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FRIDAY GETAWAY DAY
05/09/2014
An Irrational Corkage Fee—And A New Proposal

By Charles Olken

By now, most of the vinous world, especially that operating in California, is aware of the flap caused by the $150 corkage fee charged by The French Laundry in Yountville. Suggestions about what should or can be done about it range from public boycotting to simply going somewhere else.

I will take the latter course, with much sadness, because even though I may only get there once every five years or so, The French Laundry is one of the best restaurants at which I have ever eaten. And I do understand that the restaurants in France on that list of great meals ever do not even allow a personal bottle to be brought in. Yet, when Mrs. Olken and I go to France, we do eat a meal at one of the fabulous restaurants there. And we cherrypick the lists for value for the money.

Still, this is California where we allow corkage, it seems to me that there ought to be a rational way to determine what that corkage fee should be.

One the one hand, I suppose a corkage fee could be set on some reasonable cost basis. I use the restaurant’s stemware. I expect the restaurant to open the wine, to decant it (because I usually bring older wines from my cellar) and to serve it. That takes time and has costs associated with it. I pretty much consider $20-25 to be about right, but fancier restaurants with expensive stemware, expensive decanters and expensive sommeliers certainly could and often do charge more.

I have generally drawn the line at $50 in the fanciest of places, but I will admit that my seeming limit had no rationale behind it. Just a hunch, a guess, a feeling. And, of course, the wines that I bring would always be far more pricey on their lists if they even had them. A few years ago, I brought a Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cab to Michael Mina in San Francisco. The restaurant had the wine on its list at $2450. I had earlier paid $25 for it and a little electricity. The French Laundry charges an astronomical $5000 for the same bottle.

Restaurants argue that big profits on wine sales are part of their profit structure. OK, I get it. They have to buy these fancy bottles, store them, inventory them, handle them with care, break one occasionally (we all do, sadly—although I won’t bore you with the details of wines I have lost over the years—just believe me, please, that broken bottles are part of the cost of having a collection), set aside costly space in the restaurant to store them. So, I have no real argument with somewhat inflated wine prices in restaurants, especially when we are spending upwards of $100 per person to dine.

Still, that all begs the question. What is a reasonable, defensible method for setting corkage fees in restaurants of all levels.

Let’s dispense with the “it’s a good loss leader to allow inexpensive corkage because it brings in customers”. Bad argument, even if some restaurants believe it. If all restaurants charge corkage, then setting yours at $15 when the competitors are at $25 is hardly going to change my dining preferences.

Besides, that it a marketing argument, not a financial argument.

So, my new rule on corkage is this. Figure out what the restaurant makes on the sale of its least pricey wines and deduct a few dollars since the equation goes beyond the difference between cost to them to buy the bottle and their selling price. They do have local costs unique to buying and storing the wines on the list.

Once you know roughly what that base level is, then you know what the corkage fee should be. At my local Chinese, for example, the least expensive bottle nets them about $15, and while I am not about to bring a bottle of wine to accompany my Kung Pao Shrimp, I would judge that a $15 corkage fee would be about right there.

So, what about The French Laundry? I have perused its extensive list (it’s on-line) and found a fair number of bottles under $100. At $100, and assuming that the restaurant pays about one-third of that for those bottles (prices are easily ascertained for those current releases), it is clear that the restaurant is content with about a $60-70 dollar profit on a bottle of wine. Sure, it would like more, but I would happily order one of those well-chosen, $95 bottles to accompany dinner, and I surely am not going to be a $5000 bottle or even a $1000 bottle. Not when I have those same wines in my own cellar, and not in any event even in Paris.

My new rule. My new rational, measurable rule. Corkage fees should be consistent with what a restaurant is willing to make on a bottle of wine of its list. Do not charge me more than that, and do not begin to think that I can respect you when you charge twice or more for my own wine than for wine that you have on your list. At that point, you no longer respect me or the fact that I am bringing an aged, beautiful wine to your restaurant out of respect for you and the quality of your food and that I am more than willing to pay a reasonable and rational corkage fee for that privilege.

