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Corkage Etiquette in Restaurants

What to know when you want to BYO

Margaret Raber
Posted: February 17, 2011

Certain etiquette questions arise when you’re faced with a restaurant’s BYOB or corkage policy: Do you call ahead? Offer a sip to the sommelier? Francesco Grosso, who has been wine director at Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence-winning restaurant Marea in New York since its opening, in 2009, offers the dos and don’ts of bringing your own.

Wine Spectator: How often do clients bring their own wine into Marea, and what type of customers—members of the industry, collectors, general patrons—are doing it?
Francesco Grosso: I see a bottle brought in at least every other night. I would say it’s 90 percent collectors. We get the odd person who thought it would be a good idea to stop at the liquor store and buy something, and then they come in and find it’s a $50 fee to open said bottle; the fee dissuades people from bringing in things like that.

WS: What are some of the key points of corkage etiquette when bringing wine into a restaurant?
FG: Well, I don’t think there are steadfast rules, but there are definitely things that are appreciated. Our rule used to be one bottle per table, but now it’s two, just because so many collectors are coming in, and I don’t want to stop them from bringing their wonderful bottles. As far as etiquette, I really appreciate when if someone brings in an older bottle of Bordeaux, they will start with a white Burgundy or a bottle of Champagne from our list. I hesitate to call that etiquette, it’s just appreciated.

WS: Is it important for people to call a restaurant before showing up with a bottle?
FG: In certain cases, yes—if they are not familiar with the policy and call to ask, or if it’s a larger group and they want to bring in something that exceeds the policy. Calling ahead is something I would say is definitely etiquette.

WS: Do you feel that it is inappropriate to bring a wine that is on the restaurant’s current wine list?
FG: I do. I think that, if the wine is on the list, it should not be brought in. I have worked at restaurants where that was the case; we wouldn’t open bottles that were on the list. But, since Marea’s list unfortunately is not online at present, there is no way for someone to find out [if their selected wine is on the list] before they get here, other than me faxing or e-mailing them the list right now. So I will open anything.

WS: Do people usually offer you a taste of what they bring?
FG: Certainly, it happens, nine times out of 10, but I do not consider it something necessary. It is very nice and appreciated, but not expected.

WS: What are some of your pet peeves on corkage?
FG: If it is your bottle, it is my responsibility to serve it correctly, but the temperature of the bottle is something that is kind of a slippery slope. People bring in wines (that should be cellared) at extremely warm temperatures and then get a bit angry at the temperature that they brought it in. I’ll do everything in my power to do something, but to take an older bottle of Bordeaux that comes into the restaurant hot and shock it in ice? I feel like I’m almost adding to the problem with the bottle being stored at improper temperatures and then shocking it in cold water.

WS: Do you find that people have a negative reaction to you if the wine they brought in is faulty or disappointing?
FG: Yes. I have collectors that dine here often that look to me for my opinion on their wines, but it’s something that I do not offer if I don’t know the guest. In fact, often a guest that I am not familiar with will ask, “Did you taste this?” and, while I do taste and make sure that every bottle that I serve from our cellar is sound, that is not something that I feel comfortable doing with someone else’s bottle. I’m here to open it for you, provide you with the proper glassware and serve you the wine as I would any other wine. That is what the $50 charge is for; it’s not my responsibility to give you an opinion on the soundness of the bottle unless it is asked.

WS: Any final comments on bringing your own wine to restaurants?
FG: I think there would be a lot more etiquette for something that was done for free. I don’t think there is anything that I would ask of the guest beyond common courtesy and just understand the outside factors of the bottle.

Kenneth Nelson
Chicago, IL —  February 17, 2011 2:00pm ET
For $50 I would assume (but that is not clear) the servers know how to properly present, open, provide proper stemware and serve a bottle of wine but instead he focuses on customers bringing in unsound wines.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  February 17, 2011 5:37pm ET
I also think it's good to make sure that the steward/sommelier gets a captain's cut of the tips that night but, if not, I then send her an envelope with a gratuity ($10 - $20 depending on the type of restaurant). If there is no steward/sommelier then the server gets the envelope with the extra cash tip.

