There are a number of reasons why you may choose to bring your own wine to a restaurant. Maybe that bottle fits so perfectly with a special occasion, you can’t imagine drinking another. Maybe your home cooking won’t do justice to that particular vintage, and you need some serious culinary firepower to pair with your baby. And lastly, maybe you just wanna save money.
Whichever applies, you’ll need to be aware of some basics about corkage fees and the etiquette involved with corkage to make the experience positive for everyone involved.
Corkage Fee Basics
What Is a Corkage Fee?
A corkage fee is the amount a restaurant charges a guest to bring in their own bottle of wine. All of that restaurant’s standard wine service steps and standards still apply to serving that bottle of wine. The only difference is that it’s not service for wine they sold, so they recoup some of that profitability by charging a fee. After all, wine service is one of many steps your server may have taken before becoming a sommelier.
Corkage and corkage fees differ from BYOB (Bring Your Own Beer) or BYOW (Bring Your Own Wine). Casual restaurants with no formal fine wine or alcohol service typically use the acronyms BYOB or BYOW. There, you bring your own alcohol in and often a server will open it and pour it for you, but sometimes not. They’ll certainly open it for you if it’s corked. And you’ll sometimes pay a fee for all this, usually just a few bucks.
But corkage and corkage fee are terms used exclusively by bars and restaurants that have an established, formal wine or alcohol service. While you supply the alcohol, the restaurant still commits to serve the wine and every step of their wine service. Chilling the bottle if necessary, presenting it, opening it, providing tastes, aerating it, pouring it, etc.
What Does Free Corkage Mean?
Free corkage means the bar or restaurant has a corkage policy. And it costs no money. They allow guests to bring in their own fine wines and they commit to performing wine service, but they don’t charge a fee for it.
Is a Corkage Fee Legal?
First, it’s illegal in some states to BYOB or BYOW. So right off the bat, it doesn’t apply in some places. Another situation in which a corkage fee typically isn’t permitted is if the business doesn’t have a liquor license. If they’re not allowed to sell you liquor, they’re not allowed to make any money off liquor.
Beyond that, if it’s legal to BYOB or BYOW and the bar or restaurant has a liquor license, then it’s legal to charge a corkage fee.
What’s a Bottle Charge?
A bottle charge is the same thing as a corkage fee. The vast majority of restaurants and bars will call it “corkage” or a “corkage fee." But you’ll run into some that refer to it as a “bottle charge.” All the information here about corkage rates and fees applies to bottle charges as well.
Why Do Restaurants Charge a Corkage Fee?
Restaurants put a lot of time and money into their wine programs. To recoup some of it, bars and restaurants charge corkage rates. They not only pay for the wine itself, but they pay for the time it takes to source and build the wine list, the education their bartenders and servers receive about their wine list, the time it takes to perform wine service at a table, and the special wine glassware used.
When you bring your own wine in, you’re getting most of that for a small fee.
What Is a Reasonable Corkage Fee?
A reasonable corkage fee is somewhere between $10 and $50. That’s a big variance for "reasonable." But, given the commitment restaurants make to their wine programs, they’re justified in trying to dissuade guests from bringing in their own bottles.
Lower corkage fees encourage diners to bring their own wine, while higher fees do the opposite. Some restaurants even charge $100 or more as a corkage fee. That makes it darn clear that they’d like you to engage with their wine list.
Are Corkage Fees Ever Waived?
Corkage fees are waived, but seldomly. Some restaurants have nights specifically dedicated to the waiving of corkage rates, with the intention of driving BYOW traffic. Corkage may also be waived on a bottle if it’s one of multiple bottles on the table and you purchased the other bottle(s) off the wine list. Beyond that, a manager may waive corkage rates for a VIP or as a comp if something else during dinner service didn’t meet the guest’s expectations.
Corkage Fee Etiquette
You’re not allowed to bring your own food into restaurants or your own drinks into stadiums. Yet some restaurants allow you to bring your own alcohol onto their premises to their own financial detriment. Why do they do it, then? Corkage is a courtesy that restaurants and bars provide customers. As such, it should be acknowledged and repaid with some courtesy. Here we’ll look at the boxes to check if you want to be an ideal wine-toting guest.
