The food runner at Aji Japanese Bistro in El Dorado Hills recently got a nasty earful from a customer. How dare this restaurant charge $20 for bringing in a bottle of wine from home?
The practice is called corkage, a charge that restaurants apply when diners bring their own bottles instead of ordering from the list. You’d think this was all common knowledge by now, but restaurateurs commonly get pushback from customers when it comes to this BYOB fee.
“We’re not trying to extort people. It’s a way to support the restaurant,” said Nick Dedier, Aji’s co-owner. “I mean, you wouldn’t show up to Jiffy Lube with your own oil and ask that they only charge for labor.”
Corkage fees help offset the loss in a restaurant’s wine sales. There’s no set formula for the fees. Biba Restaurant charges $15 per 750 ml bottle, and it’s $20 at The Firehouse in Old Sacramento. Ella Dining Room & Bar lists a $25 corkage, but will waive the fee if you also buy a bottle from their list (up to three bottles).
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Aji similarly comps the corkage if a second bottle is bought from the restaurant’s own offerings.
“Buy that $35 sauvignon blanc and we’ll pop that (bottle from home) for you,” said Dedier. “(Corkage) allows us a beverage sale. The beauty of a great restaurant list is you can get introduced to a great bottle you wouldn’t have found elsewhere.”
The wine savvy can find corkage bargains around town. On Sundays, 58 Degrees & Holding Co. waives corkage on any wines bought from its bottle shop. Free corkage can also be found Tuesdays at Piatti.
Some restaurants take it a step further. Bandera on Fair Oaks Boulevard never charges corkage, and neither does Iron Grill on Broadway, for the first bottle. Iron Grill used to allow a free-for-all when it came to corkage, until a party came in a few years ago with 28 bottles. Now, it’s $5 or $10 to open that second bottle and beyond.
Bill Taylor, the owner of Iron Grill, says that about 50 customers a month take up the free corkage offer.
“We always want the customer to come in and be happy,” said Taylor. “A lot of people have wine at home that they want to open with their meal. If we’re a good restaurant, they’ll keep coming back and we’ll be OK.”
But not every owner can afford to offer free corkage. Profit margins are notoriously slim in the food business, averaging 4 percent, according the California Restaurant Association. Wine and other beverages are counted on to boost the bottom line, and bottles are often marked up two to three times their retail price.
But it takes more than bottles and a corkscrew to run a wine program. There’s the cost of stemware, cleaning those glasses, and replacement when customers break them. Temperature-controlled storage can costs thousands each year for large cellars. Corkage fees help cover some of these expenses.
“We’re not just looking to put a $20 bill in our pocket,” Dedier said. “We spend a disproportionate amount of time, effort and money selecting really good wines for our list.”
Since the topic of corkage continues to crop up, keep these guiding principles in mind when you’re thinking of taking a bottle of wine to your favorite restaurant:
• Save corkage for rare or special bottles: With older bottles of wine, sometimes it’s actually good to have the help of a sommelier for extracting those delicate corks. But in general, corkage isn’t meant for everyday wines. Bringing in a wine that costs less than the corkage isn’t just bad form, it’s a backward use of your dining dollars.
• Sharing is caring: Offer your server or sommelier a taste to spread the cheer. It doesn’t have to be a huge pour, but allowing restaurant staffers to share in a bit of your festivity creates goodwill all around. Sending a taste back for the chef is also good form.
• Do a little homework: So, you’re bringing in a bottle that’s already on the wine list? Awkward. Before deciding which bottle to bring, go to the restaurant’s website. Many of them post their updated wine lists, so take a little time to plan ahead.
• Buy something from the beverage list: Seriously, order a glass of sparkling wine or a cocktail – just a little something to show that you’re not trying to freeload and appreciate the BYOB opportunity.
• If all of this sounds like too much trouble, either order from the wine list or just drink at home.