Corkage 101

Wine Cellar PhotoOne fun activity while wine tasting is to try and find a bottle to have with dinner that night, even if you’re heading towards a restaurant.  If you haven’t heard of this before, we’re going to spend a little time discussing Corkage Fees.  If you already know about these fees then you may just want to move on to somewhere else on our website, like our Favorites By Wine Region.   If you’re not familiar, however, keep reading and we’ll tell you what a Corkage Fee is, why the fee is charged, and how you can possibly avoid it.

Basically, a “Corkage Fee” is how much a restaurant will charge you for wine service if you bring your own bottle into the restaurant, instead of buying something off of their wine list. 

Some states don’t allow this, but many others do (such as Oregon and California).  If a restaurant provides wine service (wine glasses, opening the bottle, pouring the wine, etc.), they will usually charge you for that.  The bill at the end of the meal will contain a Corkage Fee, a fixed charge predetermined by the restaurant based on factors such as equipment cost (wine glass and/or decanter), labor cost (dishwasher and waitperson), risk of breakage, profit component, and maybe-you-should-just-order-from-the-wine-list deterrent.

If a restaurant charges “Corkage,” it’s usually a flat rate per bottle, regardless of how many people at the table are actually drinking, or how many times the server drops by to pour wine into the glass(es).  This fee may be printed on the menu or wine list, or you can ask the host/ess or a member of the waitstaff about the restaurant’s policy and rate.

Restaurants would obviously prefer that you purchase wine from them.  After all, it’s a business trying to make money, restaurants operate on a thin profit margin, and their revenue model is based on customers purchasing the offered food and beverages, including wine.

But, there are times where you just want to take your own bottle into a restaurant.  Maybe it’s an older bottle you’ve been aging in your cellar that is now fully developed, maybe the bottle has sentimental value and you want to share it with family and/or friends for a special occasion, or maybe you made the wine yourself.  Or, sometimes the wine list at a restaurant doesn’t quite appeal to you.   If one of these situations apply, it’s nice to know that restaurant owners are usually prepared for this.

Wine GlassesWhat’s a typical Corkage fee?  Depends on the restaurant.  You will usually find a charge between $10 and $20 per bottle, although some higher-end restaurants are significantly higher.  For example, French Laundry currently charges $75 per 750 ml bottle, and limits the number of bottles to one bottle per two guests.

So, is the corkage fee worth it?  That’s a decision you’ll have to make for yourself.  But, here are some things to think about and/or be prepared for:

  1. If you want to take a bottle of wine to a restaurant, please check in advance on what their policy is – do they allow it, how much is their corkage fee, and are there any special rules that apply.  If it’s not on their website, then just call the restaurant in advance.
  2. Occasionally, you may come across a restaurant which doesn’t charge corkage fees.  These establishments have already factored in the frequency of customers bringing in their own wine as an expected cost of business.
  3. Please don’t take a bottle into a restaurant if they sell that exact wine and vintage.  That’s bad manners.
  4. Sometimes, restaurants that have corkage fees will waive the fee for one bottle if you buy another bottle off of their wine list.  So, a $30 bottle of wine could provide your group not only a bottle of wine to start your evening but also free wine service on that 15-year-old Cabernet Sauvignon you’ve been cellaring that’s now worth $200.
  5. Reconsider that Buy One Get One option, even if you don’t plan to finish the first bottle.  For example, if corkage at the restaurant is $20, and there’s a bottle of white wine that sounds good for $25, then one way to look at it is “I’d have to pay $20 Corkage Fee anyway for the wine I brought with me, but for $5 more I’m going to get some wine to enjoy tonight, and then have the rest of the bottle to take home for dinner tomorrow night.”  This is legal in California, but not all states will allow you to take home unfinished bottles of wine.  If you do this, be sure to put the resealed bottle somewhere safe in the trunk.  You don’t want the wine to spill, and you don’t want a police officer asking why you have an open container in the car.
  6. When checking a restaurant’s corkage policy, check the details.   Sometimes corkage fees don’t exist on a particular night of the week (usually to encourage local residents to come in and dine).   Or, some restaurants in wine country will waive corkage fees if you bring in a wine from a local winery (to help promote the community’s success). 
  7. Some restaurants charge a corkage fee but donate the proceeds to a local charity.  If they do that, just pay the fee.  Then, order dessert to reward yourself for being such a good person.

So, that’s what a “Corkage Fee” is.  It’s very common in many wine regions and in several states.  Just make sure to research it in advance, and check the fine print.

Hope that helped.  If you’ve heard of other interesting twists on corkage policies, please let us know.

 


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