I also make sure that the server gets an extra tip on the bill equivalent to 20% of whatever they would have made on a moderately-priced bottle had I ordered one off the list.

Sure, all these extra tips add up but I sure get good service and enjoy my meal a lot more knowing I'm taking care of the folks around me. Half the time the server/sommelier waives the corkage!

I think Mr. Grosso is too kind with respect to folks bringing bottles that are on the list. That's why I feel it's incumbent on the patron to call ahead and ensure that it's NOT. It shouldn't be the responsibility of the establishment to have a 100% current list online or email one to each patron. It should be the establishment's responsibility to check the list for the patron and advise according to policy.

Just my 3 cents!
Wine Room
Calgary, Alberta —  February 17, 2011 6:09pm ET
Grosso admits that his corkage policy purposefully "dissuades" someone from bringing in an average bottle of vino. Up next: an article on the value of buying off-vintage DRC?
Jean-francois Lefebvre
Dubai, UAE —  February 18, 2011 3:38am ET
I find Grosso's attitude towards this issue to be perfectly sound and professional.
Terry Hudon
Up-State New York USA —  February 18, 2011 9:41am ET
I find Mr. Grosso to be very professional and gracious. I feel people should not BYOB. There are enough excellent wines to enjoy at the Restaurant. Stay home and have a dinner party and drink your own wine at home. Restaurants are a Business. Next they'll want to bring in their own food too!
Aaron Meeker
Kansas City, KS —  February 18, 2011 10:07am ET
Terry, I would agree with you except for the insane markups of many restaurants. The 250% over wholesale days shouldnbe long gone. The list is the personality of the restaurant. It should echo the concept and food. Often times this doesn't happen.
Tom Gannon
New York, NY —  February 18, 2011 12:26pm ET
It's easy to rail against markups or corkage and sometimes justified. But compare a restaurant to a retail store. Let's use Marea as an example vs. Columbus Circle wines about 300 feet west. How many people do you think Marea employs to bring you a basket of bread that they do not charge you for, to be served in a gleaming beautiful dining room that a few porters would have been in at 6am to make it sparkle and shine? Columbus Circle wines may have four employees on the floor while Marea may have four people just dedicated to your table.

Restaurants do not sell the same volume as retail either. We do not sell wine by the case, we sell it over time, and we need to store it correctly. We cannot have it stacked on the floor as you walk in to grab your attention. Proper storage and inventory is expensive to maintain. Three star food and service is expensive to execute- especially if your location is Central Park South.

As far as someone being "dissuaded" from purchasing a $9 pinot grigio 300 feet away and then expecting a 3 star wine team to open and serve it in glassware that easily cost four times the price of said bottle without any compensation for the restaurant or the staff- there does have to be something in place to protect the business, if only to pay for the incredible cost of glasses being broken in the course of service.

Francesco is a great sommelier and I found his comments to have erred on the side of polite deference in terms of respect to present and future guests of his restaurant.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  February 18, 2011 2:08pm ET
Here here Mr. Gannon! Well said. That being the case, I think a per-bottle dollar-based markup that takes into account those additional costs would be most appropriate as opposed to a percentage-based markup. Is $50 over cost appropriate, $100? I don't know. It would depend on the restaurant and it's level of service. A pizza joint should only be charging maybe $10 over retail because all they serve are mediocre bottles. Charging me 300% of the retail on a $30 bottle makes me want to puke before I get in the door. As a consumer I would surely purchase more $100 bottles (my cost) if they were only $150 on the list. As a model, please look at PassionFish in Pacific Grove. They're about $20/bottle over retail. That place is packed every night. Manfred Krankl eats there when he's in town for crying out loud!

Consumers in my camp vote with our reservations. If a restaurant doesn't offer a competitively-priced wine list and wants to charge $20+ for corkage, I'm probably going elsewhere. In Los Angeles I have about 9999+ alternatives and I won't shed a tear when one of the less accomodative restaurants goes under.
John Fanaris
Venice, CA —  February 18, 2011 3:30pm ET
Any statement about a customer bringing in their own food to a restaurant as a response to this topic is missing the point completely. Restaurants do not make the wine they are serving.

