Navigating Restaurant Corkage

Posted 6 months ago by E O

For avid wine collectors, few thrills surpass the pleasure of savoring a favorite bottle perfectly aged and skillfully paired with delectable restaurant cuisine. I treasure memories of legendary Napa Cabernets I’ve enjoyed at renowned steak houses and favorite Brunello di Montalcino paired with pasta at our local trattoria to name a few. Living in California offers a plethora of benefits for wine lovers including the most obvious (proximity to Napa and Sonoma!) and the less-well known-advantage of a state law requiring all restaurants to offer corkage. Several other culinary destinations offer corkage (notably, many top restaurants in NYC) to attract spendy wine collectors. Even in states such as Texas and Florida that do not have a strong corkage tradition, many restaurants will bend “official policy” if you call prior to petition for a special occasion exception or reserve a private dining room.

For avid collectors – – and even casual wine lovers – – The benefits of corkage are substantial and always surpass the perceived negatives. Here are the top 3:

Benefits:

· Drinking special wine from your cellar with perfectly paired cuisine! For truly food-obsessed wine lovers (or vice versa) I highly recommend perusing the restaurant website prior to your meal to look at the latest menu items. Then, select the bottle(s) from your cellar that will match your intended meal choices. This can be especially beneficial at local restaurants that have lackluster wine lists or none at all. For example, one of my favorite nearby Italian restaurants doesn’t offer anything from Tuscany or Piedmont so I carry a Barolo or Brunello from my cellar. Similarly, a preferred Thai restaurant only has sparse offerings and I’ve learned their curries are outstanding with a zesty Sauvignon Blanc or white from the Rhone Valley of France.

· Savoring perfectly aged wine. For collectors with a substantial cellar for aging this is a major benefit. Most restaurants focus on relatively new vintages for financial reasons. That’s fine with me when I’m in the mood for a new release Chardonnay or Pinot from California but can be problematic when looking for Cabernet, French or Italian favorites. White Burgundy and Barolos are two personal obsessions that often require 7 – 10 years of cellar time to peak so I especially enjoy opening cellar favorites of these at restaurants.

· Price Savings = Many collectors focus exclusively on this benefit but I rank it lower than the aforementioned. That said, the math works in the favor of collectors 99%** of the time as you’ll be paying far less for the same wine compared to a restaurant’s hefty mark-up. Typically, a bottle that costs $100 at a reputable retailer will set you back around $300 at a restaurant, meaning even if you are charged an exorbitant corkage of $50 you’ll still come out ahead. Plus, many restaurants waive the corkage fee if you buy one from their list and/or share a sip of a celebrated wine with the sommelier.

A few thoughts on potential negatives:

· Embarrassing? Some collectors feel like a cheapskate bringing their own wine to a restaurant. However, the truth is virtually every avid oenophile and vigneron I know frequently brings special bottles when dining on the town. Hence, restaurants will likely judge you to be an epicurean instead of parsimonious. One important bit if etiquette to note is most restaurants do frown upon asking them to uncork a bottle of widely distributed wine (e.g. Rombaur Chardonnay or Caymus Cabernet) that is already on their wine list.

· Diminished sales? Another concern may be disappointing your server since the overall bill will be lower compared to purchasing a pricey bottle. In this case, I often leave an additional tip of 10% – 20% more than usual, particularly if no corkage is charged.
· Hassle of carrying and coordinating? I agree this is true but I feel the satisfaction of drinking the ‘perfect’ wine with a delicious meal makes this feel negligible at the end of the night!

**The exception would be the rare restaurant that has invested in older vintage wines and chooses to feature them at below-normal prices to attract oenophiles.

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