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harvey steiman at large

Some Thoughts on Corkage

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jun 13, 2008 11:59am ET

Is it a diner's right to bring a bottle of wine to dinner at a restaurant, or a privilege extended by a generous restaurateur? Ask a dozen people and you will probably get that many different interpretations.

The subject came up in comments to my recent blog post on chef changes in Las Vegas. Gary noted that he brought a bottle to dinner at one of the new restaurants at The Palazzo, was quoted two different corkage fees and finally allowed to drink the wine when the manager approved the bottle (Peter Michael Les Pavots).

I checked with the sommelier at the restaurant in question, who said that originally there was no corkage policy, but people were bringing in wine anyway, so they put on a corkage fee. The owners later raised it (thus the confusion over the amount), and required only that the wine not be on the list already.

Either way, the etiquette of bringing in your own bottle has been undergoing constant refinement as the practice becomes more commonplace. I am old enough to remember when hardly anyone did it, and only when the bottle in question was something special, not to save money. Nowadays, as Todd commented in his response to Gary, "99 percent of those who bring in their own wine expect to have the finest glassware, and experience the complete wine service out of a server that is left in the dust on the tip."

That's a bit harsh. As usual, the best path lies somewhere in between. Here's my take.

My motivation for bringing my own wine is that, like many wine aficionados, I have more wines in my cellar than opportunities to drink them at home. Why not drink them with the efforts of a good chef? I think of this as a privilege, because nothing requires a restaurant to let you bring anything in. (I've seen menus that annouce a fee imposed on bringing in one's own cakes for dessert. Apparently, it's not just for wine.)

To drink my own wine, I am willing to compensate the restaurant for the use of its glassware and service, in the form of a corkage fee. I always tip the service staff a little extra, too, because the fee doesn't find its way into their pockets. And I offer a glass of my wine to the sommelier or waiter.

In some states, BYO is not allowed at all. It's illegal in Colorado, for example, where I spend a good part of my summers, and Aspen's excellent restaurants tend to mark up prices to 2 1/2 to 3 times retail, which I find excessive. (I usually settle for a glass or two; the markup is higher but I spend fewer dollars.) Elsewhere, BYO-only restaurants let customers bring in their own wines without charge rather than get licenses, do the paperwork and store their own bottles.

At home in California, or traveling in places where corkage is permitted (and when I'm not reviewing), I tailor my approach to the restaurant. For restaurants with modest lists and ordinary glassware, I have no problem bringing a bottle from home just to have something better to drink than what they offer. For those places that have put some effort into their wine lists, price them fairly and serve the wines in decent glassware, etc., I only bring my own wine if it's an older bottle or something really rare.

Either way, I always call in advance to clarify any details. I never just walk in with a bottle or three. And when I get to the restaurant, I will at least order a couple of glasses of Champagne or an aperitif. (Many restaurants waive the corkage fee if you buy something off their list as well.)

Most people I know do all that, even when they really bring their own wine just to avoid paying the restaurant's wine markup. For their part, restaurants should price their wines fairly enough so that customers don't believe they must bring their own to keep from being gouged. That usually results in increased bottle sales. I hope that my friends at Aspen restaurants are paying attention.