Their star is the chef and how he prepares and presents the food. That food, combined with the ambiance and the service, complete the dining experience.

There is no requirement that a customer order wine when they patronize a restaurant. Is it really fair to penalize somebody because they want to enhance their dining experience by having a wine to match the food without having to refinance their home?

Quite often I do see a minimum food charge per person, which is reasonable. I do agree that it is incredibly rude to BYOW a wine that is inexpensive (ie less than the cost of two glasses of wine)

I am happy to pay a reasonable corkage because I do understand and agree that there are costs to maintain stemware, decanters and personnel for this service. I'm with Troy. If restaurants would have a reasonable markup policy, I would buy from the list more often. Right now I always bring in my own wine which is usually over $100/bottle my cost (which is often $250+ on the restaurants wine list). There have actually been a few instances where I was pleasantly surprised to see a reasonable markup. I kept my bottle on the table unopened and ordered off the list!

Restaurants should be able to set any rules they want, but then should not be surprised when we take our business elsewhere.
William Gechtman
Charlotte,NC/USA —  February 18, 2011 8:41pm ET
As someone w/a relatively deep cellar and exceedingly shallow culinary skills, I'm greatly appreciative of the ability to BYOB. Paying a corkage fee, yes, even $50, seems a small price to drink excellent wines w/the caliber of food they merit.
Wine Room
Calgary, Alberta —  February 19, 2011 7:05pm ET
I have nothing wrong with Grosso, or his corkage policy. It's more Wine Spectator for framing this interview as being applicable to most people. Grosso works for a beautiful restaurant that caters to people of a certain financial situation - nothing wrong with that. All the best to Grosso and Marea, and those who are able to enjoy restaurants like this on a regular basis. Wine Spectator might want to know that there are a lot of wine lovers that don't find $50 corkage policies relevant, or corkage policies that are aimed at old bottles of Bordeaux/Burgundy/etc... This interview should have been titled "Corkage Etiquette for Collectors of 1st Growths," or something to that effect. In my humble opinion, this interview isn't all that helpful for the masses.
Bill Leavitt
Overland Park, KS —  February 19, 2011 11:43pm ET
Who I feel for in this debate is the server. A corkage fee is fine but I feel the consumer should tip some amount on the bottle since I assume the restaurant is swallowing the corkage. More often than not, I choose restaurants that do offer a corkage.
Bill Leavitt
Overland Park, KS —  February 19, 2011 11:43pm ET
Who I feel for in this debate is the server. A corkage fee is fine but I feel the consumer should tip some amount on the bottle since I assume the restaurant is swallowing the corkage. More often than not, I choose restaurants that do offer a corkage.
Rick Penner
Langley, B.C. Canada —  February 20, 2011 1:02am ET
You Americans should feel fortunate that you have this great option.
In Vancouver, B.C. we are not allowed to byob into restaurants. I feel that for the majority of fine restaurants that we have here in Vancouver the wine prices are extremely high. First of all - U.S. wines are twice as expensive at our wine stores than the retail in the U.S. Second - the restaurants are then marking them up again over 100%. It's a dream when we Canadians can have this option when we holiday in your fine country and enjoy your great wines in a restaurant at a fraction of the cost.
Joel Viger
Cranbrook, B.C. Canada —  February 20, 2011 4:27pm ET
Hey Rick, you don't have to head south to have a satisfying wine experience while dining out...Try Montreal. I was amazed on a recent trip there when our host took us downtown for dinner but made a quick stop first to pick out some wine to bring along. What fun having a whole store to pick from and not having to pay 250 % to enjoy a nice bottle with a meal out. We enjoyed 3 different restaurants that allowed BYOB with no corkage fee. Now there was no sommelier or Riedel stemware, but every table was occupied by diners enjoying a bottle of wine they were happy with. It was a real treat.
Rick Penner
Langley, B.C. Canada —  February 20, 2011 6:00pm ET
Joel - We want to eventually get to Montreal - so thanks for the heads up. My wife doesn't love flying so thats why we do shorter trips to Napa and other places in Cali at least 4 times a year and enjoy the byob.
Hoyt Hill Jr
Nashville, TN —  February 21, 2011 11:47am ET
I frequently bring wine to restaurants and one thing I do that I think is a good idea is to add $10 to the gratuity for every bottle I bring in, so the server does not suffer. If there is a sommelier, I always give him or her a glass of the wine, and tip them separately
Stacy Hughes
Regina, SK —  February 21, 2011 5:47pm ET
God, it must be nice to have such fat wallets that you can spend and tip like drunken sailors. Wake up......the rest of the world does not have your bank account and hates to be taken when they do go out to eat.
Jeremy Matouk
Port of Spain, Trinidad —  February 21, 2011 9:31pm ET
Restaurants that have serious cellars and hold wine for years offer diners a choice that shops do not and they need to be compensated for that. Such restaurants however are few and far between. Nowadays the norm is for restaurants to purchase their wines on an as needed basis and they seldom keep stocks for more than a few months, if that. As a supplier to restaurants I can tell you that orders come in every week. So the wine merchants are really the stockists and the restaurants order as they need. Such an arrangement does not justify 3, 4 or 5 times mark-ups. They do not even justify a 2 times mark-up. It is time the pretenders get real and stop the charade. Hats off to those few restaurants that really invest in wines. One can go there and find treasures that are worth paying for. To all the others who moan about the cost of stemware and expect tips on corkage, we are getting increasingly tired of it and will take our business where being a wine lover does not mean having to pay through the nose.
Joseph Vacca
Virginia —  February 21, 2011 10:45pm ET
I agree with Jeremy. I should not contribute 3x the margin to a restaurant because I choose to drink wine with my meal. I can choose to only drink water, does that make me less of a valued customer?
Shaun Page
MI —  February 22, 2011 9:42am ET
Mr. Grosso's  response to corkage fees seems snobby and pretentious. I fully understand the commitment the restaurant goes through to ensure the proper storage and to make sure that the wine list pairs with the menus's concept. I drink wine with every meal and correspond it with the proper menu selection. I buy wine enough from multiple venders as well for an restaurant wine list. Often to many times I meet sommeliers that grossly mark up wine to the point the consistent wine drinker feel's he is being taken advantage by the wine list. The attitude of Mr. Grosso's is typical for a person that think he's bigger then the restaurant and guest. This is a little laughable because restaurants and even the small percentage of decorated restaurants are all about guest relations and customer service and not trying to detour them from having a wonderful experience. Sorry Mr. Grosso I will not be giving you the 50$ for corkage or the 500 dollars I would have spent if I brought my family. Congratulations you detour me from bringing a bottle and spending money in the resturant.
Cheers
David Rapoport
CA —  February 22, 2011 11:34am ET
Mr Gannon, above, wrote " How many people do you think Marea employs to bring you a basket of bread that they do not charge you for, to be served in a gleaming beautiful dining room that a few porters would have been in at 6am to make it sparkle and shine? "

