anticipating for under $150! "Arrgghh," you growl under your breath (or worse) as you end up with $75 worth of something that will just suffice. Sure, your $75 Gigondas will get it done, but not like the Premiere Cru Burgundy you really crave to complete this gastronomic experience.

Ya should have had the limo driver take that short five-minute detour to D&M Wines and Liquors or some other reasonably fine wine shop and spent your $75-$100 on what you knew would be exactly right for tonight's repast. And then you'd be ready to take advantage of the restaurant's corkage policy. California has the somewhat unique law that allows you to walk into a restaurant with your own bottle, and for a small fee have the wait staff open and pour it for you. Then you can enjoy your fine wine selection with their fine menu.

Corkage started for my colleagues and me in the early '70s when we were drinking Heitz, Martin Ray, and Mayacamas, but all the restaurants were offering at the time was Charles Krug, Louis Martini, and Wente products. In 30-plus years, wine lists have gotten more sophisticated and complete, but I still use corkage to this day for a couple of reasons.

As a Champagne geek, most of the stuff I dearly love to drink, brut roses and vintage issues, are regularly priced way outside of what I can realistically afford on a wine list at $100-$150 or more, and the selections are often limited in the category. A quick stop on the way to dinner at one of my favorite retailers usually affords me a $50-$75 bottle of something special that will easily be a buck-fifty on the carte des vins. Add a $25 corkage fee and I still come out ahead dollar-wise, while drinking exactly what I want with this meal.

Another good reason I utilize corkage service is when my chosen restaurant for the evening doesn't offer anything close to what I want to drink with their food. Let's use Delfina as a fine example. I love nothing better than to pair the coolest French Champagne with Craig Stoll's pristine, ingredient-driven Tuscan-aise cuisine. His lovely Italian cooking just screams for the greatest wine you can get your hands on. Sticking with their Tuscan theme, Delfina offers wine selections that are for the most part, exclusively Italian. That certainly eliminates Champagne as a wine-list category and I'm sorry, Prosecco is just not a suitable substitute for me. So bringing my own is imperative to my fullest enjoyment of the evening's fare. It's then that a corkage fee looks positively cheap in the face of drinking something I'm just not fond of with this stunning meal.

Let's address the corkage fee for a moment. Many folks think a restaurateur shouldn't charge for just opening a bottle they didn't sell you and pouring it into glassware. That's just the point--they didn't sell you anything when their profitability as a business enterprise all but depends on that sale. When you recognize how a corkage fee covers the cost of your server to pour your wine into clean, quality stemware, that's a portion of the expense. (Ditto on that server or wine professional's salary.) Think of the corkage fee as the rock-bottom profit dollars the restaurant would have made selling you the least expensive wine on their list. Taking all of those things into account, corkage fees start looking like a veritable bargain. And believe me, they usually are.

Some hints when intending to use the corkage policy in your chosen establishment: corkage, like driving, is a privilege, not a God-given right, so one shouldn't demand corkage service. Be polite and kind when inquiring as to its availability, as though you're asking for a favor--which for all intents and purposes, you are.

Also, do your homework: don't show up with a bottle of something that is already on the list, so not hip.

Lastly, if you offer to cut your server, the captain, or your bartender in on your deal by giving them a taste of your little gem, sometimes the corkage fee magically just doesn't show up on your check.

Please, just don't tell 'em I sent ya!