When a customer brought his own wine to Maplewood Grill in Vienna on New Year’s Eve, owner Marcel Kuchler smelled a rat. “You don’t want to mess around with the [Alcohol Beverage Control],” he said. “They send undercover people around all the time, so you don’t want to jeopardize your license or risk a fine.”
Kuchler was within his rights to refuse the request, even though it is legal for restaurants to allow customers to bring their own wine for dinner. The practice, called “corkage,” was legalized in Virginia last July 1. But hardly anyone – restaurants or customers – know about it.
“We were a little behind in learning about the law,” Kuchler says. Now the restaurant welcomes customers to bring their own wine and will charge a $20 fee for opening and pouring it, but no one else has tried. “He’s the only one I can recall,” Kuchler said of the New Years Eve customer.
Down the street, Vienna’s Outback Steakhouse charges $6.50 for opening and pouring your own wine. Such a modest fee at a family restaurant that may have a limited wine list seems like a great deal for wine lovers. A $15 Cotes-du-Rhone or a $20 California cabernet sauvignon could pair nicely with that steak and cost much less (and taste better) than a wine priced at $30-$40 with a typical restaurant markup. The restaurant might also gain additional business from wine lovers who would be put off by a limited selection. Alas, “not many” people take advantage of it, a restaurant staffer said.
Frank Morgan, a resident of Chesapeake, Va., who writes the Drink What You Like blog, found that restaurants in the Hampton Roads area were also slow to realize the law had changed. “I checked with several restaurants and they reported that not even one bottle had been brought in,” he says. “I’m surprised the Virginia wine industry didn’t try to educate consumers and restaurants – a missed opportunity.”
Virginia winemaker Chris Pearmund, of Pearmund Cellars, the Winery at LaGrange and Vint Hill Craft Winery, recently took a bottle of 1991 Caymus Special Select Cabernet Sauvignon to a restaurant to celebrate a friend’s 21st birthday. Without the corkage law, or if the restaurant had been unwilling to open the wine, the celebration would have taken place in a private home. As it was, “Everybody won,” Pearmund says.
“Many restaurateurs don’t understand the benefit of having customers bring better wines, or learn their customers’ choice of wines to have with dinner,” Pearmund says.
“Servers can learn more about wine as well from this by engaging customers properly. Its not about being cheap, it should be about better wines, and wines one wants while eating out.”
Pearmund offered to refund half of all corkage fees for customers who took any Virginia wine to a restaurant, but he says not many customers have asked for the refund.
For consumers, there are a few things to remember about corkage. The law allows restaurants to welcome your wine, but they are not required to do so. It is considered proper “corkage etiquette” to call ahead and inquire about the restaurant’s policy and fee, and to bring only wines the restaurant does not offer. It’s also good etiquette to purchase something – even a glass of wine – from the restaurant’s list, and if there is a sommelier, offer him or her a taste of your special wine.
Even where corkage has long been legal, such as in the District of Columbia, the vast majority of restaurant patrons will order off the list. Corkage is currently not allowed in Maryland, though legislation is planned for this session to permit it statewide. Restaurants can gain extra business from wine collectors by welcoming the practice. And those that for whatever reason don’t put a lot of effort into their wine lists – Asian restaurants, for example – should encourage corkage as a way of bringing in extra business.
Ignorance about corkage is not bliss. As Pearmund says, “Everybody wins.”
(This column was published February 1, 2012, in The Washington Post.)