Burying those costs in wine markups, shows a poor understanding and vision in managing margins
Robert Macpherson
North Vancouver, BC, Canada —  March 1, 2011 12:48am ET
In response to Rick Penner's comments, I often take wines from my own cellar to restaurants in Vancouver - corkage charges range from zero (in which case I happily offer a glass to the owner/sommelier as appropriate) to C$50. I have found numerous restaurants in North and West Vancouver, Burnaby, Richmond and downtown Vancouver that have a very obliging BYOB policy. Perhaps there are not many such restaurants in Langley and you should drive a few km's further. I also buy a lot of US wines through local retailers or directly from BC Liquor Board outlets which are selling cheaper than what they are going for in the US, sometimes up to 50% cheaper. Dominus, Shafer Hillside Select, Qilceda Creek to name a few. Also, Sassicaia on initial release was considerably cheaper than US retail pricing. This is because the BCLB contracts to buy wines in advance and then applies a fixed mark-up over their actual cost when retailing them often resulting in below market price offerings. Yes, it's great to trash a high tax jurisdiction like BC where the government controls the importation and distribution of wines but please try and get your facts straight before sensationalizing the issue.
Jay Dombrowski
Minneapolis, MN USA —  March 1, 2011 12:58am ET
Although Mr. Grosso does come off snobbish and a little out of touch with reality I think it is important to consider this. Most dinning experiences are not at establishment like Marea where it is somewhat justifiable for the mark-up's and the need for this discussion on etiquette on BYOB. Let's keep in mind that the vast majority of Restaurants tend to serve lower end wines that they can maximize on profitability or they serve 300% marked up off vintages of recent gems in the hopes that under-educated consumers will accept it. Regardless, I will continue to provide my own "Good" wine, pay the corkage, tip accordingly, and continue to offer unpretentious servers and sommeliers a glass of any gems I bring in.
My thoughts...
Heidi Fornalsky
Chicago —  March 1, 2011 1:21am ET
There seems to be a growing trend here in the Chicagoland area of retail wine shops opening cafes and restaurants opening wine shops within their establishments. The issue I have is that they charge you a $10-$20 corkage fee for a bottle of wine you just purchased at a register ten feet from your table.

