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Cork competency

The debate rages on about restaurants not allowing diners to bring in their own bottles of wine. (I touched on this back in February.) It’s an interesting read, lending some insight into the complexities around how to price wine and whether corkage is a benefit or not to the diner. I understand restaurateurs taking exception with diners bringing in cheap grocery-store wines and paying corkage, on both a business and culinary level.

Conversely, though I pretty much always order from the menu, I have often found the pricing to be out of line, and can certainly understand why diners would bring a bottle of their own, whether to celebrate a special occasion with a choice selection from the rack or, as Wine Patrol’s Lance Cutler is quoted, "a type of financial self-defense." Ultimately the law is on the philistine’s side, and preventing
customers from bringing any wine, be it Clos bu Bois or Clos du Val,
can offend customers.

In my mind, restaurateurs need to make their wine lists more appealing if they want to reduce the financial impact of diners bringing their own:

  • Bring markup and corkage more in line with each other. As noted in the article, most restaurants mark up 200-300% of cost. That works out pretty well if the cost of the bottle and the price of markup are roughly equivalent, but on much more expensive bottles, the margin will be thinner. Still, if the markup and corkage are equivalent, the restaurant gets their cut either way.
  • Price competitively. I’m fine with a threefold markup from cost, but I get irritated when I see wine lists with cheap wines bought at retail and marked up from there. Along Valencia Corridor, I cannot say how many times I’ve seen wines on the list that retail for $10 at BiRite and go for $30 or more at the restaurant. On the one hand it incents me to buy a better bottle off the list, but upon return, I will more likely bring a good bottle and pay the corkage. It’s better value in the end. If the price in the restaurant were closer to retail — and it can still be somewhat higher — I would order from the menu without hesitation.
  • Broaden the pricing structure. I hate going to a restaurant where the wine list starts at $85. I am not opposed to spending that much or more on a bottle, but I don’t want that to be the basline. In the event that I order that $85 bottle, I feel like a cheapskate. Add a couple of $50 bottles (or even less), and I’ll probably order at least the $85 if not more.
  • Specialize or diversify. I love seeing wine lists that offer a hand-picked selection of unique and hard-to-find wines. Small producers, obscure or up-and-coming regions and unusual grapes or blends always pique my interest; likewise deep menus of specific regions or methods. Knowing you’re getting something you can’t pick up even at the better merchants in town, much less Safeway, is a major draw.
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