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The great corkage debate

In this modern era of restaurants, there is no more controversial subject than the fee restaurants charge for opening and serving bottles of wine brought in by their guests. This practice is called “corkage.”

Restaurateurs charge corkage to help cover the costs of wine service, including quality glassware and proper service, and to help the bottom line. The typical customer brings their own bottle of wine either because it is a very special bottle or to combat the skyrocketing cost of a quality restaurant list selection. When this delicate balance is slanted in either side’s favor, it can create an uncomfortable situation in what is supposed to be a most hospitable environment. The responsibility lies both with the restaurateur and the customer to ensure fair treatment for all.

John Buonsante of Sante Ristorante attacks the issue with a unique strategy. “I do research to locate wines customers can’t find in your average retail store” says Buonsante. He feels that Sante Ristorante adds to the Italian restaurant experience by offering hard to find Italian wines. “Almost 90 percent of my wine list is Italian” adds Buonsante. The restaurant’s corkage fee is $15 per bottle, 2 bottle maximum.

Dustin Jones, Sommelier at La Valencia Hotel, believes corkage can be a good thing for both the restaurant and the consumer. “Appreciating that special bottle with high-quality food experience is not something that can be done at home,” says Jones. La Valencia charges a corkage fee of $25 per bottle that is often waived with a purchase from their wine list.

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Wine Patrol, a wine lover group and consumer activist organization, believes that corkage is a way for the average restaurant guest to enjoy a great meal while not breaking the bank. They have set up specific guidelines for their stamp of approval, including rules on corkage and wine pricing.

Restaurants are asked to have quality bottles in every category for under $30 with corkage to be $10 or less per bottle, waiving one corkage fee for each bottle purchased. For more information on Wine Patrol visit www.winepatrol.com.

When wine service is performed on a bottle brought to the restaurant, it is customary to determine the gratuity on the cost of the bottle as if it were on the wine list. Also, ask the sommelier or server if they would like to taste the wine. This is a great way to strike up a conversation about wine and to befriend the most important member of the service staff. Finally, it is a definite “no-no” to bring a bottle that the restaurant already has on their list. Most quality restaurants offer their wine selections online, or you can call ahead to ask.

Many parts of the United States do not allow consumers to BYOW. To confuse the issue further, some states allow customers to bring in wine while not allowing the waiter to pour it for them! Laws are quite variable around the country, so it is a good rule of thumb when traveling with a 750 ml prize to make sure to discuss corkage in advance with the restaurant to avoid confusion.

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The San Diego Wine Guy wants to hear your experiences, positive and negative, with corkage fees and wine lists. Please e-mail your comments to mark@sdwineguy.com. Selected comments will be printed and discussed in an upcoming issue of The La Jolla Light.