I understand a modest fee if you plan on just buying the bottle and parking your butt at a table to swill it down. Yes, there is overhead cost of glassware, salaries and electricity to run the dishwasher. The issue lies when a party spends a good deal of money for the dinner alone and the place charges a corkage fee on top of what was just paid for the wine at the retail counter steps away from the table. It is not as if one is purchasing the bottle for the establishment's cost, it already has a markup on it.

I think it would benefit these establishments if they had two rules, corkage fee for wine alone, no corkage for those who purchase one entree per person. If a couple comes in, runs up a dinner tab for around $75, are these same places going to charge them a no alcohol fee if they drink water all night?

It is not a matter of money, I think it is a matter of respecting the customer. Don't treat someone who just purchased wine from your retail counter the same as someone who brings a bottle bought somewhere else.

And for those who are going to comment that one should buy the bottle at the table instead of the retail register - these establishments pretty much have a smaller wine list than what they offer retail. Other circumstances are that they are really a wine shop that offers a place to eat, so the only way you can order a bottle is to buy it in the retail area.
Jeffrey Sisson
Bellevue, Washington, USA —  March 1, 2011 1:46am ET
The idea that a restaurant marks up a bottle of wine 300+% is the same as my car dealer charging me $130 an hour for labor on my car, because they can! As a wine wholesaler I can definitely say that at some point enough is enough. It is so obvious to me that this restaurant along with so many others simply cannot keep their labor and food costs in check and look to "beverages" as their salvation. At some point, let's call it what it is, "a luxury tax", if you want wine with your meal, then be prepared to pay out the nose for it. On premise establishments like this (and most others quite candidly) use alcohol as a necessary "subsidy" to their inability to financially run a restaurant. Do yourself a favor and take a cooking class, you'll save yourself some cash and you just might learn something!
Austin Ganz
Connecticut —  March 1, 2011 12:27pm ET
More and more, I am finding restaurants that invite people to BYOW because they do not have a license ro sell wine. In the majority of these cases, the establishment charges a corkage fee ranging from $10 to $25. Other than the time to open the bottle and expense in washing the glasses, what is the justification for this fee? I also take offense to those restaurants that have average wine lists, charging 300% or more for current vintages. As noted by others, the cost of storing young wines should be at a minimum.
Rob Ruben
Simi Valley, CA —  March 1, 2011 1:14pm ET
I agree with an earlier comment that this article is really targeting a very high-end restaurant's opinion of etiquette. Most of the restaurants I go to have corkage between $15-30. My etiquette is simply to ensure the wine isn't on their list and to offer the sommelier a taste. Beyond that, it's up to the restaurant. In my experience, it seems the quality of the wine service is not necessarily related to the price of the corkage (or the markup of the wines). How many times have I brought a 15-20 year old bottle, that I've stood up for several days ahead of time, only to have the sommelier (or even waiter) lay it horizontal so he/she can read the label. Good grief, man, raise the bottle up to your face!

