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Uncorking Restaurant Policy

James Orr
Posted: December 19, 2002

  Wine Spectator Forums
What's your take on Orr's predicament? Should wine lovers "punish" restaurants that don't have reasonable corkage policies? Speak your mind in this special Forums thread.

Bringing a beautiful wine to a restaurant can be an ugly experience.

A number of years ago, I had a business dinner in Los Angeles with the wonderful actor Michael J. Fox. I knew that he was an avid wine lover, so I brought two great bottles to the dinner. One was a first-growth Bordeaux from the '60s, and the other was a white Burgundy from the mid-'80s. Michael chose the restaurant: The Ivy.

I showed up with my bottles, placed them on the table and proudly began to speak about them. But before I could finish, the manager came over and informed me that it was the restaurant's policy not to allow diners to bring their own wine.

I smiled graciously and explained that I'd brought the wines especially for Michael and that I didn't mind if I was charged a corkage fee.

The manager replied that the policy had been set by the owner, and that it was inflexible. He took my two bottles off the table, informing me that I could pick them up at the reception desk after the meal. Needless to say, I've never returned to The Ivy.

I eat in restaurants about five times a week, which creates a conundrum for me: If I don't take my wine with me, I rarely get to drink it. But bringing my own wines can be a frustrating experience.

I've encountered as many different corkage policies as there are airfares to Mexico. Four responses are common at U.S. restaurants if you bring your own wine.

The most inviting is the "gracious welcome," where if there is any corkage cost at all, it is waived. The "fraternal welcome" comes with reasonable corkage: sometimes as low as $2 a bottle but never more than $15 a bottle. The "reluctant welcome" levies a high fee -- about $25 a bottle, and sometimes as high as $50 a bottle. Finally, the "rude welcome" prohibits diners from bringing their own bottle under any circumstances.

I would like to see one standard, and I propose this one: A restaurant's corkage fee should never be more than twice the cost of the least expensive wines by the glass. For example, if wine by the glass costs $7, corkage should be no more than $14.

But, alas, no standard exists. Wine collectors are forced to run the gauntlet of the whims of each restaurant's policymaker. So here are my recommendations to wine lovers who find themselves navigating the treacherous, purple waters of restaurant corkage policy.

If you ever receive the "rude welcome," you should get up and leave. If you can't leave, you must never return, and you should bad-mouth the establishment to everyone you know. I say, put them out of business.

Restaurants with a "reluctant welcome" should be informed that you know they are purposefully punishing wine collectors by charging them exorbitant fees. Avoid these restaurants as much as possible. They don't support your passion and don't deserve your patronage.

Restaurants with a "fraternal welcome" should be frequented with enthusiasm. If you do so, you will likely find that eventually they join the list of restaurants who charge you no corkage at all.

Finally, we must all support restaurants that extend a "gracious welcome." These restaurants acknowledge and appreciate our passion. Good customers who appreciate fine cuisine -- and that usually applies to wine collectors -- are the clientele they want in their establishment.

The time has come for wine collectors to take a stand. And since voting with one's wallet is an effective method of expression, I suggest we all make this commitment and stick to it: We patronize the restaurants that are reasonable about corkage, and we boycott the ones that aren't.

James Orr is a screenwriter and director who lives in Beverly Hills, Calif. His 4,000-bottle collection comprises wines from Australia, California, France and Italy.

What's your take on Orr's predicament? Should wine lovers "punish" restaurants that don't have reasonable corkage policies? Speak your mind in the Wine Spectator Forums.

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