Tim Corliss
livermore,ca —  June 13, 2008 12:57pm ET
I'd buy wine off of lists if the markups weren't outrageous. 3 to 4 times the retail price is absolutely crazy. The restaurant is already making money on the bottle at regular retail. So to mark it up 3 to 4 times that retail is absurd. I have stopped going to restaurants who follow this absurd practice. There are one or two exceptions, but I always bring wine to those restaurants. I will always pay the corkage than pay 3 times retail for a mediocre bottle.
Tim Corliss
livermore,ca —  June 13, 2008 1:01pm ET
I'd buy wine off of lists if the markups weren't outrageous. 3 to 4 times the retail price is absolutely crazy. The restaurant is already making money on the bottle at regular retail. So to mark it up 3 to 4 times that retail is absurd. I have stopped going to restaurants who follow this absurd practice. There are one or two exceptions, but I always bring wine to those restaurants. I will always pay the corkage than pay 3 times retail for a mediocre bottle.
Stewart Lancaster
beaver,pa —  June 13, 2008 1:20pm ET
I am happy to pay a corkage fee if it is reasonable. I usually offer a glass to the waiter or owner. Usually this results in a waiver of the corkage fee
Ken Koonce
Dallas, Texas —  June 13, 2008 1:50pm ET
One of my favorite restaurants is a favorite both because it serves great pasta and because it's BYOB. I get really tired of looking at restaurant wine lists that are charging $50-60 for what I just paid $20 for retail the day before. If restaurants would just be reasonable (2x resale is probably 2.5x their wholesale cost) I would gladly buy wine off restaurant lists. If restaurants gouge, they can't blame consumers for trying to skimp.
Brad Kanipe
Atlanta —  June 13, 2008 2:30pm ET
Harvey, my personal policy mirrors yours. It's a common sense and common courtesy approach IMO. You're right on with regard to the wine pricing at most restaurants. It's simply ridiculous to expect a diner to spend $75 + tax & tip on a mediocre current release wine that you can buy down the street for $25 retail.
Jayh Henchen
Rochester, NY —  June 13, 2008 3:11pm ET
Harvey great blog,I completely agree with a reasonable corkage fee for glassware and service (but don't take advantage either). I don't agree with, how, many restaurant charge excessive prices for a bottle of wine. It kills me to spend 2 1/2 times "retail cost" when I have the same bottles sitting in my cellar (especially when they're paying distributer prices). It really is a great opportunity to bring a special bottle from my cellar to pair with a meal prepared by a chef (instead of macaroni and cheese, which is about the only thing I don't screw up). I also see the restaurants side, it must make them furious when a party stops off at the liquor on their way in and shows up with a bottle of Columbia Crest or Kendall-Jackson. It seems like an endless debate, and you covered the most important part which is to call ahead and speak to the manager. They most likely want your business and should try to accommodate you. Once we figure that out then comes the tipping debate! I look forward to the survey (restaurant service) done a few weeks back, if I remember correctly it is showing up at the end of june?
Lisa Dornbach
Walnut Creek, CA —  June 13, 2008 4:01pm ET
I generally tend to bring reds to a restaurant and purchase the sparklers/whites off of the list. This way I participate in the restaurants wine program, but usually keep my costs down since the big mark-ups are usually on higher end reds, and most restaurants will waive the corkage because of the purchase. I think this way it's a win-win.
Rob Lentini
Alexandria, Virginia —  June 13, 2008 4:50pm ET
I bring wine to a restaurant when it's a special occassion and I want a really nice bottle. I spend as much on the special bottle with the corkage as I do on a different evening for a fair wine that's been marked up 2 or 3 times. I'd buy much more wine at restaurants if the markups weren't absurd. I've never read a justification for the markup that made me think it was justified. Perhaps if a restaurant has special bottles or nicely aged wines that were difficult to obtain, a high markup is warranted. If they have a current release that you can buy down the street for 1/2 or 1/3rd the price... That dismays customers. So in summary, I'd be much more comfortable if the markup reflected value and not a blanket policy for all wines.
Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  June 13, 2008 5:30pm ET
I also live in Colorado, and believe most restaurants take unfair advantage of the no BYO law. Like Harvey, we often stick to splits or single glasses in the establishments that gouge. Some people are just cheap and crude. Was at Hilton Head, SC last month in a WS Award restaurant with an extensive wine list at very reasonable prices. In walks a clown with a bottle of Yellow Tail Chard still in the brown paper bag from the wine shop. If it had been my place, I would have told them " there's a McDonalds down the street".
Stephen Lima
Wakefield, RI —  June 13, 2008 7:34pm ET
Harvey, As a restaurant owner I can say that most restaurants in my state charge about 2.5 x wholesale, NOT retail (although rare bottles tend to get priced somewhat higher than that). The reason for this is often quite simple. Wine shops don't have to wash, clean, and polish good quality stemware. Nor do they have to replace the glasses every month or so because of breakage. Even a 60 seat restaurant like mine goes through about 3dz red wine glasses every three months. At $10-$12 each that comes close to $2000 a year. As far as BYO Wine, I don't have a problem with corkage fees, what becomes a problem is when people insist on bringing something that is already on my list, or when they purposely go to the store on their way to the restaurant. I can't tell you the number of bottles that my staff have opened with the price tags still on the bottles.
Chris Carrad
New Zealand —  June 13, 2008 8:12pm ET
I feel that the correct corkage fee should be the same as profit that the restaurant makes on a bottle of its house white. This would discourage people from 'bringing a cheapie', after all if you can't afford the wine, can you really afford the meal. It would also mean that people explore the wine list, which hopefully the chef and sommelier have crafted together to match the dishes. Some restaurants may have to up the ante on their lists in terms of quality and value however. If you do choose to bring a bottle, then the chances are that it will be a good one, and the restaurant should take that as a compliment and offer their normal service. In the scale of things another $30 for corkage on a $200 bottle of wine that you bought in is not really an issue.
Christopher Myers
Copley, Ohio —  June 13, 2008 10:33pm ET
Stephen Lima: Don't you have to wash, clean, and polish flatware and dishes? How about kitchen utensils, pots, pans, etc.? I've never seen or heard a fellow diner break a wine glass in a restaurant. How much of your 3 dozen glasses every three months is a result of customer damage versus damage during handling by your staff?
Phillip Cooper
Alpharetta, Ga —  June 14, 2008 12:44pm ET
As a wine director I can relate to the cost associated with cellering and serving fine wine. To Chris' point it is not often that a diner is directly responsible for breakage, however in order to set a 300+ seat dining room there is going to be some mishaps. That is one of the many costs asscociated with doing business. Due to such costs and others not associated with wine service, a fair markup is necessary. I have rarely had my corkage policy abused, But if you think the policy is unfair or the markup is unreasonable; try to negociate or go somewhere else, the free market will sort this out.
Susanne Koster
NY —  June 14, 2008 1:22pm ET
I am willing to pay a corkage fee of $25 - $30 to bring a nice bottle from my cellar. I'm sure what I choose will not be on the list. Yet when I've called to inquire about a corkage fee, I usually get an attitude. When I get to the restaurant - it is mostly low end wines marked up 2-3x retail - and guess what? By collecting my corkage fee - they would have MADE more money. Other restaurants we frequent just for their wine list and wine knowledge - and some very unusual bottles they offer. But - if you¿re a restaurateur and just offer the same old same old - why not impose a corkage fee? A $25 fee will discourage those just looking to save a few dollars on the $20 bottle of wine but bring to your restaurant patrons that probably not only truly enjoy wine, but will probably enjoy your fine cuisine even more.
Bryan So
CA —  June 14, 2008 1:38pm ET
Dear Stephen: if your restaurant has a corkage policy that is acceptable (to you), why does it matter whether the diner's bottle is on your wine list or not? Is it a psychological factor?

