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Corkage for Dummies

Wine editor Lettie Teague tells how to bring your own bottle to a restaurant without feeling embarrassed or annoying the sommelier.

While I would never think of lugging my own linens to a restaurant or supplying my own stemware, I have been known to bring along a bottle of my own wine. In fact, I'll go out of my way to patronize a place with a friendly corkage policy. (Corkage is what restaurateurs call what they charge to open and serve your wine.)

It's not that I'm cheap (although I'll admit I take a 400 percent markup on Pinot Grigio more personally than most) or that I don't respect the hard work (and money) that goes into making a great wine list. It's just that sometimes I want to drink one of the hundreds of wines gathering dust in my basement with a meal that isn't homemade... no offense to my husband, the family chef. Add special occasions like birthdays and dinners with our friend The Collector (a lawyer who pulls bottles of La Mouline from his pockets the way others do mints) and I'd guess I bring wine to restaurants about three times a month.

I know that BYOB isn't something most restaurants are fond of, and I'm sure it's something their accountants don't approve of... after all, food can be marked up 40 percent on average, while wines can be marked up 10 times that. No doubt that's why so many New York restaurateurs tell customers it's "illegal" to bring their own wine. (It's not, though it is in some other states.) Some may charge a high fee (in part to discourage the practice), some just a little (enough to cover the dishwasher's time), but in either case, corkage is generally meant as a courtesy for customers looking to savor a special bottle.

Unfortunately, this isn't often what customers do. Instead, people will bring bad wine or argue over the fee... making many restaurateurs reluctant to extend the privilege. And, mind you, being able to bring your own bottle is a privilege. So, in the hope of fostering better corkage relations, I've compiled a list of rules to follow when setting out with your bottle in a shopping bag (or, as in the case of The Collector, a leather case so large it could put a symphony cellist to shame).

RULE #1: Call the restaurant.
I'd never just show up with my bottle, unannounced. Although this sounds obvious, it's often ignored. Rajat Parr, the sommelier at San Francisco's Fifth Floor, has had customers arrive with as many as eight bottles. (Think of all that glassware!)

RULE #2: Inquire about the fee.
Make it known you're not looking to get something for free. In Manhattan corkage averages $15 to $20 a bottle, more at posh places like Union Pacific ($30) and Jean Georges ($85, a bargain compared to its wine prices). In any case, corkage doesn't necessarily mean you'll come away cheaply; a few friends of mine brought several great Burgundies to New York's Chanterelle and ended up spending over $400 in corkage alone. But everyone was happy; the restaurant let them drink their wines and they got to enjoy them with some pretty spectacular food.

Outside New York, corkage is more accepted, though not always cheaper. In Napa Valley, it can range from $15 a bottle (Meadowood Resort) to $50 (The French Laundry). Fees seem lowest in San Francisco and Los Angeles... on average, $10 to $12. Some restaurants even hold corkage-free days. On Sundays, La Cachette in Los Angeles allows customers to bring in as many wines as they want. While this has proven incredibly popular, La Cachette's proprietor, Jean-François Meteigner, says it hasn't hurt his wine sales the rest of the week. However, he admits to being baffled by the idea: "As a Frenchman, I really don't understand why you would bring your own wine to a restaurant in the first place."

The most interesting corkage policy I've found is practiced by Il Mulino in Manhattan. When I called to inquire as to their fee, I was informed it depended on my wine. Tony, I was told, would talk it over with me. I told Tony I was thinking of bringing a 1997 Gaja Barbaresco. "That'll be $60," Tony said. "What about a basic Chianti?" Tony's reply rang like a cash register: "$50." I imagined Tony consulting an enormous chart with dollar amounts chalked in next to thousands of wines. I wanted to keep going: 1961 Château Latour? 1985 Sassicaia? But Tony didn't. He didn't care about my wine. I wasn't getting in: Il Mulino was booked solid for months.

RULE #3: Never bring a cheap wine.
Or at least not one that costs less than the least expensive bottle on the list. My favorite (sommelier-less) Indian restaurant, the Bengal Tiger in White Plains, New York, has a corkage policy that addresses this nicely: It charges $15... the same as its least expensive wine. Some restaurants request that customers only bring wines that aren't on their lists. However, as Joseph Miglione, the sommelier at Ray's Boathouse in Seattle, has discovered, this directive can backfire. He's had diners arrive with screw-top magnums and bottles with grocery-store tags still stuck to the sides. Yet, as Miglione was forced to admit, not one of these was on his list.

Miglione, however, is adamant about how much he loves people who bring great wines... a sentiment echoed by every sommelier I spoke to. Fred Price of Union Pacific agrees, noting, "It's an honor."

RULE #4: Always offer the sommelier a taste.
He or she may or may not accept (they always do when I'm with The Collector) but it's a sign of respect and a show of camaraderie. Since you've shunned the sommelier's selections in favor of your own, it's the least you can do. Rajat Parr ruefully recalls the time when "Someone brought in a La Tâche and didn't offer me a taste."

RULE #5: Buy at least one bottle, preferably one for every bottle you bring.
Granted, in some places it's impossible (my favorite Chinese restaurant does its beverage business exclusively in Budweiser), but at places that do have a list you like (or where you want to be welcomed again) you should do so. You'll look like a sport and you might even find the corkage waived, as Cole's Chop House in Napa does.

Considering how much I eat out, I don't bring wines to restaurants that often. Sometimes it's easier not to do all the work: calling, carrying, negotiating (always necessary in New York). And with so many great sommeliers out there, it can be more fun to try the wines they've discovered.

There is, however, one place where I wish I could always bring wine: weddings. Some of the worst wines of my life have been served by just-married friends. (A certain Brazilian Merlot will not fade from memory.) Why is it that the same people who'll spend a fortune on flowers want a wine that costs under $5? If they'd allow me to bring my own wine, I'd happily pay a Jean Georges­size fee... I'd even bring a bottle for the bride and groom.

Published July 2001
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