Would you bring your own wine to a restaurant? Many Western New Yorkers do just that, sometimes going so far as to pay for the privilege.
The term "corkage" is used by professionals to describe the fee charged by a restaurant to open and serve a bottle brought in by a customer. The fee may vary, but upscale local restaurants like Tempo, Rue Franklin and the Sonoma Grill often charge corkage as a matter of course.
Corkage fees in Western New York run between $10 to $20 a bottle, although some restaurants don't let customers bring their own if they carry the same bottle in their own cellars.
But even if a corkage fee is charged, it usually doesn't discourage a real enthusiast.
"I always bring my own wine to a restaurant," says Jordan Levy, who has a cellar of some 2,000 bottles. "I don't mind the corkage fee. Most restaurants can't match the quality of wine I have in my cellar but I prefer to drink my wines there."
Other savvy diners simply take advantage of special promotional programs or offers. In City Grill, on Main Street, the longstanding policy has been no corkage fee on Saturday night for a bottle of wine brought in to serve at dinner. Sommelier Mike DePue says the bottles he has seen brought in range from a bottle of 1970 Chateau Lafite Rothschild to a bottle of Giacobazzi.
It doesn't matter. That Saturday night policy has brought them a loyal customer base.
"It's a great deal," says Ronald Eaton, who has a small cellar of his own of some 30 bottles. He and his wife, Linda, go to City Grill at least two times a month, he says.
Wine professionals and restaurateurs say corkage is a justifiable fee, since the wait staff usually handles serving the wine.
"It covers the expensive glassware served and presentation of the wine," says Terry Bechakas, owner of the former Hourglass restaurant, which was well known for its wines. "Handling of the bottle is so important. If you have a bottle that is 20 years old and pick it up the wrong way, you may have trouble with the sediment; the wine may have to be decanted and the restaurant will do that for you."
Bechakas says corkage is also justified for economic reasons. Correct maintaining of a wine cellar and carrying a lot of inventory can be a very expensive endeavor, Bechakas says.
When customers bring their own bottle, "it's taking away a money-making thing," he says. "The restaurant is really losing money when it is not serving its own wine."
Corkage fees may become even more common in this area, he says, as more collectors develop cellars of their own.
But corkage fees also usually benefit the customer. Henry Gorino, owner of Oliver's, has recently begun advertising a $20 corkage fee. That's relatively high for this area.
"But I don't think that's a lot of money," Gorino says, although he admits that the more expensive the wine the diner brings in, the more that customer saves. That's because of the markup, which in many restaurants usually runs a little more than double the wholesale price.
"Say I buy a bottle of wine wholesale at $150," Gorino says, citing a rather extreme example. "I have to charge at least $325 for it. Even if the customer pays $180 for that bottle retail, even with the $20 corkage fee he's still only paying $200," he says. "That's a hell of a good price for that bottle of wine."
Paul Jenkins of Tempo, who usually charges $15 corkage, says he doesn't begrudge his customers bringing in their own bottle -- he understands it, in fact.
"They don't do it to save money," he says. "That's not the spirit of it. Corkage is simply not an issue for collectors. A lot of people have wonderful cellars and they like to show them off.
"It may be a special occasion or they may be entertaining special people. They have the wines and the wines are ready to drink and it's not as common as it once was to have formal dinners at home."
It's a fairly common practice at Tempo, Jenkins says. "Mostly they call ahead and we are ready for them."
Want to know the absolute best thing for a proprietor when people bring in their own bottles? Jenkins has the answer ready to go.
Often, customers bring in rare, impossible to buy bottles, he says. "And sometimes they give a tiny sip to the chef."
>When you're bringing your own wine
Thinking of hauling your own wine to a restaurant? Don't forget these BYOB pointers:
1) Call ahead to say you are bringing in your own wine. Tell them the wine you are bringing and get the OK.
2) Leave an ample gratuity to cover the person who is serving the wine.
3) If you can, and if the wine is special, offer the wine server or chef a tiny sip or two.
4) According to state liquor law, bringing your own bottle of wine to a restaurant without a license, which has a legal capacity of 20 people or less, is perfectly legal.
5) According to the same law, bringing your own bottle to a licensed restaurant of any size is legal if the restaurant allows it. But you cannot leave the wine at the restaurant if you don't finish. You must take it home. 6) For further information on legality, go to www.abc.state.ny.us.
- Janice Okun