Call Before You Show Up, Bottle-in-Hand
Not all restaurants have a corkage policy and allow guests to bring their own alcohol in. Before you make your reservation, call and ask the following questions:
- What is their corkage policy?
- How much is their corkage fee?
- Is the wine you plan on bringing already on their wine list?
- If you have a large party, is there a limit to how many bottles you can bring?
Sometimes corkage isn't allowed if you’re bringing a wine that’s already on the bar or restaurant’s wine list. And even if they allow corkage for wines they sell, it’s not the best look.
What Does Corkage Service Include?
Corkage service includes all the steps of regular wine service, except for the presentation of a wine menu and the taking of an order. You pretty much get everything a sommelier is trained to provide. Every level of sommelier. Here’s what you can expect once you’re seated and your server is made aware that you’ve brought your own bottle of wine:
Chilling of Wine If Necessary or Requested
Your server will chill your wine, if necessary or requested.
Wine Label Presented and Bottle Opened
Even though you brought the bottle, most servers at a fine dining establishment will still hit all the wine service steps. That means presenting you the bottle’s label, waiting for your approval, opening the bottle in front of you, and placing the cork and bottle on the table separately.
Anyone at the table who wants to taste the wine may, at this point. Though typically it’s only the person to whom the label was presented. If you’d like more tasters, let your server know. Once you’ve tasted the wine, you can move forward with aeration if needed.
Decant Wine If Necessary or Requested
Tannic wines benefit most from aeration, which can be done using wine decanters or aerators (see here if you're interested in what are tannins in wine and what does a wine aerator do?). Young, big-bodied reds and some French whites (those from Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Alsace) are particularly tannic. After tasting and approval, your server will aerate the wine if you desire.
Standard Servings Poured
10–30 minutes of aeration completed, you're ready to enjoy your wine. Your server, their internal wine sense ticking away like a fine clock, will be tableside right when aeration is complete. They’ll then pour the standard 5-ounce wine pour for everyone enjoying wine at the table.
Wine Bottle Disposed of
After dinner service is complete, you’ll not be responsible for the empty wine bottle you brought in. Unless you request to keep it for sentimental reasons. Or you’re not totally convinced of the restaurant’s recycling program. If you do request such a thing, your wine bottle will recorked. It will then be placed in a sealed bag, as if it were food leftovers, and you can take it home.
Can I Take My Unfinished Wine Home with Me?
Taking partially-consumed bottles of wine home from a restaurant used to be illegal in a lot of states. It didn’t matter if you brought the bottle with you initially or not. As of this writing, all U.S. states have passed recorking laws. That makes it legal for a bar or restaurant to permit a customer to leave the premises with an unsealed bottle of wine.
All states require recorking the bottle. Some require securely resealing the bottle in a bag. Some require a receipt be provided. And some require placement of the recorked wine bottle in the backseat or trunk area of a car. As always, check your local laws when navigating your municipality’s recorking policy.
Should You Tip on Corkage Fees?
Yes, you absolutely should tip your server when you’re charged corkage fees. As we went through above, corkage doesn’t relieve the restaurant or the server from their responsibility to provide complete wine service. They’re giving you all the service that’s built into their wine bottle prices, but charging you for only a fraction of it. You should repay the kindness by being generous with your gratuity.
The agreed upon approach to tipping on corkage is that you should tip as if you purchased the wine at the restaurant.
So That’s What Corkage Means!
“What does corkage mean?” is a common refrain by restaurant-goers, so we’re happy to provide this little public service announcement. The main takeaway is that bars and restaurants charging corkage is justified because they’re sharing the benefits of their wine program with you.
So, wine-loving diners, next time you’re in the mood to bring your own bottle into a restaurant, feel free! Just observe the right etiquette, treat corkage as a courtesy, tip appropriately, and you’ll be A-OK.
And, bar managers, hopefully this gives you some talking points the next time someone questions your corkage policy.