Every once in a while when we dine out, instead of ordering a bottle from the restaurant’s wine list, we like to bring one of our own. We usually encourage people to order from the list, because often you can discover wines you’ve never had before, or thought to try, but sometimes you have a special bottle you’ve been saving at the house, and although you’re a good cook, you realize it would be even more special to drink it at a restaurant you love. And this is where understanding the delicate dance of the corkage fee comes in.
While most good restaurants allow diners to bring their own wine, some don’t, so the first step in deciding whether or not to bring your own bottle is to call ahead and ask if it’s allowed. We usually ask when we make the initial reservation or when we confirm that reservation on the day for which it was set. Simply ask the maître d’ what the restaurant’s corkage policy is, and then whether or not they have a fee.
While a restaurant may allow you to bring your own wine, it is up to them to decide the fee they want to charge you to do so. While many places charge a corkage fee in the ballpark of $20-$40, the fee can often be much more, which is why it’s good to ask. For example Thomas Keller’s restaurants The French Laundry and Per Se charge $150 for each bottle a guest brings. Whether or not you bring your own wine and pay the corkage fee the restaurant requires is up to you, though when corkage fees become sky high, such as at Keller’s restaurants, we recommend simply ordering off the restaurant’s list, or selecting another place to dine.
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One thing to note, should you desire to bring your own wine, is that you should never look at the corkage fee as a way to save money, bringing a cheap bottle and paying the fee in order to undercut the price of wine on the restaurant’s list. If you decide to bring your own bottle, bring something nice; we stick to the general rule that it should have cost you at least $25. Nice restaurants will usually know when you’ve brought in an inexpensive bottle and it will make you to look like a cheapskate.
Once you’ve established that the restaurant allows you to bring your own bottle, and what the fee is, when you arrive at the restaurant, don’t show up with the bottle in a paper sack. We recommend bringing it in a nice carrier, or simply carrying it on its own. As soon as you check in and sit down, inform the staff you’ve brought a bottle of your own that you’d like to drink, and then let them take over.
After the bottle’s been opened and poured, a nice gesture is to offer your server and the sommelier a taste, especially if the bottle is truly special or the person serving it to you seems to take a particular interest in it.
Finally, once you’ve drunk the bottle you’ve purchased and are ready to pay the bill, make sure you tip at least twenty percent. Even though you didn’t purchase the bottle from the restaurant, the server opened it and served it to you, plus being a good tipper is just a good rule to follow.