The Wild World of Restaurant Wine Corkage Policies

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Last night I was able to lift my head up and take a needed break from working on my books and other projects. I made the short journey to downtown San Diego to finally catch up with old friends Steve Farber and Shawn Ellis. While Steve is local, Shawn is in San Diego for the annual IASB (International Association of Speakers Bureaus) conference, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

I suggested we meet in downtown San Diego’s at Searsucker’s, Top Chef finalist Brian Malarky’s new restaurant (opened in July 2010) located in the infamous  GasLamp District. I would love to go into detail how we enjoyed the duck fat fries or how our server opted us out of the Farm Bird Lollipops with snake oil and bleu fondue in favor of the lost abbey short ribs with fried onions (all very delicious, by the way) but I wanted to share my thoughts on restaurant corkage policies, and Searsucker’s approach to diners bringing their own wine.

The corkage policy at Searsuckers is simple: buy a bottle of wine off its list and corkage is waived on the diner’s bottle of wine. If not, the corkage is a hefty $25. As I scanned the wine list and noted a number of wines in the sub $50 category, but all pushing the limits on markup, including a Spanish Albariño for $42 that I can buy at a local wine shop for about $15. Pricing aside, Searsucker’s modest but diverse wine list does offer diners a choice. With nothing screaming “try me”, we decided to stick with the 2001 Pride Mountain Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon I brought to celebrate our evening get together.

central_coast_aug09 2009-08-02633 - Version 2.jpgIn our nation’s capital Charlie Palmer’s Steak restaurant, in the shadow of the capital building, features wines made from every state in the union—yes, even Alaska. Even so, if anyone wishes to bring their own wine, as long as it’s bottled domestically, there is no corkage. Bring in a Bordeaux or Barolo or any wine made outside the United States, you’re going to pay $25 corkage. At Pinot Provence in Costa Mesa, California there is no corkage fee whatsoever. Bring in one, two or ten bottles and you won’t be charged a penny. This contrasts with Vine in San Clemente where I was stunned to discover that the corkage is not only $20, but diners are limited to two bottles. With reservations for a party of 8, all wine collectors, we were told there was absolutely no flexibility to this policy. Shame on you, Vine. We packed up and left.

Why would I ever want to bring my own wine into 3rd Corner? With reasonable priced wines and an interesting and ecletic selection, it makes no sense. I can try something new and different or tried and true—besides, browsing the aisels of the wine shop is more fun than browsing a printed wine list. To be sure, I don’t bring my wine into restaurants because of excessive wine markup. This is far from the truth. Most of the wines in my cellar can’t be found on wine lists. And many restaurant wine lists are far from inspiring—there are a number of notable exceptions and topic for another post. Frankly, I’d rather bring my own wine and share tastes of it with my server and the chef.—which I always do. Wine is for sharing.

If more restaurants would approach its wine lists and pricing and corkage policies with more innovative thinking, they just might find that not only would nightly covers (customers) increase, but the average sale per cover would increase and they’d likely see more wine sales.

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