As part of the LA Times Food Bowl, hosted a panel on corkage with five hospitality industry rock stars, moderated by Piero Selvaggio, dean of Italian cuisine, at his restaurant, Valentino in Santa Monica, California. Herewith are the panelists who represented a cross-section of the industry:
Bonnie Graves: Sommelier, Founder & President of Girl Meets Grape a wine & lifestyle advisory
Hunter Hall : President LA Board of Directors California Restaurant  Association and Principal at Archetype Hospitality & Development
Lou Amdur : Wine Guru with an astonishing palate and Proprietor of Lou Wine Shop in Los Feliz
Mandy Woodward: Sommelier at Faith & Flower, freelance consultant and wine educator
Ting Su: Co-Founder of Eagle Rock Brewery, craft beer evangelist, founder of the Women's Beer forum, a monthly meeting about craft beer

Everyone had their own perspective, of course, and related a variety of dismaying work stories about people being ‘unclear on the concept’ of bringing wine to a restaurant - like the times people unabashedly brought six or seven bottles of wine to dinner and were baffled when told it was not allowed or that only two bottles of wine were permitted…for a corkage fee for each bottle! Quelle horreur! Or the time diners brought in a milk carton full of warm Dom Perignon that had been left in their car and, surprisingly, hadn’t exploded. Those people should be put on an international ‘do not sell wine-to list’.

Crazy customer stories are endless but there was consensus on several points regarding customers, sometimes willful, misunderstanding as to why there is a corkage fee at all.

Takeaways from the experts:

  • People simply do not consider the cost to the restaurant of glassware, proper wine service and the loss of revenue when not buying from the restaurant’s wine list.
  • When considering a corkage fee, restaurants have to consider different costs associated with different wines. In other words, the cost of a case of humble vino as opposed to a case of vintage Bordeaux is amortized to come up with a fair corkage fee.
  • Customers feel entitled, so as a result, corkage has devolved into diners taking advantage of restaurants by complaining and being argumentative, not-to-mention rude.
  • There’s no denying, some diners want more for the least, anything to avoid paying.
  • No one should feel excluded from enjoying wine with their meal so corkage is available to allow everyone to enjoy the experience by bringing their own bottle.
  • First it was BYOB, as in toting your bottles to a backyard barbeque. Then corkage, as in toting your wine to a restaurant, became popular in the last ten years.
  • Some people are confused about the size of a bottle of wine…a standard bottle is 750ml.
  • A magnum is not a ‘standard bottle of wine’ so customers should be prepared to be charged corkage for two bottles.Everybody loves a discount. No news here!

While corkage was the focus of the panel, the discussion pivoted when Hunter Hall, President of the Board of the California Restaurant Association (CRA) and someone who should know, in response to the conversation about restaurants’ bottom line vis a vis enormous competition in the restaurant space, declared that there were simply too many restaurants. Everyone resolutely agreed. With a restaurant opening seemingly every ten seconds, there is no way they all will make it. Would-be restaurateurs often have no idea about the business end of running a restaurant. They see the glamour of celebrity chefs and think they just have to get one, kind of like buying a show dog whatever the cost, for their restaurant to be successful. Often after multi-million dollar build-outs and a grueling year or so in business, the restaurant dies a pitiful death from lack of business savvy. I suggested the CRA should offer an accreditation course for wannabe restaurateurs before they buy one single pot or pan and save delusional humans the heartbreak of failure and loss of big bucks.

With so much competition, restaurants have to standout and create enticing come-ons to get people through the door…maybe have the equivalent of Happy Hour menu specials, complimentary appetizer, get on Instagram. The Internet and social media provide endless outlets for creative promoting. Promote corkage!

Also, discussed was the idea of beer corkage as another way to lure new customers. Craft beer has a solid place at the table and is on a par with wine when thinking about food pairing. Truth be told, a lot of people think it is superior than wine with food as carbonation helps “the medicine go down” but chacun à son goût as they say! Acceptance of beer corkage could provide restaurants with a much needed boost as:
- It would attract new customers who would not otherwise patronize certain restaurants
- Acknowledge that beer collectors are in the same league as wine collectors
- Generate positive and newsworthy PR
- Provide customers with another choice as to what personal beverage they can bring to enjoy
- Demonstrate that they are on the cutting edge of consumer trends in the food, beverage and hospitality industry
- Customers will talk about their beer corkage experience. Word of mouth - invaluable!
- Make customers happy…happy customers are repeat customers!

The corkage panel had to wrap up but the discussion offered up a lot of food for thought for customers and restaurateurs alike and certainly provided enough fodder to entertain several panels about corkage. Attendance was free but we asked attendees to bring a bottle of wine or craft beer to share during the discussion. I must say, it was a great idea and they brought some mighty fine wine. Corkage, of course, was free.