The Question of Wine Corkage Fees in a World Askew
I want to recommend W. Blake Gray’s article at WineSearcher.com entitled, “Does the French Laundry Have the World’s Highest Corkage Fee.
In it Blake explores the $150 Corkage Fee charged at The French Laundry, as well as at Per Se. It’s a good article that shines some light on the wide variation in corkage fees across restaurants and asks us to consider both the purpose and the value behind corkage fee.
I’m quoted in the article calling the corkage fee “gauging” and I suggest such a fee gives wine service at fine wine restaurants a bad name. I’ve dined at the French Laundry twice, though not in the past decade. Both time were pretty marvelous experiences. However, I think the best thing that can be said about a $150 corkage fee at the French Laundry is that it’s remarkable they feel it’s a fair price.
My primary concern surrounding the issue of corkage fees has been that there are some state that simply don’t allow it. It’s illegal. These states are dwindling, but they still exist. A restaurant should have the right to allow diners to bring in their own wines and they should have the right to charge whatever they please…even $150 per bottle. What’s interesting is that when in these anti-corkage fee states the issue comes up for debate due to a bill being offered to legalize it, opposition almost always come from restaurants who don’t want to offer the service but feel like if it is legalized they will be forced to in order to compete with other restaurants that would allow diners to bring wine into the restaurant.
As I thought about the idea of a $150 fee for the privilege of bringing a bottle of wine into a restaurant, I tried to imagine how it would be justified. What service would be rendered that justified the fee. Clearly it would not boil down to a sommelier helping determine what wine to pair with what dish. That decision is already made. The wine is identified and in hand. Perhaps the glasses are so absurdly good that it would enhance the dining and sipping experience to a new height. Perhaps the sommelier can pour wine like nobodies business. Or perhaps the value is found in the privilege of drinking my own wine in a pinnacle restaurant. I don’t know how to put a value on all these different things. But I do know the value is not equal to $150 in my world.
But everything is relative. There is a market for everything. So, maybe it’s my world that is askew.
Your opinion…not askew at all…(in my humble opinion) 😉
I’m no fan of restaurants that charge too much for the wine on their wine lists; when i find myself in that situation, I drink beer or water–and I might not return. On the other hand, I’ve never understood why a restaurant should be dissed for not allowing diners to bring their own wine or for charging whatever they want for the privilege.
Should customers be allowed to bring their own food to a restaurant because they don’t like what’s on the menu?
Maybe customers at theatrical events should bring their own performers.
Thomas, I don’t have a problem with restaurants that choose not to allow wine to be brought in. It ought to be there choice. I have a problem when they are not given a choice.
My initial reaction is that the fee is so punitive so as to discourage anybody from ever bringing their own bottle. Maybe that is the restaurants point, allow you to bring your own bottle, however make the fee so excessively high that you just won’t ever attempt to do it. I would hope that their wine list is reasonably priced and they have some great selections.
Read the Wine Searcher article by Blake Gray….He discusses this very question you bring up.
On more than one occasion I’ve postulated that TKG could do the local dining scene a world of good by offering a program to train servers – the service at Laundry is impeccable. But $150 for corkage is not about the quality of service or the expense of the glassware.
It’s all about the quality of Laundry’s wine list. A $150 corkage says “you are better off ordering off our list, but if you must bring in your own bottle it better be a damn expensive bottle.” Consider that the average $15 corkage is usually for bottles in the $50-$100 retail range – Laundry is expecting to have to open bottles from $500-$1000 and up.
Some of these bottles might be old, with delicate corks. Think for a moment about the likely personality and temperament of a person who insists on bringing a $1000+ bottle of wine to Laundry, and how they might react of the cork crumbles in the server’s hands, or anything else goes awry.
It would not surprise me at all to see corkage at Laundry go to $200-$250.
I agree. The $150 is meant to be a deterrent.
You bring up a good point, re, the type of person who would bring wine to a restaurant, which is why I’ve never given the concept any breathing space.
Instead of asking the restaurant to give up a profit center, if you don’t like the wine list eat somewhere else. Better still, if you believe that only you can come up with the proper wine for the menu, duplicate the menu at home and drink your wine selection to your heart’s content.
