What is a corkage fee, and why is it charged? Many (if not most) restaurants in the St. Louis Metro area allow patrons to bring in a bottle of their own wine, but the restaurants also have the option to set a corkage fee to have that wine opened and served. It does not bother me to pay a reasonable corkage fee, as the server is still opening and serving the wine (and sometimes decanting or even chilling it). In the low-margin restaurant industry, every dollar matters and these fees do assist in keeping both the wine program and the restaurant as a whole in the black.
How much is a typical corkage fee? In my experience in this area, most corkage fees range from $10-$25 per bottle. I often see the lower $10-$15 fee in what I would call "mid-tier" restaurants, whereas nicer restaurants seem to be almost always charging $20 or more.
What wines can I bring? I'll be blunt here... do not bring any bargain-bin wine. If it's easily picked up at a grocery store, gas station, or on a large display at the local liquor store, it's not the wine to bring. Focus on wines that you picked up while traveling, receive via a wine club, or purchased from a small wine importer (such as PRP Wine). Usually restaurants will not allow you to open wines that are on their wine lists.
So why bring your own wine anyway? For me, there's a few reasons.
- Confusing Wine Menus - I'm in the industry, and many wine menus totally overwhelm and confuse me. It's one thing to have a great wine list and trained staff to explain and make recommendations, but in my experience, way too many restaurants have confusing wine menus trying to be explained by 18-year-old wait staff with no wine training. Inevitably, this leads to playing "Russian Roulette" with the wine list and just picking a bottle based on price point and maybe one word you recognize. Instead, I'd rather just bring a wine I know I'm going to love.
- Overpriced Wines - Let me be clear: I know restaurants deserve to make a profit on the wines they sell. However, when markups on well-known brands are 2x, 3x, or even 4x, I simply can't do it. For example, Rombauer Chardonnay is very popular and retails in grocery stores for around $35/bottle, but you frequently can see it on restaurant menus for $75, $80 or even more! The patron ordering Rombauer Chardonnay probably buys it at the grocery store, so it just seems like a greedy play.
- Controlling Wine Costs - If it's just Dean and me out to a nice dinner, it's not uncommon for us to have two bottles of wine. Add another couple, and our wine bill is getting a bit out of control! While I'm still open to purchasing a unique and interesting wine from the restaurant, I'm going to control my costs by paying corkage on a nice bottle or two from my own cellar.
- Special Occasion Wine - If you're celebrating an anniversary, there's nothing wrong with bringing along that bottle you've been saving since you're honeymoon. This is by far the least controversial reason to bring your own wine, and I always make sure to tell the server what we're celebrating and why this bottle matters.
Consumer Tip: I'm very excited about a recent trend whereby many restaurants (especially a lot of the nicer, high-end restaurants) are waiving the corkage fee for each bottle you purchase from the restaurant. Dean and I often splurge on a higher priced white wine from the restaurant and bring an aged big red from our cellar. It's win-win... restaurant still made some money and moved some wine, while we got to save a bit and enjoy some unique wines!
A Few Additional Tips & Tricks:
- Unsure what the corkage fee is or if they have one? Call ahead! I have rarely encountered a restaurant that didn't allow me to bring a bottle of wine. I usually call and say that I have a "special wine" I'd like to bring and am curious what the corkage fee will be. That gets the awkward conversation out of the way, as you're acknowledging you expect a fee.
- Offer a sample to the server, especially if it's a truly unique wine. Most wine staff are wine geeks, so they'd be happy to try something different! It may also mean your corkage fee will politely be waived.
- Pay attention to the bill. The server may have waived the corkage fee, and if so, tip well!
- There may be a limit on the number of wines allowed to be brought in. If you're planning to bring a number of wines for a large group, it's best to be honest and upfront before arriving. I've seen fees go from $20 on the first bottle to $50 on each additional bottle.
- Use a wine tote or simply walk in with the bottle openly displayed. No need to "smuggle" the wine inside a purse.
- Most importantly, be confident. Trust me, people are bringing their own wine to restaurants. Just know what you're doing, be polite, and you'll be fine.
I encourage you to be adventurous and try bringing a special wine with you to your next dining experience! I'd love to hear what your experience is, so feel free to share in the comments!