Corkage Fees – What are they?

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cork·age (kôrkj)
n.
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.

  • http://www.winedivergirl.wordpress.com WineDiverGirl

    Bad service and bad business should have been weeded out by now in the current climate…alas, we come across it far more often than we find good, clean hospitality by people who enjoy their work. Makes me appreciate good service and good business all the more.

  • winelife365

    Joe,
    What is that $17 dollar wine?
    Thanks,
    Mark

  • savorytv

    It's a lame excuse for a markup. That said, I've always been to proud to bring my own wine into a restaurant, and love to try new wines, so I've never done it. If the prices per bottle or per glass were reasonable, I can't see why anyone would want to do so. A restaurant owner should start to question his pricing policy if he has a significant amount of people bringing their own wine in.

  • http://thepinkpeppercorn.blogspot.com thepinkpepperorn

    That IS totally wrong for wine bars to do that. Boo to them!

  • winebratsf

    It depends on the restaurant. I am fully accepting of a restaurant with a well crafted and extensive wine list charging corkage. After all, you are on their turf and they (hopefully) picked a list that is well matched to their dishes.

    I am however, of the mind that if you charge a corkage fee, either reduce or waive it for the 2nd bottle if we purchase one from the list. After all, if we are planning a special dinner and we have a special wine, I want to be able to bring it without adding $50 to the cost of the meal.

    I also think that restaurants that are trying to attract new business do well to have a “corkage free day”. This will bring you in to the restaurant, and may indeed keep you going back since you know you can bring something you want to drink, and in the case of us with larger cellars, we've already paid for the wine so it reduces the total bill for that first visit.

    There is one local restaurant here that I frequent, that has a decent wine list, but also has no corkage. The net effect is that I know I will go there over and over again, because I can bring my own wine and not have a negative reaction from the restaurant staff.

    A modest $5-10 corkage allows us to have the best of both worlds. It defrays some of the costs of doing business, and yet signals to the customer that they appreciate our business, and while they prefer us to purchase from their list, it's ok to bring a special wine in.

    Note to diners:
    It's WRONG and TACKY to bring a wine that is -
    a. already on thier wine list. Why not try something new?
    Most establishments have their wine list published on the internet, and if not, a phone call goes a long way.

    b. bring a cheap bottle to a fine dining restaurant. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen diners bringing in $15 bottles to a white tablecloth place. Tacky tacky tacky!

  • http://twitter.com/davemcevers Dave McEvers

    This is a really great piece on corkage.

  • winebratsf

    It depends on the restaurant. I am fully accepting of a restaurant with a well crafted and extensive wine list charging corkage. After all, you are on their turf and they (hopefully) picked a list that is well matched to their dishes.

    I am however, of the mind that if you charge a corkage fee, either reduce or waive it for the 2nd bottle if we purchase one from the list. After all, if we are planning a special dinner and we have a special wine, I want to be able to bring it without adding $50 to the cost of the meal.

    I also think that restaurants that are trying to attract new business do well to have a “corkage free day”. This will bring you in to the restaurant, and may indeed keep you going back since you know you can bring something you want to drink, and in the case of us with larger cellars, we've already paid for the wine so it reduces the total bill for that first visit.

    There is one local restaurant here that I frequent, that has a decent wine list, but also has no corkage. The net effect is that I know I will go there over and over again, because I can bring my own wine and not have a negative reaction from the restaurant staff.

    A modest $5-10 corkage allows us to have the best of both worlds. It defrays some of the costs of doing business, and yet signals to the customer that they appreciate our business, and while they prefer us to purchase from their list, it's ok to bring a special wine in.

    Note to diners:
    It's WRONG and TACKY to bring a wine that is -
    a. already on thier wine list. Why not try something new?
    Most establishments have their wine list published on the internet, and if not, a phone call goes a long way.

    b. bring a cheap bottle to a fine dining restaurant. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen diners bringing in $15 bottles to a white tablecloth place. Tacky tacky tacky!

  • http://twitter.com/davemcevers Dave McEvers

    This is a really great piece on corkage.

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  • Nursesamanthajo

    I agree! Recently was at a wine bar in Winter Park, FL that has joined the band wagon with this haughty practice.  Now my question…what is the tipping etiquette on such a service?  If I am paying a corking fee, I don’t feel that I should also include a tip, as it seems that the obsurd purpose of this fee to begin with is for a service that would normally be deservant of a tip?