The 411 on Corkage Fees
Tips for a smooth BYOB dining experience
When I first began investigating the seemingly straightforward concept of wine corkage policies at local restaurants, I had no idea I would be venturing into a world of nebulous rules, drastically varying policies and often intense opinions and perspectives of restaurants owners, managers and patrons.
To learn more about the corkage culture in Kansas City, I started a discussion on one of the most widely used Facebook restaurant review and recommendation pages, Kansas City Eats. In addition to dozens of comments that poured in over the next few hours, I also received multiple phone calls from diners and chef/owners alike, people who didn’t feel comfortable commenting publicly but who felt the topic important enough to weigh in. It became quite clear that wine corkage is kind of a big deal.
Thankfully, through my research I came upon a great app with corkage policies at restaurants in the U.S. and Canada. Their unbiased research provided a wealth of information on the topic. The app titled CorkageFee has become the gold standard in the industry with more than 10,000 fee policies in their network, crowdsourced by the wine-toting community. People add their experience with BYOB at a restaurant by adding corkage fee policies, posting tips such as corkage fee days or the maximum number of bottles allowed.
The app’s developers surveyed users on their motivations for bringing their own bottle and found saving money was the most frequent response, with opting to enjoy their own bottle as the second reason and a restaurant's lackluster wine list coming in at third.
I found these reasons were along the lines of the Kansas City BYOB experience with these comments being the most observed:
- Special Occasion – A restaurant guest might want to celebrate a wedding anniversary by bringing a bottle of 10-year-old Champagne to a fancy restaurant. Most restaurants I spoke with viewed this as perfectly appropriate, but Sullivan’s and Gram & Dun don’t allow any outside bottles, regardless of how special it may be to you. In addition to the corkage fee, consider tipping on the full value of the meal, as though the wine were purchased on site.
- Better Options – A diner might also decide to bring a bottle to a restaurant due to its lackluster wine list. There are two real issues here:
- A disturbing trend of liquor distributors being allowed to write the wine lists at many restaurants, resulting in a lack of diversity in the wines available when dining out. Restaurants might not love this motivation, but the wise ones charge a corkage fee and gather data from these outside bottles to make more informed wine menu options.
- Several general managers mentioned owners were requiring them to reduce costs by minimizing wine inventory. When the interesting, unique bottles are phased out during this process, a homogeneity of wine lists begins to exist in the area. While my husband and I enjoy Terrazas de los Andes malbec, Sean Minor pinot noir and Kim Crawford sauvignon blanc, it became apparent that people were tired of seeing them on every list in town at the exclusion of other interesting wines, so they bring their own.
- Savings – Oftentimes diners bring in their own bottles to save money by not paying restaurant markup. One restaurateur spoke of a couple that arrived at the restaurant and had been seated. After ordering, the husband left the restaurant and returned 10 minutes later carrying a brown-bagged wine bottle from the liquor store one block away. It was a bottle that was also available on the restaurant’s wine list. That couple’s name has been flagged for future reservations.
Conversely, several diners commented they have grown weary of paying $12 for a glass of wine that costs $7 to $8 per bottle wholesale.
There’s a delicate balance between what is seen as a good value to a customer and the restaurant’s need to pay the many expenses to stay in business.
You can enjoy a bottle of wine from your cellar at a restaurant and make it a win-win situation for everyone if you follow these tips:
- Call ahead: Always inquire about corkage policies and fees. The most valued diners ask in advance. Bringing in a bottle of wine to a restaurant is a privilege offered by some restaurant owners. It is not a right. To offer corkage is to extend a courtesy to highly valued diners. Josh Ordo, general manager of Pig & Finch in Leawood said, “You know, there’s a saying that you can make a fast nickel or a slow dime. I’d rather make sure the diner has an excellent experience so they want to return frequently. We try to price our wines aggressively to attract customers, but our owner has also asked us to reduce our wine inventory so if a customer wants to bring in a bottle, we are happy to serve it for a $20 corkage fee.”
- Don’t squabble: If a restaurant allows outside wine and charges a corkage fee, don’t argue or try to negotiate away the fee. If you followed the first tip and called in advance, you should have known the fee and policies before arriving. One general manager told me she never charged more than one corkage fee even if the guest brought in several bottles. “Though our policy was $20 per bottle, I found that when I was lenient and extended myself, the customer always responded by being generous with their tip to our service staff, so everyone was happy.”
- Tip generously: Always factor in the value of the bottle when you calculate gratuity. This is a courteous way of thanking the server for the wine service. Several general managers I spoke with commented on those patrons who take the time to select their own bottle of wine are usually valued customers who appreciate the opportunity and tip accordingly.
- No brown bags: Be mindful of how you bring the bottle in. It's courteous to carry it in a discreet wine bag or carry case rather than a brown paper bag or having it exposed coming into the restaurant.
- Share: While not mandatory, it is a nice gesture to offer your server or sommelier a taste of the wine you've brought.
- Be considerate: Don’t bring a bottle that is already on the restaurant’s wine list. This is inconsiderate, and most restaurants don’t allow it anyway.
- One-bottle Rule: Don’t bring more than one bottle unless you have discussed with the restaurant in advance. We spoke with one diner who said she sometimes brings a large-format bottle, i.e., a magnum or larger. These atypical bottles are a fun addition to a dinner party, but keep in mind that the same tips apply.
- Tit for tat: Consider buying a bottle from the restaurant in addition to the bottle you bring. Even if you don’t finish it, it’s a fair gesture, and you can always have it recorked to take home. Several restaurants we spoke with waive the corkage fee when customers also purchase a bottle from the list.
According to CorkageFee, patrons who purchase a bottle of wine from a restaurant's wine list pay on average somewhere in the $40 to $60 range. On the other hand, when these same people purchase wines from a store, they'll usually pay between $11 and $30. If you add the average corkage fee of $15 to the total price, it falls right at or below what they're willing to pay when dining out. This keeps them within their desired budget and provides a bit more peace of mind knowing they avoided an excessive markup.
Bottom line: Bringing your own bottle of wine to a restaurant shouldn’t be a way to cheat the system, but rather another way for restaurants to offer flexible options for dining out.
A sampling of Kansas City Restaurants and their corkage fee policy:
Story – $35/bottle
Tavern at Mission Farms – $15/bottle
SPIN! Pizza – $1/bottle Monday through Thursday, $5 Fridays and Saturdays
Rye – $25/bottle
Sullivan’s Steakhouse – Not allowed
BRGR Kitchen + Bar Prairie Village – $15/bottle
J. Alexander’s – No charge for first bottle, $15/bottle for additional bottles
Newport Grill – $20/bottle
Bristol Seafood Grill – $20/bottle
Garozzo’s – $20/bottle Tuesday through Sunday, no corkage fee on Monday
Waldo Pizza – $10/bottle
Gram & Dun – Not allowed
Houston’s – No charge
Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue – $15/bottle
Piropos – $25/bottle
Julian – $25/bottle
Cindy Reynolds is the co-owner and founder of Somerset Ridge Vineyard & Winery in Paola, Kansas. Making more than 5,000 cases per year, Somerset Ridge wines are available in more than 300 retail stores and a growing number of area restaurants. Reynolds spent her early career running sales organizations. She now focuses her time on the family vineyard and winery along with her husband, Dennis; and their two children, Alex and Holly.