Bryan
John Jorgenson
Seattle, —  June 14, 2008 2:04pm ET
I am sure that I have weighed in on this before, but I think your observations and the practices you have delineated are the Gold rule standard. I appreciate the concerns Mr. Lima expressed as well, but have too often found that the glasses offered when I bring in my own bottle of wine are worth more like a buck, not 10 or 12. And, by the way, I have bottles in my cellar from at least 1993 that still have the price tag on them.
Gianpaolo Paterlini
June 14, 2008 3:02pm ET
Bryan- If guests can bring in any wine the restaurant has on the list, what motivation is there for the wine director to build an impressive, comprehensive wine list? Acquiring interesting wines takes time, and storing them properly is expensive.
James Peterson
San Antonio, Texas —  June 14, 2008 6:34pm ET
I almost won't go to a restaurant that doesn't have corkage. With family in the wine business, I can get new wines at cost. Plus, I have older stuff (e.g. '97 Brunello and 2000 Bordeaux) in my cellar that I picked up while living in Europe. I'd rather stay home and drink my own than pay the mark-up at a restaurant. When I do bring my own, I never bring anything on the list and I always call ahead to settle it out so there's no confusion upon arrival. When I use corkage, my tip is always 20% minimum (often slightly more). I do not feel obligated to order anything off their list, but if I'm only bringing a nice red I will order an apertif or glass of white. More than anything, I do believe corkage is a favor--and I treat it as such. As for $12 glasses, either you're being ripped off or just haven't shopped around enough. There are excellent low-end glasses to be had (Spiegaulau and Schott-Wiesel come to mind).
Andy Cohen
Weston, FL —  June 14, 2008 9:00pm ET
I really appreciate the ability to BYOB in Florida. I always make sure to check the list to be certain that I don't bring something they carry. I usually bring something that isn't available locally and always offer the waiter and sommelier a glass, even if they don't accept, it's the right thing to do. Don't mind paying corkage as I know that the wine is good and it has been stored appropriately.
Atul Kapoor
los angeles/california —  June 15, 2008 5:55pm ET
I see 2x-3x mark-ups an oppurtunity to differentiate my restaurant from others. use spiegelau glassware, vintemp for bottles & $12 corkage,most new releases at/around retail.I use it as a marketing tool.Most wine savvy clients never bring their wine unless it is special. There are a few who walk in with generic wines, but we give benefit of the doubt as people may have finance issues etc. we let them spend what they can afford. maybe next time they will bring their cork-dork friend who will appreciate solid values. Just try to work with the clients in your community for the long term.As far as Tipping, it always works out at the end of the night. IMHO.
Christy Thomas
Napa, Ca —  June 15, 2008 11:32pm ET
I brought my own Pinot Noir to a restaurant last weekend after I checked out the wine list online-they were charging $82 for the bottle I bought at the winery for $26! I did buy a reasonably priced white ($39-retails at $20) to start the meal with and I tipped the waiter 25%. Even with $15 corkage, I still spent less. I never bring wine to any of the Plumpjack restaurants because they don't have huge markups-they want to see a bottle of wine on every table and price the list accordingly.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  June 16, 2008 12:23pm ET
Atul and Christy put the debate into perfect perspective in their comments. Atul's enlightened approach makes everyone happy and he not only earns money on his wine program but he can encourage people to drink better wine and come more often. Christy saw a triple markup (actually five times what the restaurant paid!) on a restaurant's wine list and she wisely decided to bring her own. Which restaurant is more likely to see her again?
Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  June 16, 2008 2:04pm ET
Harvey, I just asked this on another blog. You're probably the authority. I live in a no-BYOB state as stated above. If you have a bottle of wine that needs to breathe to open up, can you bring it to the restuarant already opened or must you allow the restuarant to open the bottle at the table. I rarely buy great reds (Brunello, Burgundies,etc) at restuarants, not because of price, because I know that the wine will still be closed up long after my meal is finished.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  June 16, 2008 7:02pm ET
To answer Sandy, in California when I bring an older wine from my cellar, I always decant the wine at home, rinse out the bottle and funnel the decanted back into the rinsed bottle. I have some fancy corks to seal up the bottle so I don't have to squeeze the original back into it. Laws may vary from state to state.
Quek Li Fei
Singapore —  June 16, 2008 8:11pm ET
