Restaurants are faced with a new reality that consumers clearly are on to corkage - beyond the BYOB backyard BBQ! Corkage is a critical component of a restaurant's beverage program, its ROI and hospitality.

From CorkageOnline Founder, Judi Laing

Welcome to the Good, the Bad and the Ugly Corkage panel! - Judi Laing, founder of CorkageOnline.com, a national directory where you can find corkage policies for wine, beer - and spirits. 

So, we’re here to discuss all the merits and demerits of corkage. If Freud were here, he might ask, “What do Customers want?” as they vie for first position in the hospitality universe. After all, without customers…well, you can finish that thought! But there is a bottom-line reality to running a restaurant successfully and Freud might then ask, “What do restaurants want?” There needn’t be an us vs. them mentality so for one last famous quote, “Why can’t we all just get along!”
From the Panel

Mandy Woodward: Somm at Faith & Flower, freelance consultant and wine educator; Hunter Hall: President LA Board of Directors California Restaurant Association and Principal at Archetype Hospitality & Development;

Lou Amdur: Wine Guru with an astonishing palate and Proprietor of Lou Wine Shop in Los Feliz; Bonnie Graves: Sommelier, Founder & President of Girl Meets Grape a wine & lifestyle advisory; Ting Su: Co-Founder of Eagle Rock Brewery , craft beer evangelist, founder of the Women's Beer forum, a monthly meeting about craft beer and Moderator: Piero Selvaggio of Valentino, dean of Italian cuisine in America.

Selvaggio got the conversation started by recalling his own start: 45+ years ago, a one page wine list that grew to what it is today. He felt, and some of the panelists echoed his thoughts, that people don’t bring food (someone called it a possible “steak-age” fee for bringing in food) into a restaurant so why do they feel so compelled to bring wine? The restaurant establishes a corkage fee for the service – opening, decanting if needed, glasses (high rate of breakage on fine glassware like Riedel) and clean up.

Hall said that some restaurants are changing their business model – providing one type of service during the day and full service at night – and there’s less discussion regarding corkage issues. Later he did say that restaurants and wineries should discuss fees, customers don’t understand the mark up and maybe a different pricing structure, or deals with wineries, could be made.

Woodward felt that people have no respect for paying corkage fees yet readily pay for expensive cocktails. Some diners make a big scene – opening their own bottles and/or bringing their own glassware – and don’t expect to be charged for corkage. She said it was an insult to the professional when a customer brings in a $20 Cabernet Sauvignon to go with oysters.

Customers don’t understand retail verses winery prices, or restaurant pricing, according to Graves. She felt customers should call a restaurant in advance regarding corkage policies, which is basic etiquette. The general public needed corkage education. She also thought that having different sizes – not just bottle or glass – could be offered.

Wine storeowner Amdur felt that it’s a magical moment in a restaurant when they serve wine so why do consumers want to discount that? When we “strip away the magic it's not a great experience.” However there is a “shift in culture” to bring wine in. Do people look up the prices of food like they do wine? He didn’t think so.

Woodward then added that no one should feel excluded. Her restaurant offers both lower priced wines as well as pricier ones. The somm can then move the client up to a better wine during the dining experience.

Selvaggio said that a compromise is a good wine by the glass program. Millennial diners have moved from Pepsi to wine, but they don’t yet understand the value compared to food.

Brewery and restaurant owner Su said that she has a corkage policy that applies to both wine and beer brought into her restaurant (she has a wine list) but not for one in the brewery.

What I Thought

I have to admit that more than one thing members of the panel said didn’t sit right with me. Comments about customers making poor pairing decisions (I suggested they delicately educate) and comparing Two-Buck Chuck to a high-end bottles was an insult to them. Of course a somm has been educated beyond the average consumer, but the average consumer that dines at a high-end restaurant shouldn’t expect to feel insulted.

I also have to admit that I wanted to solve the problem, and my idea of adding a few words onto their menu and/or website to explain their corkage policy along with the fee was rebuked as “people don’t read.” Err…but I’m a writer. The only speaker that I found myself in line with was Piero himself. As a restaurateur for over 45 years his role as a moderator reminded me of the middle child, the one that can negotiate both the smarter older child (somm) with the baby (that may not have the same wine smarts but has tastes that should be respected). Of course Piero didn’t say that, that’s only my perception.

So, in regards to actual corkage, I’m not going to lecture you on how and when to bring in a bottle of wine. It’s ultimately your choice if you do so or not. My job is just to share thoughts from the other side of the (dining) table, from the person that is supplying you a service. Something to think about.

Eve Bushman has a Level Two Intermediate Certification from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), a "certification in first globally-recognized course" as an American Wine Specialist ® from the North American Sommelier Association (NASA), Level 1 Sake Award from WSET, was the subject of a 60-minute Wine Immersion video, authored “Wine Etiquette for Everyone” and has served as a judge for the Long Beach Grand Cru. You can email Eve@EveWine101.com to ask a question about wine or spirits. You can also seek her marketing advice via Eve@EveBushmanConsulting.com