Corkage Unplugged by Alex Fox

Alex Fox is the Wine Director for Myth Restaurant in San Francisco. The focus of Myth's wine list is small production wines from California and archetypal wines from Europe. Myth's corkage policy allows for a maximum of two bottles corkage per party at a fifteen-dollar fee per bottle. In addition, for each bottle purchased from Myth's list, one corkage fee will be waived.

Corkage Unplugged by Alex Fox

The last time I went to fill up my car with gas I left annoyed. I made it to the pumps using the few fumes I had left in the tank and did a double take when I saw that I would be paying close to four dollars for a gallon of gas. I pulled out my abacus and, after a few movements of the beads, realized that it was going to cost me around sixty dollars to fill up my gas tank. This seemed outrageous.

What angered me most was not the actual price of the gas--I am all for gas taxes as long as the money goes to improving infrastructure/building better forms of public transportation--but rather that my money was going directly to pad the profitability of the gas and oil industries. I am not stupid. I can see that the cost of a barrel of crude oil plus the cost to refine that oil does not add up to the price at the pump. It is also apparent that I am held hostage to this pricing because I don't have many other options other than dusting off my 1987 Schwinn.

So what does this have to do with bringing corkage into a restaurant? The answer is plenty. After working in the restaurant industry for the past several years it is clear to me that there is a disconnect between restaurants and their patrons regarding the costs and prices of wines on a wine list. This has led to consumers bringing in pleasant, but frankly ordinary wine to restaurants, in part to save money but also to avoid feeling ripped off. Nobody wins in this scenario because the restaurant loses a sale and the patron misses out on the potential of being introduced to a wine that will more fully enhance his or her dining experience.

In all fairness to the consumer, this has a lot to do with a history of price gouging by restaurant ownership. Wine for too long was regarded as a luxury rather than a dining staple and, as such, one was expected to pay top dollar for even the most pedestrian of wines. The consumer being ill informed shelled out the cash and then when they bought the wine at a retail venue was ticked off at the difference in price. The restaurants dug in their heels and countered with the argument that price was determined by the internal costs of running the restaurant, fixed margins on food, and the holding, service, and storage of the wines. None of this rang true to the consumer, especially in restaurants where service and storage seemed like a joke. This brings us to where we are today.

The landscape has changed dramatically. Restaurants and their patrons are much more sophisticated in terms of wine. However, the residual effects of past mistrust and misunderstanding remain.

In an attempt to clear this up, here are few tips to help determine when and when not to bring corkage into a restaurant.

There are several things I look for in determining the overall quality of a restaurant's wine program. First, the wines on the list should complement the restaurant's menu. Secondly, there must be a range of different styles of wine offered. Big bonus points go to the lists that search out unique regions or grape varieties and small, artisanal producers. There should also be wines available in a range of different price points to accommodate different budgets. These prices must reflect reasonable but not excessive mark-ups relative to the size and depth of the list. Finally, there must be a knowledgeable person on staff to assist in helping to make a selection from the list.

If all these criteria are met, then bringing in a bottle of wine should be the exception rather than the rule. This is because ordering a wine from a conscientiously chosen wine list will greatly enhance your meal. And, honestly, no matter how good the bottle of wine you are planning to bring happens to be, it is a known entity to you. Shouldn't you be as excited to try a new wine as you are to taste a dish you have never had before? I think so.

With that said, if a restaurant fails you on any of these counts, bringing in a bottle of wine is not only okay but also a way of voting with your wallet. Believe me, restaurateurs are quite aware of consumer opinion concerning all aspects of their business. Letting them know that something is amiss will at the least give the restaurant food for thought and at best may lead to significant changes for the better.

Another reason to bring in a bottle of wine is that you may have had the patience and resources to procure and hold a special bottle of wine from a great producer in a particularly strong vintage. Most restaurants can't and won't hold many bottles like this because the goal is to keep total inventory costs low and to sell what inventory it has as quickly as possible. In this scenario, if the wine list is good and you plan on having more than one bottle, consider bringing in only that one bottle and ordering something from the list. Do you really need that special white Burgundy or vintage Krug to go with your simple green salad?

Be aware as well that there are more and less prudent ways to bring your wine in to a restaurant. Some personal pet peeves, in no particular order are listed below.

Hiding the bottles under the table until the server or sommelier has already gone through his or her spiel is really annoying. It is better to give the wine to the hostess or leave it sitting on the table so that the staff can prepare for the type of wine service you need i.e. an ice bucket, decanter, stemware, etc.

Avoid bringing in wine at grossly wrong temperatures. This applies primarily to bubbles. When you bring in warm Champagne, you end up having it with dessert--which is fine, but kind of defeats the purpose, don't you think?

When you offer a taste of your wine, please don't ask the person to taste out of your glass. I don't know where your lips have been and you certainly don't want to know where mine have been.

When you bring in your trophy wines don't make a big deal about them. Don't ask me what I think about them because, while I'll probably tell you how delicious I think they are, I am really thinking, right or wrong, that I have twenty wines on my list that offer the same or better quality at a much lower price.

What it boils down to is this: the ability to bring wine from home into a restaurant is a good thing. However, be aware that the choices you make regarding which restaurants to bring wine to have an effect on that restaurant's wine program's bottom line. If you like the restaurant's list, do your best to support it with your dollars, as well as your words of praise.