Swill Bill: Corkage Uncorked
With Hong Kong’s fine wine auction market rocketing to global prominence and private collections bursting at the seams, where-oh-where are we going to drink these fabulous wines? For the culinary-challenged, brown bagging wine into a restaurant is the only way to do your wine cellar justice. But just what is the modern corkage etiquette? Is it welcomed or despised? Is it a cheapskate’s trick or a connoisseur’s privilege?
Not all restaurants allow to bring your own bottle (BYOB), so when visiting for the first time it is a good idea to call ahead to check their corkage policy. Corkage is the fee charged by a restaurant to open and serve a bottle of wine brought in by a customer. Fees can run as high as $400 per bottle, so make sure the wine is worth the cost. Corkage is negotiable or often waived for regulars and many restaurants have adopted a “one for one” policy, whereby they will reduce or waive the corkage fee if you buy a bottle off their list.
Most restaurants prefer that you DOYB (drop-off your bottle) at the restaurant in advance. Frank Sun, owner of Tribute, suggests depositing your bottle “at least one day ahead so we have time to make sure the wines are at correct temperatures for serving.” When it comes to older vintages, DOYB at least two days in advance to allow the sediment to settle into the base of the bottle.
If you chose to carry the bottle into the restaurant on the evening itself, hand it to the maitre d’ on arrival or simply set it on your table. As the bottle may need chilling or decanting, this is the time to give the server your preferences. Expect that inexperienced servers will look a touch flustered when you pull out your own bottle and a few moments later will return to inform you of the corkage charge. When hosting a table, it might be best to arrive a few minutes early to sort out the financial discussion so as not to embarrass the guests.
Nobody likes a cheapskate, so make the wine count. Brown bagging wine into a restaurant is not about saving money, but the chance to drink your valued wines in the company of excellent food. Bring wine that is suitable for the level of restaurant and the occasion. BYOB wines should be special – such as wine from your anniversary year — or rare. Bringing a bottle that is already on the restaurant’s wine list is a no-no, so before arrival, check whether the restaurant already carries your special bottle. If so, buy it off the list or bring a different selection.
With advance arrangements, many restaurants will devise a tasting menu to match your wine. In this case, always offer a glass to the chef. If bringing multiple bottles for a wine tasting dinner, it is best to meet with the sommeliers or service staff in advance in order to arrange sufficient glassware, decanters and other service needs. Corkage fees for a formal tasting are likely to be substantial as they consume a considerable amount of glassware and staff attention, detracting from other patrons. Though you brought the bottle from your private cellar, your server or sommelier will treat it as if purchased off the list, so tip accordingly. It is good form to offer a small serving to the sommelier and a glass sent to the chef is always appreciated.