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Corkage Culture Across the US: Is Bringing Wine to a Restaurant a Right?

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Welcome to Vintage America, a column in which Eater Wine Editor Talia Baiocchi takes a hyperfresh look at all things wine-related.

corkage-fees.jpg[Photo: Sam Howzit/Flickr]

There's a bit of a culture war raging on about corkage, the option to bring an outside bottle of wine into a restaurant. It's a topic that frequently comes up on wine discussion boards and has been covered by almost every major magazine, newspaper, and wine website. While some consumers believe that it's part of the "Diner's Bill of Rights," dozens of sommeliers and restaurateurs would counter that by asking: "Would you bring your own meat to a restaurant and ask the chef to cook it?" At the root of the conflict is a war of agendas, but it's also about conflicting corkage cultures, which can be shaped by everything from state-wide laws to the prevalence of BYOB restaurants.

Many of the arguments online and in comments sections seemed to be fueled by differences that have been shaped by the corkage culture that each city has created. To better understand how corkage plays into the beverage landscape throughout the country, Eater tapped nearly a dozen sommeliers, critics, and bloggers to help characterize some of the biggest (and smallest) markets for corkage and how it impacts restaurants in those cities.


Los Angeles, California

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Sotto, LA [Photo: Flickr/Muy Yum]

To many Californians the idea of banning corkage is an assault on their inalienable rights. Very few places ban corkage completely and on average the fees for corkage are far lower than in other major cities.

On LA diners believing they have a right to corkage: "People [in LA] love to come out with their cabernets. But the goal of a wine pairing is to highlight the food being served. Working with the chef to determine flavor combinations that are extraordinary and unique to your businesses is one of the best parts of being a wine steward. By bringing in your own wine, you immediately limit the caliber of your wine experience with the food. If corkage in LA didn't so commonly involve opening overly opulent red wines (i.e. wines that dominate any food they encounter), I'd feel more inclined to sympathize with patrons bringing in their own wine." Maxwell Leer, Beverage Consultant, Assembly Restaurants

On how assembling a wine list changes one's perspective on corkage and wine racism: " Until I authored my own wine list, I didn't realize how heartbreaking it is for a restaurateur to see people showing up with wines they want to open. The other night, an older lady produced a bottle of Valdicava and said to me, 'I'm sure that you know this wine.' I didn't have the heart to tell her that her wine is a modern-style piece of shit and that it represents the antithesis of everything my wine list stands for. Of course, I opened it with a not so genuine but nonetheless passable smile. And beyond the thrift-seeking lovers of supermarket-purchased KJ, I see a lot of people take a racist attitude toward our all-southern-Italian list. More than once, guests have told me that they simply 'Don't drink southern Italian wine.' Those are the nights that I feel like my job is just a scene from The Help." Jeremy Parzen, Author of Do Bianchi & sommelier at Sotto


New York City

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Jean Georges Restaurant [Photo: © 2012 Francesco Tonelli]

New York is a bit of a contradictory mess when it comes corkage. Very few places ban corkage, but average fees in the city are the highest in the country. Most four-star restaurants in other parts of the country, like Chicago, top out at around $50, while in New York you'll find several high-end establishments with corkage fees that flirts with $100. While many accept high corkage at fine dining, more casual restaurants that do not have the glassware or service to warrant high corkage prices, but still charge them, have caused a consistent stir.

On corkage fees at high-end restaurants: "Corkage fees at ambitious restaurants ensure guests don't bring their own wines to save money, which is the wrong thing to do. High-end dining (and high-end drinking) should be a curated experience; if you want a collaborative experience, then go to a pot luck at The Knights of Columbus. And that's why you'll never see me bringing a bottle of bubbly into Torrisi Italian Specialties, even though the corkage fee is inexpensive. Yeah, I've griped about Torrisi's lack of French wines. And I know hospitality industry types who've shown up to Torrisi with bottles of Champagne and Vin Jaune. But you know what, Torrisi made a very public decision to only use American products and to only pour American wines. And even though I'm not crazy about the American wines they do serve, I respect their point of view. The way I see it, if I opened a bottle of Dom Ruinart at Torrisi, that would be like bringing pork tenderloin to a Kosher restaurant, which is to say it's not just missing the point, it's also somewhat rude. If you really want that bacon, you shouldn't be frying it up tableside at Seder." Ryan Sutton, Restaurant Critic, Bloomberg

On how corkage can impact a restaurant's profitability: "At Jean Georges we allow people bring their own for a $85 fee, but can't be on the list. It's a tough situation because you want to make the guest happy, restaurants are about hospitality but it's also a business. Restaurants aren't crazy about corkage based on the simple mathematics of running a restaurant. If you have guests coming to your restaurant and they only want to pay for food, that restaurant isn't a very good business. Some people feel like it's their right to come to a restaurant and only pay for food, but it's important to understand that it's a business. Yes, restaurants charge more than retail for wine, but retail doesn't come to your house and serve the wine they don't check the wine to make sure it's sound." Bernie Sun, Beverage Director, Jean Georges Restaurants


Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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Vetri Restaurant [Photo: Vetri]

Philadelphia has a large BYOB market, mostly because of Pennsylvania's strict liquor laws, which make it not only difficult to obtain a liquor license, but also very expensive. The state's "blue laws" dictate that all liquor license holders are charged 50-70% more per bottle than in neighboring states like New Jersey. It has created a toxic witches brew for restaurateurs looking to invest in a serious beverage program.