In Singapore, most "fine dining" establishments have some sort of wine list where the average mark up ranges from 2.5X to 4.5X. And the mark ups multiplier is typically higher for the low to lower end of the range of wines on offer, including quite ridiculous mark ups for N.V. (and very large production)Champagnes with "brand names" like VC or Moet Chandon. Don't mind buying a bottle or two from the winelist if the prices were slightly more fair. Also, sometimes (in fact quite often here) the stemware just isn't up to par for the price you are expected to pay either for the wines or the corkage (anything from S$25 to S$100 per bottle). Just an example. A fine dining establishment here charges an average mark up of about 2X to 3X for a Prestige Cuvee Champagne (say DP / Perrier Jouet Belle Epoque/Krug/Salon/Cristal) but only has the normal champagne flutes (ie. not the tulip shaped ones but the ones with the straight up sides). I find this literally hard to swallow. If a restaurant serves a wide range of Champagne ranging from the basic N.V. to Prestige Cuvee and mark ups are high, then I think it is only fair that they also provide a range of suitable stemware to justify the mark ups.
Jason Thompson
Foster City, CA —  June 16, 2008 10:25pm ET
Amen! And Awomen too!
Jeffrey Nowak
scottsdale, arizona —  June 22, 2008 10:48am ET
i live in a (with RARE exception) non BYOB state, arizona. i almost NEVER buy wine off a restaurant list, if i eat out at all, because of the ridiculous markups we are all forced to endure. however, when i do dine out, i always look around at surrounding tables to see if other people are having wine with their food. more tables are bare than not, no doubt for the same reason. if passionfish in carmel, ca. can survive with more than reasonable wine pricing (and in a BYOB environment, no less!), then other restaurants can do it, too. nothing makes my blood boil more than a restaurant owner complaining about their wine program, and how the establishment will go under if they don't have the wine at 2 or 3 times retail. hogwash! price your wine reasonably, and you'll have more business than ever before, and net more money. you might as well sell more wine, chances are you don't store it properly either. i'd like to make another comment directed towards the real wine geeks. why do you think that you should have the corkage fee waived just because you offer to share your wine with the staff? i feel that is presumptuous. as mr. steiman says, BYOB is a privilege, and it does cost the restaurant money to service we who bring in bottles. if the fee is waived, say thank you, and add the same amount back on the tip; and tip responsibly in the first place. also, even if it's not a rule, don't take wine in that is already on the list; this is just common courtesy. ok, but this gets us back to the restaurant's need to keep an accurate wine list updated on the website. if i can't check the wine list, how do i know what i can bring in or not? BYOB carries a lot of responsibilties on both ends, restaurant and customer, but it will all stem from a fairly priced wine list in the first place.
Julie-eric Kenar
June 23, 2008 3:59pm ET
My husband and I rarely eat out and it's largely because of the wine pricing. Most restaurants in Southeastern Michigan charge the bottle price for a simple glass of wine. Besides Flemings, the offerings of wine by the glass are generally generic and substandard. If I move to the bottle list, the prices are easily 2.5 to 4 times retail. We happen to be excellent cooks with a very nice collection of wine. It's less frustrating to prepare an great meal at home with premium ingredients like dry aged beef, drink what we like, not have to deal with the frustration of outrageous markups and the fact that most restaurants don't have a corkage policy so BYOB is not an option. If it was, I would gladly pay $25 for a corkage fee, tip 20% and enjoy a nice evening out more often. Some restaurants have 50% off wine nights once or twice and week and those are the nights we are most inclined to dine out.
Howard L Barto
Danville, CA —  July 2, 2008 2:28am ET
I agree that I find it ridiculous the mark-up of some wine lists. I have so much wine that I frequently bring a bottle or two when I go out unless I'm famailiar with the wine program at the particular restaurant. For example, when I got to A-16 in San Francisco I never bring wine because I can trust that I will get a superior recommendation for a reasonbly priced bottle from one of their sommoliers and feel that I've gotten value. Also, when I go to Passion Fish restaurant in Pacific Grove, CA where they have, in my opinion, an excellent wine list that is reasonably priced and a superior wine program, I will usually bring one bottle of wine. Their program provides that if you buy a wine off of their list, you may bring a bottle of wine and pay no corkage. Its always fun to try a wine from their list and not feel like I've been taken "to the cleaners".I always offer a glass of wine to the server when I bring wine and always tip the server extra for their efforts in providing glassware and service.I think restaurants would sell more wine if their inventory was reasonably priced and they charged a reasonable fee for corkage if you bring your own bottle.

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