When the wine corkage bill goes into effect in July, it carries a few thorns for Virginia restaurateurs. Should they allow customers to bring in their own bottles, and how much should they charge to open and serve them? How much will their profit margins suffer? And will people start brown-bagging some Yellow Tail to pair with that pricey beef tenderloin?
The corkage bill passed relatively quietly in the General Assembly last month and awaits the signature of wine industry-supporting Gov. McDonnell by next week. Hospitality industry lobbyists were mixed on the issue, some claiming it would hurt restaurant owners; others, particularly in Northern Virginia and Tidewater, hoped it would level the playing field with bring-your-own policies in neighboring states.
Restaurant owners can choose to offer corkage services for a fee or free or not at all; standard charges are $10-20, but high-end restaurants might charge significantly more to discourage the practice. While restaurant owners could gain some business, they worry about losing the all-important profit margins that come from wine sales. "It's a scary, slippery slope when we start to give away the services we offer and to give away that piece of our market," says John Van Peppen of Fleming's Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar, who spoke against the bill to lawmakers. "Right now the bill is a big negative for us. We carry a large inventory of wine and that's a cost that's associated with running a business." Combine that with expensive stemware and staff time and it's a costly scenario, he adds.
But for some smaller independents, corkage is another way to appeal to a segment of the dining public that likes the affordability or personal-taste factors. Etiquette is straightforward: Guests should call the restaurant to determine its policy and corkage fee. Some oenophiles suggest saving this service for times when rare or aged bottles are brought from a personal cellar for a special occasion. Customers should not bring wines that are on the restaurant's own list. They should tip on the corkage fee and for extra service associated with decanting the wine. Some customers suggest bringing a bottle and ordering a second bottle from the restaurant's wine list. It is polite to offer the sommelier or chef a taste of the wine, particularly if the wine is unusual.
Some industry pros predict that the bill won't change most customer habits and won't be a big issue for most restaurants. But some areas, particularly California wine country, are known for corkage policies that encourage consumption and keep customers and wineries happy. Perhaps the best uses are in restaurants with limited or subpar wine lists where customers would like more options. Small restaurants might welcome the policy while those with state-of-the-art cellars and top-end bottles will likely need a glass of their own to drown out their displeasure.
Monthly wine dinner at Ellwood Thompson's Café is March 28 at 6 p.m. A three-course meal with wine pairings is $35 and includes paté, rockfish and cassoulet. See ellwoodscafe.com for details.
Barboursville Vineyards joins the Berkeley Hotel for a wine dinner March 24. A reception begins at 6:30 p.m. with oysters on the half shell paired with sauvignon blanc, followed by a four-course meal and wine pairings. Luca Paschina, Barboursville's award-winning winemaker, plays host. Tariff is $59 per person, plus tax and tip. Reserve at 225-5105. berkeleyhotel.com.