Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Noble Writ: Corkage with Class

Posted By on Tue, Aug 4, 2009 at 3:33 PM

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On the relatively few occasions when I dine at a nice restaurant, I'm usually seen carrying my "geek bag." (I have used the 820 model for almost ten years.) Inside will be three or four wines from my cellar that I am willing to pay to open pursuant to the restaurant's corkage policy.

A restaurant that allows corkage permits you to bring in a bottle of your own wine and drink it on its premises for a set fee. In St. Louis, this fee usually ranges from $10 to $25, and many finer dining restaurants have a corkage policy, though it may not be well-advertised.

Paying corkage is an attractive alternative for me because -- with a few notable exceptions -- restaurant wine lists tend to be filled with recent vintages of boring wines offered at extraordinarily high prices.

click to enlarge Is he offering you the best wine he can?
  • Is he offering you the best wine he can?
While some wines are fine to drink young, any wine that would benefit from some time in the cellar hasn't received it, and that wine will be just a hint of what it will become in its prime. A young age-worthy wine will also probably be on the tannic side, which limits its ability to match well with food. I don't want to drink a 2005 Premier (let alone Grand) Cru Burgundy or 2001 Barolo now -- and, no, it doesn't matter how many points the wine or vintage received, it's too young!

Restaurant wine prices also drive me nuts. I've never been in the restaurant business, so I don't have direct experience with the economic realities of the industry, but I've been buying wine conscientiously for over fifteen years, and it sickens me when I see a bottle that I could buy for $20 at a wine store listed for $50 on a wine list. And remember that the restaurant is paying the wholesale price for the wine -- so that $50 bottle of wine probably cost it $13 or so.

I know the mark-up on food is significant, but at least obvious skill and equipment are applied to transform the raw ingredients into what appears on my plate. Certainly, there are some costs associated with providing quality stemware or a decent living to a skilled sommelier who has assembled an interesting list, and I don't mind ordering off the list and paying a (reasonable) premium over retail if those conditions are present, but that just simply isn't the case in most restaurants.

Finally, insipid selections doom many wine lists. Often, there is no wine I would want to drink, regardless of the price or vintage. All too many lists are assembled with attention paid only to the deals the wine wholesaler is offering, despite very good food emanating from the kitchen. When this happens, I go the corkage route.

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