A Perspective on Corkage
(An edited version of this was published in the January/February 2018 issue of The Tasting Panel, p.74)
There are few things more perplexing than the idea of going to a restaurant and bringing your own food and drink. Why not just stay home? But the lure of being served in a lovely restaurant with gracious hospitality, where one doesn’t have to clean up the mess of a meal, is a powerful incentive to dine out. And dining out is what Americans do in droves. So, assuming bringing food to a restaurant is considered totally weird – unless you have a very restrictive diet – who was the genius that first thought of bringing their own bottle of wine to a restaurant? The light bulb seems to have gone off in the seventies, that ‘anything goes’ decade when people thought ‘why not bring this bottle of wine with us’! And depending on one’s perspective, a brilliant idea was born. Welcome, Corkage!
Over the years, bringing your own bottle of wine with you has evolved from the frat party, backyard barbecue interpretation of BYOB to a more genteel BYO to what is now generally, though perhaps ruefully, accepted as ‘corkage’. According to Piero Selvaggio of Valentino Ristorante and of the legendary wine cellar, the present incarnation of corkage started in earnest eight or nine years ago and he called corkage a “social phenomenon”, “one of those new fashions for the restaurateur” that puts the squeeze on the bottom line.
One of the best sommeliers and wine directors I know is the great Peter Birmingham who I interviewed a few years ago and whose tutorial concerning corkage vis a vis a restaurant’s bottom line is instructive: “Corkage has a trickle-down effect. When there are nine bottles of corkage to one bottle that’s purchased, it influences negotiations for salaries. Salaries used to be based on “betting on the come”. In other words, compensation was calculated on how much wine you sold. If the customer brings in their own wine, then that affects the wine steward’s income. How? In that case, the restaurant owner gets the upper hand when offering salaries since fewer bottles are being sold, less money is being made and the wine guy takes the hit.” This is a blind item that consumers don’t think about unless they own a restaurant. Yet wine directors have to deal with customers who do not understand how restaurants make money but they expect perks and privileges as part of the price of being a diner.
Despite slim margins, corkage is a fact of life in the hospitality industry. It isn’t going away and is so ingrained that it must be a part of a wine director’s calculation when designing the wine program. Wine directors have come up with a tactic that levels the playing field, somewhat, so they can sell enough wine to meet their ROI: for every bottle a customer brings in for corkage, if they buy a bottle from the wine list, their corkage fee is waived, so, one for one. That way wine is still being sold off the wine list and the customer is happy to have the corkage fee waived. Surprisingly, at Valentino, Piero said that corkage is the most asked question he gets at the restaurant. If it’s asked at Valentino, one could assume corkage is high on the list of what is on a consumer’s mind when going out to dine.
According to OpenTable’s 2017 Technology & Dining Out study, when it comes to what consumers want from tech before, during and after their dining experience, the very first finding was: “The pre-arrival stage is key: make it easy for guests to get what they want.” How easy is it to find a restaurant’s corkage policy? Not easy and frustrating is the answer.
To ease that frustration, CorkageOnline.com was launched. CorkageOnline.com is a directory that lists restaurants’ corkage policies for wine, beer and spirits. The directory provides a time-saving resource for both people fielding calls at a restaurant and for customers searching for corkage fees fulfilling OpenTable’s finding with regard to the pre-arrival stage…customers are informed and know in advance what the corkage policy is making a wine director’s life a little easier. And that’s a good thing.