On corkage culture in PA: "Philadelphia is a unique in that it's likely the largest BYOB market in the country so it's certainly an established corkage culture. The prevalence of BYOB restaurants here stems from PA's strict liquor laws: liquor licenses are hard to come by, expensive, and come with the added burden of stomaching arcane 'blue laws' and high markups. As a result, many restaurant owners choose to eliminate that element of their service altogether. It can be a great way for a talented chef to open a restaurant with less overhead and be able to really focus on food ? but it's also created a bit of a monster. There's a whole culture of diners emerging who've lost any connection to a wine program in the restaurant setting, because they only eat at places where they can bring their own. Worse, I get the impression from many diners that they prefer BYOBs because they feel restaurant wine lists can't be trusted, as though there's this continuous effort to pull one over on the guest with egregious markups. PA adds an extra level of consternation to most things wine-related, but especially in this case where wholesale is almost always more expensive than retail, so I can see where that notion stems from. A local restaurant with a great Italian wine list just got slammed by an influential reviewer for markup that seemed like a gouge on a wine that was available retail for $61.99, when in reality they paid $74.59 wholesale for it."

On corkage fees and what's fair: "A lot of money is invested in restaurant wine programs to ensure that they are relevant as well as profitable. A lot of time and labor goes into ensuring that a staff is educated on the wines that they're serving and that they're able to explain them and treat them correctly. A good restaurant will prevent you from drinking a corked wine throughout dinner or even save you from drinking one you just don't like even if you're ordered it. A lot of physical energy goes into keeping a wine cellar stocked and at a regulated temperature. A lot of energy and money goes into glassware. These are all costs absorbed by restaurants in order to sell wine. I think it's fair for any restaurant to make money on an outside bottle because it's a lost sale. What that amount is could be very different from casual to four star, but a restaurant absolutely has the right to charge the amount of profit they make on an average bottle, if not more. I can see this being over $100 for a very expensive restaurant." Steve Wildy the Beverage Director of the Vetri Family of Restaurant


Chicago

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Henri Restaurant [Photo: Anthony Tahlier]

Chicago, in some ways, is like a less puritan version of Philadelphia. BYOB culture has done a lot to shape corkage culture in Chicago (most notably, it's kept corkage fees very low), just with less Prohibition residue.

On corkage culture in Chicago vs. New York: "I notice A LOT more people bringing wine in to restaurants in Chicago. People also don't expect a corkage fee in general, or if they do, they expect it to be nominal. The corkage at Nellcote is $45 and it pisses a lot of people off even though we have 50 or so wines under $40 that are delicious. I also see people bringing in crappy wine here for corkage. In NYC, usually those bringing their own wines were collectors with a special bottle (and I'd usually waive the fee as they would purchase something from the list as well). Here in Chicago I've had people bring in grocery store wines, which is why I raised my corkage fee." Jason Wagner, Wine Director, Nellcote and RM Champagne Bar

On what's fair for corkage in Chicago: "I think $10-$25 is a fair corkage fee, $25 is you provide nice stemware and proper service accoutrements. You should not bring your own bottles into 3 and 4 star restaurants, especially if they have a nice wine program. As a wine lover, you should encourage interesting wine lists by supporting them and that means paying. I was watching that trashy Real Housewives of New York show few nights ago, in a fit of insomnia, and they were at La Cirque with a bottle of decent (but not great) mid 1980s vintage Chateau Margaux. It was very insulting to watch the husband try and tell the server at La Cirque how to handle and open the bottle." Shebnem Ince, Beverage Director, Henri and The Gage


Texas

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Pappas Bros Steakhouse, Dallas [Photo: Pappas Restaurants]

Texas is an outlier in that it prohibits corkage at restaurants that hold a liquor license. But some restaurants are foregoing a liquor license because they see enough of potential pay-off in allowing diners to bring their own wine.

On Texas stiff-arming corkage and the pros and cons of allowing it: "In Texas clearly it is not their right so sayeth the government. However, I personally have mixed feelings about corkage. I think it can bring in guests to your restaurant that are excited about wine and fun to talk to and you can develop life-long relationships with these people just based on their love of wine. On the other hand, I think that the restaurant owners and staff have gone to great lengths and often great expense to provide an incredible service. The cost of purchasing and storing wines, not to mention glassware, the labor to wash and polish it and probably a sommelier (or five), is high. I do think that communicating and establishing a relationship with the sommelier of the restaurant can make this "corkage" experience completely different. Ours is a relationship business and taking time to establish this relationship will pay long dividends for any wine lover." Drew Hendricks, Beverage Director, Pappas Brothers Restaurant Group

On Texas corkage culture and opting out of a liquor license: "As the culture of the eno-blogosphere is leveling the playing field, diners in states like Texas — where corkage is generally outlawed — are seeing that they're disadvantaged by their home state's fascist approach to corkage, the result of the big distributors' gerrymandering and virtual control over the state legislature. The good news is that more and more restaurants, especially in the big cities like Houston, are not applying for liquor licenses because they know that if they allow corkage, they will attract a wider field of the dining population." Jeremy Parzen, Author of Do Bianchi & sommelier at Sotto


Talia Baiocchi is Eater's Wine Editor. Find her on Twitter at @TaliaBaiocchi and over at Eater NY where she covers the treacherous world of New York wine lists via her Decanted column.

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