Corkage Dilemma: A Wine-Wine Solution

A top Miami businessman brought a 1959 Chateau Latour for a friend’s birthday dinner at a prominent local Italian restaurant. He offered to buy a top champagne from the wine list so that the restaurant could earn a good profit. The manager refused, so the celebrants left and took their business elsewhere.

Restaurateurs earn much of their profit from customers who order good wines with their meals, and many charge a “corkage” fee to encourage customers to do so. I get it: A diner who pays $25 to open a bottle of swill may be unprofitable. Some states help the restaurateurs—but assuredly not the customers—by banning corkage.

In some cities, notably those heavily reliant on tourism, where repeat business is hardly a foregone conclusion, many of the best restaurants refuse to allow customers to bring their own wines at all. In California, almost all restaurants allow corkage. But, in Miami and New York dozens of top restaurants don’t. While most will be flexible with regular customers, a few are utterly rigid about their rules.

Like many wine collectors, my wife and I generally avoid restaurants that hew to a rigid no-corkage policy. We want to bring a wine from our own cellar that almost certainly won’t be on the wine list. Assuming wine collectors are desirable customers, this is a lose-lose outcome.

As a businessman, I would hate to lose my best customers, which invites a simple question: If wine collectors are desirable customers, because of their overall spending and because they introduce friends to the restaurant, why not have rules that welcome them, while discouraging the corkage-to-save-money crowd? Perhaps set corkage at the median price on the wine list. Perhaps set a minimum bill per person, if customers bring wines of their own.

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