The French Laundry won’t miss me as much as I am going to miss them—or even the thought of them, but missing is what I will be at any restaurant that thinks I am going to pay twice or more for my own wine than I would pay for its.


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Comments

High corkage= No Forkage
by Doug Wilder
Posted on:5/9/2014 10:48:19 AM

Charlie, That is a reasonable rule to lead your dining decisions but I wouldn't expect restaurants to change their published policies 'tableside' regarding corkage. My favorite restaurant in Napa Valley charges no corkage and gets at least 80% of my dining $ there. I have only dined at French Laundry twice, both as a guest and my responsibility was to order off the list. A restaurant like the FL attracts gourmands as well as 'status chasers' who may know little about wine. I have heard stories of people bringing the $7.00 bottle from their B&B welcome baskets to drink with a $400 meal. The restaurant has an impeccable list already to go along with the caliber of the food and experience. That fee is more than anything else a disincentive to arrive carrying a bunch of wine.

No Corkage, in Italy
by Terry Rooney
Posted on:5/16/2014 2:30:15 AM

Charlie, I have dined at French Laundry four times (3 were great, one was soiled by very bad service), but never brought any wines. In France we have been to many great restaurants and never brought wine.

However, in Tuscany it all worked out. Eight wine-drinking friends finished a wonderful week with a dinner at 2-star La Tenda Rossa in Cerbaia. It was my birthday so we wanted it to be special.

While shopping that week we had found two highly rated Brunellos (Altesino's Montosoli Vineyard), rated 97 and 96 by the Spectator. Should be bring them?? Well, what did we have to lose.

The restaurant was totally wonderful about it and graciously opened and decanted them. Of course we bought several other wines also. At the end of the evening we had 69 wine glasses for the eight of us on the very large table. Fabulous evening and NO CORKAGE.

Truly memorable meal, aided by a very understanding restaurant.

Terry Rooney

 

 

 

 

No Corkage, In France
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:5/16/2014 8:38:40 AM

Hi Terry--

Had a similar experience in Provence. Our group of six ventrued over to CdP for a visit and then into an interesting wine merchant set in a cave on the hill under the "Chateau". Tasted some unique wines (we were being taken around by the owner of Mont Redon) and the young store manager turned out to be a "garagiste" maker in CdP, which is a pretty much unheard of thing there. 

He took a break and led us to his cellar, a historic building with Roman tiles on the floor (now sealed under glass) and we tasted with him. He sent us home with an older bottle, which we took with us to dinner and explained how we got the wine and what it was. The restaurant owner not only let us open it without charge, but sat with us for a bit and tasted it with us.

Bottom line: there are rules and then there are people. 

We have brought wine to TLF, and paid what was then a $50 fee for each of two bottles of 78 Puy Lacoste or something like that. Today, on the TLF list are forty year old bottles in my cellar that they sell for $800 to $5000 dollars. They also have new wines for under $100. I dont begrudge them making a profit on wine service, but it should not be more that what they would make if I bought a carefully chosen less expensive bottle off their list--in my opinion, of course.

A Very Modest Proposal
by Gerald Weisl
Posted on:5/17/2014 3:57:48 PM

The $150 corkage fee at The French Laundry has gotten them more publicity than they receive for their highly-regarded cuisine.  But when a place has such a ridiculous notion as to the value of the wine service, it's sending a message to me saying "Keep Out!  We don't Want Your Business!" 

And I get the message.  Loud & clear. 

Of course, the increase in their corkage fee is in response to the legions of patrons who arrive with a bottle, therefore "depriving" the restaurant of a measure of revenue. 

I'd like to suggest, then, that some of the people who are planning to dine at The French Laundry in the future and pay the $150 consider decanting their wine ahead of time...into an empty Charles Shaw bottle! 

Can you just see the excitement register on the face of the wine server who's being asked to decant and/or pour and display such a bottle on the table? 

"Let's send a glass back to the kitchen!" 

Oh, I'm sure that will be well-received...

Should someone take me up on this modest proposal, do have another table reserved for some additional partners-in-crime, so that a smart-phone video of the proceeedings might be surreptitiously recorded!

 

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