Yes, Tom, I don’t like the state telling the restaurant what to do, but that isn’t the gist of Gray’s article; it’s your side issue.
As a former (and future) restaurant owner, one of the Number One problems we face are folks that feel our restaurant is a community center of sorts. That good old annoying sense of entitlement.
Tom was a good customer of ours in Glen Ellen and I’m certain Tom has no idea how many folks simply didn’t understand that every chair had a price on it, that our payroll, our rent, our food and bev costs, our taxes, etc… were huge.
It was shocking when people would argue that it should be okay that they brought in some Chinese food they bought in Sonoma (because we didn’t offer Chinese food at our Bistro) and not be charged to use a plate and sit in a chair.
This is corkage. As Tom may recall I had a 14 page wine list with an intentionally modest mark up (the lion’s share of our customers were locals; that was on purpose too). We had a small corkage (waved with purchase of bottle) – $12 I think – to help cover the rent of the chair and the glass and the server.
We closed our restaurant in Glen Ellen 10 years ago. We eat out about 100 times per year and always have wine with dinner. We only bring our own bottle when the wine list is so atrocious (and so many, shockingly, even in the wine country are) that we are either unwilling to pay 4x retail for a wine we see at Safeway, or there are no good wines on the list. (If my husband makes it; we aren’t going to order it. He works for a big-box that owns over 20 labels and these wines are well represented at ghastly inflated prices throughout the country – Napa Valley & S.F. too – and this morning he was having trouble with the machine that shoots one of 200 additives into their wines.)
Everyone complains when they lose their favorite restaurant, their home-town place (oh the sorrow when we closed our place in Glen Ellen), but the 20% who feel entitled to that free or very cheap chair that is actually very very expensive to the restaurant owner, are part of the problem. Support your local bistro; buy wine from them, communicate with them if you’d like to see better, more varied, less expensive, selections.
As to The Laundry, part of that is indeed setting a deterrent (I am preparing to open a new restaurant and corkage is among our hottest hot topics in setting up our wine program), but as someone else stated; it is also a nod to their amazing wine list. I can’t afford to eat at the Laundry anymore (been over a decade for me too), but if I could, I wouldn’t dream of bringing in a bottle because I’d like the chance to try one of those beauties on their list I’d otherwise not be able to try. I appreciate the work that goes in to creating that list and storing those wines properly (stable refrigeration, darkness, annual tax-paid on aging bottles, power bills, etc… are all added factors in maintaining a wine cellar such as the Laundry has).
Folks who gripe over thoughtful, hard-worked wine lists and well-done storage and excellent wine service have never owned a restaurant or sommed in one.
Thanks Tom for waking me up this morning! 🙂
I hate to do this, but I’m going to weigh in here, despite my better judgment. Corkage fee arguments are the same as 100 Point Scale arguments, tired and silly.
Gray’s throwaway article is about as thoughtful as a fortune cookie fortune. Yes, French Laundry has an exorbitant corkage fee, but the reason you, and I, and everyone else who writes a wine blog hasn’t been there in decades isn’t the corkage fee, it’s the price of the meal. French Laundry is a restaurant for the 1%, and needs to act that way. $150 corkage fee is about image, not service, or quality of stemware. But it’s about other things as well.
It also has a different problem than expensive restaurants in major cities. In LA, or NY, most of the clients at high end restaurants are coming from work–a lot of corporate business, executives eating dinner. Or it’s folks traveling, for work of vacation. They don’t have access to their wine cellars. They rely on the wine list for great wines. They just don’t see that many bottles brought into the restaurant, except for special occasions. In the heart of Napa Valley, everyone has wine. They own a winery, they work at one, they just bought a bunch from the tasting rooms–if French Laundry had a $50 corkage fee, they’d be swamped with bottles brought by customers, and lose a significant amount of money. They have shareholders who wouldn’t like this (and who probably don’t pay corkage fees). $150 seems crazy, but for a small, always sold out, famous, expensive, exclusive restaurant in Napa Valley, it’s damn near necessary. Peon wine writers can rattle their cage, but, truly, they’re far too busy, and we’re not at all their customer base.