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When It Comes to Great Wine, Puck Takes His Cut

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Sep 11, 2006 12:01am ET

So many restaurateurs and sommeliers gripe and grumble about customers who bring in wines that it was refreshing to hear Wolfgang Puck say, "I don't care, as long as they give me a taste."

We were talking about his new Beverly Hills steakhouse, Cut, which has been open since June. Although it's only a few blocks from his flagship restaurant, Spago, the two eateries do not share a wine cellar. Spago's wine list has 850 wines on it, and has a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence. Cut's has 240.

"We purposely kept the wine list short when we opened to see what people want," Puck told me. "Then we can build up the wine list to suit the restaurant."

This has had an interesting effect. "People are coming in with some great wines," says Puck. Like what? "Like 1900 [Château] Margaux and 1921 Lafite. Those were delicious. I think it's because they finally have a place where they can have a simple piece of meat that won't get in the way of the wine."

Cut's menu focuses on steaks, and they are impressive, but it also has grilled fish and roasted poultry, long-simmered meats and side dishes that don't borrow potentially wine-clashing flavors from non-wine-drinking cultures (as Spago does). The rich food begs for great red wines, and there are some obvious choices on the list.

Big spenders can drink 1982, 1989 and 1990 Bordeaux. The bargain is Vieux-Château-Certan '82 at $390. More typical is Léoville Las Cases '82 for $900 or Lafite '89 for $590. The list also focuses on current vintages of good, sturdy reds at around $50 to $100 a bottle. Dining anonymously, I drank a splendid Elderton Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 from Australia ($51), which was duly decanted and poured into big crystal glasses as if it were one of those fancy clarets.

Los Angeles is a hotbed of serious collectors, especially folks who like to amass cellars full of trophy wines. But it's also a place where people like to eat out a lot. That limits the opportunity to drink those trophy wines, unless you can bring them to a restaurant. Puck is happy to oblige. At $40 to $48 for a typical steak (à la carte), I don't think he's losing money, either.

James Peterson
San Antonio, Texas —  September 11, 2006 11:23am ET
This is great to hear. I am a big proponent of corkage, and I have my three basic rules: 1) Never bring something on the list--call beforehand, 2) Bring something that retails (as a minimum) for twice the corkage fee, and 3) Always offer the sommelier (or the wine-server) a taste. Dr. Vinny says you should also order a bottle off their list, but I just don't get that advice (particularly if the list isn't adequate or is over-priced). If you're a serious wine drinker, then bring something serious and show them that you're serious. Otherwise, it just looks like you're cheap, and gives them more reason to gripe. Since I know many in the restaurant business view these blogs, I'd be curious to know what they think. Tipping is obviously an issue here too--which I will avoid for now. - Jim
Hoyt Hill Jr
Nashville, TN —  September 11, 2006 5:19pm ET
I am a former sommelier (at a Grand Award winning restaurant) and restaurant owner and am now a wine retailer. I almost always take wine when I go out for lunch or dinner, and have very rarely been charged a corkage fee. I think this is the result of five things: 1. I always take something special. 2. I always share some with the owner, sommelier, chef, or all three 3. I always add the value of the wine to the check before figuring the gratuity. 4. If I have a party of four or more, I always order a bottle of wine also. 5. I only dine in local, independently owned restaurants. It works very well for me.
Atul Kapoor
los angeles/california —  September 11, 2006 7:44pm ET
Amen to james & hoyt.To avoid corking issues, we priced our wines at or well below retail. so most of the time the wines that people like are cheaper at our restaurant than mail list.
Robert Fukushima
California —  September 11, 2006 8:03pm ET
This whole subject of corkage and wine service is one that I constantly find occasion to reflect on. I take no offence at paying corkage for a wine that I have brought to a fine restaurant. I will generally bring a special bottle, or one of the friends I often dine with will bring one of his (always more special than mine stuff) and if the service is up to the bottle, we can all be happy. I also like to offer to the waiter/sommelier/chef a taste of what we have brought, there is always enough wine to be gracious, I should think. But, I find that the definition of acceptable wine service varies widely. We make sure to never bring a bottle already on the list, or equal to the predominant bottles on the list, we always tip well and we make it known that we will happily pay corkage. Still, we have been hit with unpublished bottle limits, dirty glassware, upended bottles etc... I always appreciate a restauranteur that appreciated the clientele. I suppose that is what makes Wolfgang Puck successful. I do wonder about why buying a bottle off of the list if the party is larger makes a difference.
Steve Dunn
phila, PA USA —  September 11, 2006 8:33pm ET
Wolfie is a friggin' blast. His new place in Atlantic City's Borgata is tip-top, and his staff is just like him. People LOVE it. Wolfie is great. I always carry a big wine in my car in case he is there so we can split a bottle. He is a real dude, and that's a compliment.
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  September 12, 2006 2:43am ET
I just returned from a trip to Oregon. I loved being able to take btls from the wineries we visited in the day out to dinner later that evening. These blogs helped me: we called ahead to ask if it was permitted(it is not legal where I work in TX); we made sure the wines were not on the list (that would just be cheap); we offered the server a taste; we tipped on what the wine cost at the winery(and then some). I would say to remember that no matter how nice and accommodating the staff and owners are, it is still their business and livelihood so tipping and corkage are appropriate. Plus, sharing the wine opened up a whole new side to the dining experience. I was able to meet the wine director and server and interact a bit w/ them about the local wine scene in Portland and the Willamette Valley. Being able to bring in special btls is a nice touch. Just don't abuse it.
Hoyt Hill Jr
Nashville, TN —  September 12, 2006 12:03pm ET
The reason that I order a bottle from the list if I have a party of four or more is that, if my party is that large, I will need more than one bottle of wine - and I think it is offensive to bring two bottles and order none. If I have a small party, I order a glass from the restaurant. My feeling is that I want fine restaurants to be financially successful so that I can dine in them again!
Thomas Blanco
Las Vegas NV —  September 12, 2006 3:02pm ET
You have to charge corkage or some non respectful will bring in 2-Buck Chuck to Spago(no kidding I've seen it).If you bring in something special or just something thats not on the wine list usally you will not be charged,
Robert Fukushima
California —  September 13, 2006 1:58am ET
Hoyt,Thank you for the clarification. I see where you are going with this idea.Thomas,Perhaps at Spago this is true, my experience has been quite different than yours. I have only had corkage waived on a very few occasions, typically, corkage is charged regardless of the wine that was brought. Again, I am fine with paying corkage as $20 to $25 dollars if cheap for good wine service.

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