Corkage Fees – What are they?

cork·age (kôrkj)
A charge exacted at a restaurant for every bottle of liquor served that was not bought on the premises.

corkscrewThat is how The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language defines it. It is also how I have always defined it. A corkage fee is used by establishments that allow patrons to bring in their own bottles. This is done for a very wide variety of reasons and the fees reflect this variety. Some restaurants do not serve alcohol but allow their diners to bring in a bottle to go with their meal. In my experience, these places generally have the lowest corkage fees and some have no fee at all.

At the other end of the price spectrum are the restaurants that have wine cellars, sometimes quite good ones, and do not really want to, but will allow a customer to bring in a bottle. These places will tack on a fee that makes it prohibitive for most people to bring an average bottle of their own wine. I am of the opinion that this is perfectly okay. If someone truly has a special bottle that they feel is necessary for a special occasion, then the high fee is probably worth it to them. However, the person who hit the local supermarket and grabbed a bottle of “something red” on their way in because they do not want to pay the establishment’s mark-up is discouraged from doing so.

The restaurants that allow their clientèle to bring in their own bottles of wine range all along that spectrum, but the general idea is that a corkage fee helps cover their costs to varying degrees. At the very least, the wait staff opens the bottle, the place provides the glasses, and someone has to clear them from the table and wash them. Not to mention that most stemware is expensive, and easily broken at any point from the time it leaves the bar to the time it is returned to storage. Other places want to recover some of the lost revenue incurred by offering diners the courtesy of bringing in their own wine instead of forcing them to buy it there. Those are all legitimate reasons for charging a corkage fee.

Lately, however, I have seen corkage charged for a lot less legitimate reasons and in places that have no business doing so. Some wines bars are starting to gouge their customers by charging a fee on bottles bought from their own shelves. In my opinion, that is just wrong.

The wine on the shelves of a wine bar is almost always marked up quite a bit anyway. There is no legitimate reason for tacking on even more just because the bottle is enjoyed at the place where it is purchased. Yes, some of the issues of service and stemware, etc. exist, but isn’t covering those costs why we pay extra for a bottle at a wine bar in the 1st place?

When I head to my favorite neighborhood wine bar I know that I will be paying $37 for a bottle I already have at home and paid $17 for. Why? Because I really like the wine, lobbied them to carry it, and I really enjoy the place and the people who will be pouring it for me. The price is marked up because the joint has to make a profit. But when I order that $17 bottle with the $37 price tag I expect to pay the listed price, plus tax, plus a tip of my choosing. I do not expect to have an extra $5 to $20 added to my bill for corkage. That is thievery. Luckily for me, they are not that larcenous.

Other wine bars that I sometimes visit are not so bashful about reaching into my pocket and retrieving cash that they have not earned. One local chain, whose multiple locations were once one of the best places in Houston to drink wine, has taken to serving very unexceptional (and cheap) wine with exceptionally high mark ups, and then tacking on a corkage fee just to drink it. Well, that is if you stand at the bar and tolerate being ignored for long enough. Needless to say, unless I have to meet someone there for some reason, I no longer spend my money there.

Hopefully this is a trend that dies a quick death and does not become one more item on the lists of annoyances that we tolerate on a daily basis like taking our shoes off in airports, asking for a tall coffee when we want a small, or the existence of Glenn Beck.

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