There are but few words, in the hospitality industry and the wine world, that can fire up angst and strong opinions as the word ‘corkage’. Say the word ‘corkage’ to a restaurateur and you might get a resigned sigh along with a discourse about how it affects their bottom line and how one obnoxious customer arrived with a bottle of Two Buck Chuck only to carp about the corkage fee…or some other apocryphal story. Say ‘corkage’ to a customer and you might get a huffy harangue about the outrageous corkage fees they were charged on their $200 bottle of wine while another customer might totally be copacetic with corkage fees. And so it goes.
I talked to the venerable dean of Italian restaurateurs and quintessential host, Piero Selvaggio, owner of the renowned restaurant, Valentino, who has 40 years of experience to tap into and who has probably seen it all. First, a word about Piero. I called the restaurant wanting to get Piero’s email so I could ask him for an interview. “Just a moment, please” said the person who answered the phone and transferred me to someone else. I asked that ‘someone else’ if I could please have Piero’s email and was given it immediately. Surprised it was so easy, I paused as the voice was familiar and asked, “Who am I speaking with?” “Piero.” One never, ok rarely, comes across a person of his standing who answers his phone, gives you his personal email and when I asked if he would do an interview, he answered, “Let’s do it now.” Right then and there. This is why for decades, Piero Selvaggio is considered a mensch.
And so, we chatted about corkage. Piero said corkage started in earnest 8 or 9 years ago, calling corkage a “social phenomenon”, “one of those new fashions for the restaurateur”. He said corkage is the most asked question he gets at the restaurant. Customers have become accustomed to wielding their clout by expecting perks and privileges without really understanding how restaurants make money. Margins are slim what with the cost of food, minimum wage, skyrocketing rents. Piero remarks on the many restaurants that are going out of business despite their prime locations and millions of dollars that go into architecture and design. The restaurant business is not for the fainthearted.
Even with Valentino’s legendary wine cellar, I posit that a collector might want to bring in a special bottle (that is not on the wine list), and that’s fine, but Piero said that “people who want to skimp and stretch” are most likely to bring in a bottle or two, sometimes with cheap wine that is “offensive” to the restaurant. You don’t go “to the theatre without paying the price of admission.” “Corkage has its limits!” However, as I like to say, corkage is a fact of life and Piero agrees.
I throw in another angle into the corkage discussion. “Why,” I asked, “is wine the only libation associated with corkage? I’m a big craft beer lover, so what about beer corkage?” Piero “adores beer” and said the idea “definitely deserves to be brought to bigger attention.” I was very happy to hear him say that as that is my next crusade – to evangelize about beer corkage and make it as common as wine corkage! Some restaurants listed on corkageonline.com do have beer corkage but not nearly enough. The idea is absolutely foreign to most restaurants. But Piero is open to it, so what will the beer corkage fee be at Valentino?! Stay tuned.