Most of you that read this blog are bargain and value wine hunters, so I don’t want to mislead you right off the bat. When I bring wine to a restaurant, it is not because I want to save money. I have two reasons for bringing my own wine to a restaurant. The wine is a special bottle of wine that I want to enjoy at a very nice restaurant. By special, I mean a bottle that has been aging in my wine cellar for years, a bottle of wine from a winery where I have met the winemaker or owners, or a distinguished bottle of wine given to me by a friend to enjoy on a special occasion. This should give you an idea of what I mean by special. The second reason for bringing wine to a restaurant is that the restaurant has a meager wine list. Small neighborhood restaurants are more likely to have a haphazard wine list with a lot of supermarket wine on the menu. I bring a nice bottle of quality wine, perhaps not one of my very best but a very good selection.
When selecting a restaurant, I do pay attention to corkage fees. Corkage fees vary from none to as high as $50. Yes, I have seen a corkage fee that high at one San Francisco Restaurant. Michael Mina charged that for a while at his restaurant in the St. Francis Hotel. Later he lowered it to $35 and the restaurant is now closed at that location. Neighborhood restaurants in my belief should not charge over $15. In Burlingame, Rocca charges $12 and on Monday nights, which is the restaurant’s slow night, no corkage fee. Il Fornaio charges a $10 corkage fee. I would pay as high as $25 at a very high-end restaurant to be able to have my special bottle of wine opened. For local or small restaurants, $15 is my top end.
The unwritten rules of bringing wine to a restaurant
Always make sure your bottle is distinctive.
Never bring a wine to the restaurant that they offer on their wine list. Call ahead to inquire about the corkage fee and corkage policy. My wine friend Jim once brought bottle of an old French wine to a restaurant and ended up paying a whopping $300 corkage fee. Why? Because this fancy San Francisco restaurant had this same bottle of wine on their list. The corkage policy was that, if you bring in the same wine, you pay the price of the wine that is on the list. I know this sounds a little far fetched, but it is a true story.
The wine should never be cheap, inexpensive, or have a label like Trader Joe’s, Kirkland, or the like. That is slap in the face to the restaurant.
If the server shows any interest or curiosity about your wine, offer him or her a taste. More often than not, they will decline. Being courteous to your server often results in having the corkage fee waived. If that happens, be sure to be very generous when tallying up the tip at the end of your meal.