Going out to eat is a costly affair. Drink a bottle of wine with dinner and your bill can double; and just like that, restaurant dining becomes rare treat for most of us.
Restaurants charge a hefty price for wine for good reason: selling booze pays the bills. But if you can't afford the restaurant markup, there is another way to have your dinner and drink it too, a way that doesn't cheat your favourite dining establishment of its profit.
Bring your own bottle and fork over the corkage fee.
A corkage fee is, quite simply, the money a restaurant charges for its server to pop open your bottle of wine and pour it into restaurant glassware.
Corkage came out of the BYO (bring your own) movement in New Zealand and Australia, where a variation on alcohol beverage licences for restaurants allowed customers to take their own wine out to dine.
A variation on that licence permitted restaurants without a BYO licence to invite customers to bring their own. To make up for lost profit from alcohol sales, restaurants charged a flat fee per bottle that would be determined at the end of dinner by counting the number of corks left on the table after dinner: hence "corkage."
It may seem that the $10 to $25, sometimes more (and some restos charge the price of the cheapest bottle of wine on their menu) is an exorbitant price to pay for a server to do little more than smile and pop a cork (or twist a cap) about as neatly as you could have done yourself. Even if you factor in the labour cost of the server's time and the dishwasher's expertise, corkage is, for the most part, sheer profit for the restaurant owner.
What you're really paying for is a customized experience.
"We're giving people the opportunity to come into the restaurant, to bring a bottle and enjoy it there with expertly made food," says George Cristakos, owner of Brooklyn Warehouse, a Halifax restaurant that charges $10 corkage.
"We don't really have expensive wine at Brooklyn Warehouse," he says, but if you own some really special wine, you can pay a relatively small corkage fee at the Windsor Street restaurant and drink your best bottle with a fabulous meal in a beautiful environment — see and be seen, without the kids interrupting a romantic dinner, and everything else that goes along with a night out (like not doing the dishes).
A change in eating establishment liquor licence regulations in Nova Scotia less than 10 years ago allowed restaurants to open customers' wine, as long as it is unopened and in bottle. They must recork the bottle — technically the customer's property — if asked. Neither homemade wine nor boxed wine (nor beer nor spirits) is allowed to be opened in a restaurant with this licence.
Enjoying a valuable bottle of wine in a nice joint is a good reason to seek out a restaurant that offers corkage; the other situation in which corkage makes sense for the deal-seeking diner is when restaurants offer reduced corkage on off nights to increase sales.
Brooklyn Warehouse currently charges $1 corkage on Wednesday nights.
The restaurant used to charge $1 corkage for Nova Scotia wine "to drive awareness and sales" of local wine, an initiative that "came out of a slow food conference" that Cristakos attended, a conference that also inspired him to list only Canadian white wines on his list. (It's hard to do all-Canadian for the red section, given the lack of range in red styles in Nova Scotia and given interprovincial trade barriers that reduce the number of quality wines available from other parts of the country.)
Local wine has no problem selling these days, so Cristakos relocated the customer incentive to Wednesday nights, "to boost sales during a slow time," he says.
To make the most of corkage fees, call ahead to restaurants to ask what they charge. Ten dollars is very reasonable. Fifteen is not bad. Anything over $25 is an indication that the restaurant does not appreciate the practice, and some refuse to offer corkage all together.
Ask restaurants if they reduce corkage on any particular day or for special events. Target those days, and enjoy a meal you don't have to clean up after, paired with a reasonable tab. For a classy touch, offer your server (or the restaurant sommelier, if there is one), a taste. Ten bucks says you'll get great service.
Note: Moira Peters and Craig Pinhey will launch their new book The Wine Lover’s Guide to Atlantic Canada on Wednesday, Aug. 24 at 7 p.m. at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. All our welcome and the event will feature panel discussions, author readings, Q&A’s and wine tasting. You can find out more here.