Posted by: David Stewart | December 28, 2014

Corkage – Scandal? Or reasonable?

I’m all for a bargain. I don’t feel compelled to spend a lot of money on something if the value isn’t apparent to me (or if it would mean spending money I don’t have, what they used to call spending beyond my means). So I’m really very happy when I can score an artisan’s excellent wine at a killer price. What I call finding a value artisan.

The Willamette Valley of northwest Oregon has a lot of artisan winemakers, small-batch production of bottles driven out of their passion for winemaking.

One of the nice things about saving back a few bottles of what you really like in a cool, dark place is that you can be always ready to supply a bottle of wine for a special occasion. Birthdays, anniversary, Christmas and Easter – for me these call out for a wine I have been saving.

Bringing a bottle with me

In Oregon, it’s quite legal and acceptable for customers to bring to a restaurant a bottle of wine for dinner. This isn’t the case everywhere in the world: In France, for example, you would never, ever bring a bottle of wine to enjoy during your meal. I was never quite sure if this is the law or custom, but I was emphatically assured that it’s just not done. In some states in the US, it might not be legal either.

It’s also customary for the restaurant to charge a nominal fee, called “corkage”. In my modest urban sprawl of a home town (Beaverton), I asked a waiter at a local place what they charge for corkage – “Fifteen American dollars,” was the reply. Some places don’t charge anything at all.

$15 is actually on the reasonable side; the typical charge in the Portland area is $20. Given that most restaurants will basically charge twice or more of the retail cost of their wines, you will almost never be able to get a bottle on their wine list for only $20. And if you brought something you like, it’s a good deal.

One place I know in Portland charges $25, and if the wine you brought is on their wine list, they won’t open it. Some corkage fees are a scandal to me: The French Laundry in California charges $150 their corkage. (This is actually less than any of the bottles on their menu.)

Why charge anything at all? Wines with a screw cap don’t even require much time or effort from the waiter.

But I began seeing things a little differently when I started to think about wine as part of the overall dining experience. A thoughtful chef will design a menu with flavors that complement each other, a harmonious blend of textures and temperatures. And this harmony may include the wine.

What if I were to bring in my own freshly caught salmon into a restaurant and asked them to fix it for me? Suppose I dug up a head of lettuce from my garden and asked them to make a salad out of it? What’s worse, what if I bought a frozen salmon from the grocery store and asked them to prepare it?  After all, I can get a much better price for fish than they are charging me. If the meal turns out to be terrible, is it their fault?

But I still will bring my own bottle with me if the restaurant will allow it.

Over time, I have worked out a few rules for BYOB:

  • Bring something special to you. Don’t grab some cheap plonk from the shop just to save money.
  • Be cool about it rather than snotty. They don’t have to allow your wine into their place, after all. Smile, thank them and be polite.
  • I always offer the waiter to bring a glass for themselves if they want a taste. They don’t always take me up on it, but sometimes they do and they usually appreciate it.
  • If they ask if the wine needs to be decanted, I don’t feel bad about saying “yes, please.” This is particularly true for older bottles which might have some sediment. And the extra time it takes to pour out the bottle into a decanter makes me feel like I’m getting a bit more for my $20.

Bon appetit!



  1. Don’t they also provide glasses?

  2. Sure, although i don’t count on paying extra for glassware. Unless it’s at a fast food place

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