I also agree with Mr. Sisson relative to really learning to cook. We've encountered a growing number of mid-end restaurants ($25-$35 per plate) whose food is not as good as we make at home. We've found that we eat out less and save up for higher-end places where we not only get excellent service, but also get food that exceeds our at-home experience.
D R Hunter
Nanuet, NY, USA —  March 1, 2011 10:05pm ET
I have to say, after reading this article and the comments below, for the first time I feel pretty darned lucky to live so close to New Jersey. It's true, we cannot buy wine (or beer) at a grocery store, where you often get hefty discounts with a frequent shopper card (like you do with the Pacific Northwest, where I moved from about four years ago), but we have one sizable advantage. Licenses to sell alcoholic beverages are terribly expensive in NJ, so there are a lot of BYOB restaurants. They are prohibited by law from charging a corkage fee.

When you figure in the supremely high quality of the food in this region with the fact that you can bring your own superb wines in for no charge (I always add to the tip when I do) you have the very best of both worlds. Until reading this, I was feeling a bit sorry for myself that I moved from the Portland, Oregon area.
Janet Lohmann
Arcadia, CA —  March 8, 2011 12:36pm ET
I usually BYOB because of the huge markups. We are at our vacation home in Hawaii where we bring a case of our wines cellared in CA when we come here and I have a small wine cellar here to properly store them. Corkage fees in Hawaii are $30-$50 and the markups are 300-400%. We ate at a new restaurant last night where the wine list was small but had the lowest priced wines of Shafer, Phelps, Montelena on the list marked up at 400%. We ordered a bottle but I asked if they allowed BYOB and said we had a small cellar and could I bring a bottle the next time we dined there. They said yes and the corkage was $20-very reasonable. Etiquette does count.
Rick Wolfen
Los Angeles, CA —  March 24, 2011 1:52pm ET
There are some great comments posted here - for me it all comes down to doing the proper thing - I almost always bring wine from my cellar when we dine at a restaurant - I always bring bottles that are older and almost certainly not on the restaurant's list - if they were, I can only imagine what they would cost - ouch! Paying corkage is not an issue to me - it seems very fair and keeps the playing field level. Sometimes we will have dinner with friends and we have a theme for the wine that night - we each bring a bottle and taste them side by side - we engage the sommelier and have him or her taste with us - obviously we enjoy drinking wine, so this is all about having fun. I totally get that whatever price level you buy your wine, it never feels good to read a list and think you are being taken advantage of with the huge markups. I really hope that restaurants read the comments about using a fixed markup - I would order much more wine from lists - and in fact we do - when the markup is not so high as to be insulting, especially on wines that are more expensive to begin with. It makes sense to me that since restaurants buy wine at wholesale prices, they don't need to mark their wines (and especially the higher end wines) up much beyond retail to do very well both in terms of profit and increased volume of wine sales - seems like basic economics 101 to me - sell more wine at a reasonable markup and make more money - just my two cents worth.
Robert A. Jones
New Orleans —  November 8, 2012 12:01pm ET
We typically tip our server 20% of my cost per bottle, in cash, at the beginning of the meal with a comment like "when we bring our own wine, we like to do something extra". Typically, our wine service with this strategy is very food. Very often, the server will waive the corkage when receiving this extra gratuity. Additionally, we often buy some wine from the restaurant's list in addition to what we bring.

Always call ahead to determine the restaurant's policy.
Jack Gyben
Fullerton, CA —  April 16, 2013 4:40pm ET
My wife & I love to eat out, and do often, and we are fine with a reasonable corkage of $15-@25. We would not eat out near as much if we had to pay the restaurant prices for wine, so it benefits the restaurant to welcome customers like ourselves with reasonable corkage. We spend our money there more often!
We buy great wine regularly, and there is no better place to enjoy it than a restaurant with wonderful food, or at a party with great friends.
We no longer eat at one restaurant that refuses corkage. He has a good list with very reasonable prices, so he is offended by outside bottles. But he misses the point! We are deciding on which restaurant to enjoy our favorite wine in on a particular evening, so he has removed himself as an option. It's too bad.

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