Author: Christina Julian
January, 2017 Issue
An informal phone conversation went from cordial to curt when I learn corkage is no longer free and ask the simple question: Why?
Every morning, I look into the bathroom mirror and chant: “Today will be different. The children will nap, words will flow freely, pet poop will disappear, peace and harmony in the world.” Every night, as my head hits the pillow, I get real with myself and accept that most of these things will not happen, and that’s OK—New Year, new outlook. One resolution includes a renewed commitment to myself (and husband) to get out to eat without the twins at least once per week. Make that once per month, since I’ve also resolved to set more attainable goals and save money. To start, we’ll bring our own wine!
One meal into this mission, I begin to question the feasibility of BYOB. It would appear that during my brief sabbatical from the social scene, free corkage isn’t so easy to come by. I may be in the minority here, but as a local, is it wrong to expect a perk every now and again? I endure the traffic at the hand of tourism, and I buy local wines in force during winery visits (and require all wayward visitors to do the same), none of which seems to matter when it comes to the commerce potential of popping a top. On one hand, I get it: Beverage service at restaurants is the cash cow. But given the price tag that follows just about any Napa Valley meal, it seems like cutting a deal with corkage could be an easy way to please.
I start sleuthing up-valley restaurants to get a sense of what I’m up against. I place a call to Goose & Gander, where I’ve gorged on the gargantuan burger and duck fat fries many times, pre-tots-in-tow. An informal phone conversation went from cordial to curt when I learn corkage is no longer free and ask the simple question: Why? The woman who took my call (and preferred to remain nameless) told me corkage has been an “on and off again” conversation for many years. Apparently, I’ll never know why, because the call ended before its time—but not before I learn corkage is $20 per bottle, unless a bottle is purchased, after which the first outside bottle is waived.
After that prickly conversation, I dive in with aplomb and contact Press, which I know swings big when it comes to corkage (and food) costs. Megan, who answers my call, is more than happy to tout the restaurant’s policy and is in no way defensive about the discussion. Guests are charged $30 per 750ml bottle, per party of two. It also offers a one-for-one policy like Goose & Gander. When I question the hefty price tag, she offers, “We take pride in our wine list. We sell at less of a mark-up and offer some rare older vintages. We like to think this gives people an opportunity to try some really unique wines.” Not a single huff or puff of indignation nor a trace of embarrassment for commandeering such a fee for the mere act of opening a bottle of someone else’s wine.
Beneath the upper echelon, places like Boskos, the everyman’s pasta/pizza joint in Calistoga, charges $10 per bottle but donates all proceeds to the local Boys and Girls Club. Farmstead in St. Helena does one better, charging only $5 per bottle and donating the fee to different community-based nonprofits as part of its Corkage for Community, a program that’s raised $100,000 since it was instituted five years ago. This tells me a few things. Our restaurants move a lot of wine, regardless of whether it’s BYO or shelved onsite. It also tells me, if this is the type of loot Farmstead rakes in off of a five-buck-a-bottle fee, imagine the profit margin when corkage flies up the flagpole to the $20 or $30 range.
Amid all the moola makers, there are places like Tra Vigne Pizzeria, Brasswood Kitchen, Market and Sam’s Social Club, which all pop the top off the first bottle for free. I steal a moment with Sam’s (and Indian Springs) owner John Merchant, who explains why he didn’t flinch at the idea of waiving corkage—despite the friend who urged him against the idea, claiming he would lose as much as $50,000 per year in doing so. Merchant celebrates the upsides that come with the freebee—including referrals from wineries and repeat business from locals—which outweigh any perceived losses.
If I were the type to stir the pot, I’d ask all those price gougers in the restaurant cloud: If these cork pop stars can do it, why not you? But another resolution of mine for 2017 is to accept the things I cannot change and enjoy silver lining moments while they last.
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