On the Subject of Corkage

A couple of weeks ago, I was at Paradise Lounge in San Francisco for the very interesting Twestival SF global Tweetup.  While there and conversing with @JustElle, @Krystyl and @FogFish, we came upon the topic of corkage fee policies of the restaurants that we visit in the Bay Area.

Corkage fees have been controversial for as long as they have been around.  I admit, I have been distressed numerous times in the past at having to pay a corkage fee on wine that I already own.  It’s similar to the feeling I get when I have a fee to withdraw my own money from a bank!  Yet, with friends all over the food and wine industry, I also get a lot of great perspectives on the topic.

My bartender friend doesn’t necessarily see a problem with it…would you allow people to bring in food or wine to your own restaurant and use your facilities for free?  Well…no, right?

My waiter and waitress friends feel the same.  Not only are drinks a big ticket item that greatly impact their tips (which greatly affect their income, wayyy more than their actual wages), but the service that is provided to open the bottle and pour it, just like every other part of meal service, is something for which they’d like to be compensated.

My restaurant manager friends are also big proponents of their corkage policy, combining a mixture of the two opinions above, as well as their own knowledge of the cost associated with purchasing and storing wine and wine expertise in the form of their wine service staff.

After hearing all of these opinions and re-reading the outstanding feature by Amanda Gold in 2006 that was published in the San Francisco Chronicle on this very topic (and the origin of the great illustration above), I have come up with my own opinion and ideas about corkage fees.

Corkage fees are a necessary beast.  I do think that it is something that is abused by many places, however.  If you don’t employ a wine staff, you don’t store the wine in long-term, properly humidified and temperature-controlled appliances/environment then for what are you charging this fee?

On the other hand, yes, it can seem frustrating to have to pay to drink the wine that you’ve already paid for in the past, but…you didn’t have to bring that wine into an establishment that makes no profits from your decision.  If you don’t like it, then don’t go to that restaurant!  But that is the rub right there, isn’t it?  Does the restaurant *really* want you to avoid their establishment, particularly in this brutal food and wine fiscal environment?  Heck no!

I propose a new caveat to the corkage fee:

Charge an advertised set fee, and display that fee where it can be easily discernible on your menu and your website.  But right below that line, add a little message that says “Fee waived for server education.” What does that little line mean?  It means that if I bring a wine into a restaurant and offer an ounce or two  for the wait staff to taste, the corkage fee is waived.  Food AND wine knowledge of your servers are two of the single most powerful components to a good dining experience.  Free wine-tasting experience is thus, invaluable.  Think of all of the wines that your server could taste over the course of a given week, greatly expanding their palate and wine expertise.  All of that knowledge benefits the server and your restaurant. The patrons win by not paying for their meal’s wine more than once.

What do you think about corkage fees and this new twist on that topic?