Restaurant wine lists, crafted by today’s wine-focused chefs and highly-educated sommeliers, can be the epitome of the overall experience at a restaurant. Many restaurants painstakingly pair food and wine offerings and invest significantly in well-stocked wine cellars.
However, when celebrating a special occasion or trying to impress a potential business client, a diner may prefer to bring his or her personal bottle(s) of wine to a restaurant. Once looked upon with disdain by restaurant owners, many now offer this accommodation – typically at a charge.
This “corkage fee” is not necessarily an arbitrary policy to discourage diners inclined to enjoy a personal bottle of wine. Rather there is an underlying business logic. Restaurants typically work on tight profit margins. The food portion of a meal yields a thin margin. It is common knowledge that overall profitability lies in the beverage menu. Few are willing to forego the profit in marking up wines to double or triple their cost.
Many restaurants have adopted corkage fee policies in recognition of exceptional dining occasions. In most instances, the fee is designed to cover the cost of the service required to present and serve a consumer’s personal bottle of wine. Some peg their fee to the cost of a lower-priced bottle on their wine list.
Here are several guidelines to follow if you have been saving a special bottle of wine to celebrate with a restaurant meal.
- Always call ahead to inquire of the restaurant’s corkage policy. Rather than simply show up with that special bottle, calling is always preferable in order to avoid a potentially uncomfortable situation.
- If you plan to order additional bottles from the wine list during the meal, let the restaurant know this when inquiring. This will partially compensate the restaurant for the loss of a sale; many will waive their corkage fee.
- Don’t embarrass yourself by showing up with a wine that’s already on the wine list. Check the online list ahead of your visit or call ahead to double-check.
- Don’t further embarrass yourself by showing up with a wine of less value than wines at the low end of the wine list. A restaurant is accommodating you on the premise that this is a special occasion or a special bottle. That $12 bottle you had with pizza last Friday is an insult to the wine director who has meticulously crafted a wine list that represents the chef’s carefully prepared and paired menu.
- Share your good fortune. Offer the sommelier and waiter a taste of that special wine. It will usually guarantee the same stellar service you would receive if you were ordering an expensive bottle from the list. These folks work on the generosity of customers’ tips. A shared taste of a memorable wine helps assuage their monetary loss.
- Speaking of tipping, remember that wine service is the same regardless of the source of the wine. I usually tip based on the average price of a wine that I would otherwise have ordered from the wine list if it were not a special occasion.
While most restaurants have a corkage fee policy, in New York City at least 50 restaurants have blanket or one-night corkage fee waivers. Certain restaurants charge no fee but limit the number of bottles allowed. Others charge minimal fees between $10 and $25.
Still others charge according to their stature. If you’re intent on bringing your own bottle to the highly acclaimed Eleven Madison Park, be prepared to pay $65. Per Se charges a whopping $150 per bottle for the privilege of not ordering wines from one of the most expensive wine lists in Manhattan (not to mention their $355 per person tasting menus).
Several Westchester restaurants have reasonable corkage fee policies, although they are rarely publicized or in print. Call ahead. On certain nights, corkage fee policies may be waived. Mediterraneo in Pleasantville waives its fee every Tuesday night.
In 2019, there is no reason to compromise on a wine to accompany your meal. Avail yourself of knowledgeable sommeliers’ wine lists – or simply BYOB.
Nick Antonaccio is a 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 20 years he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sharingwine.