By Robert Whitley
If you are anything like most wine enthusiasts, a fair number of your tasting experiences occur while dining out. And if you are anything like me, sometimes you order a wine off the restaurant list and sometimes you bring your own.
When I bring my own, I expect to pay a corkage fee. I understand and accept this. Even a small restaurant has a significant investment in its wine inventory and must eke out a profit on its wine service, even if the service is merely providing stemware and pulling the cork.
It can go beyond that, of course, and the extra effort is always appreciated. Take, for example, my recent dinner at A.R. Valentien in La Jolla, Calif., with longtime friend and colleague, Bruce Schoenfeld of Travel & Leisure magazine.
It was a reunion of sorts because neither of us had seen the other in several years, so each of us brought a special bottle of wine. The two together would have cost several hundred dollars had we ordered them off the list — if the wines had even been available, which they weren't.
So even though we ordered another bottle of wine from the restaurant inventory, I was neither shocked nor disappointed to find a corkage fee had been added when I asked for the bill. You buy one but bring in two, you should accept the corkage and be happy the tab is a bit lighter, despite the addition of the service charge.
I had a different experience a couple of weeks later that wasn't nearly as clear-cut, and it ultimately tainted the experience as well as my opinion of the restaurant. It was at a new, fairly trendy spot that boasts a small but astute list of wines at moderate prices. There are a couple of $100-plus wines on this list, but most fall between $30 and $50.
We were a group of seven, including three sommeliers from the just-finished Sommelier Challengeinternational wine competition. I brought two extraordinary red wines from my wine cellar; not to save money, but rather to share something personal and special with my guests. More often than not, that is the motivation for taking a wine from home into a restaurant that obviously has a decent wine selection of its own.
Over the course of the dinner, we ordered four bottles of wine from the restaurant's list. Not too shabby for a group of seven. That was in addition to the two I brought. So, I was a bit stunned when I asked for the check and found two corkage fees had been added to the tab. For unlike my evening at A.R. Valentien, on this night we ordered generously from the restaurant's offering.
I was all the more surprised because this was and is a wine savvy restaurant that is trying to build its clientele and cultivate loyalty in what is a difficult environment for new restaurants. It is common courtesy to waive any corkage fees when a customer also orders in abundance off the wine list.
I bit my lip and said nothing, however, because this certainly is not a requirement, which brings me to my point. If you plan to take a bottle of wine out with you, know the restaurant's corkage policy.
My second point is that even if you know the restaurant's policy, it might serve you well to call ahead. I have often negotiated either a lower corkage or a complete waiver by calling in advance and explaining that I intended to purchase from the restaurant wine list, even though I was bringing in a bottle or two from my own cellar.
That gives the owner or manager the opportunity to clear a corkage waiver in advance with your server. Most servers would not have the authority to waive the corkage fee on their own. These are the things you can do to avoid an awkward discussion at the table and perhaps save yourself a few bucks.
Restaurants have a role in this drama as well, for the economic downturn has opened a Pandora's box of innovative promotions to keep struggling restaurants afloat. A number of these are wine related, including a rapidly growing movement to eliminate corkage fees altogether. Some restaurants have adopted such a policy with tremendous success.
Other popular promotions include half-price wine nights and "no-corkage" nights. The fact that these promotions often lead to packed restaurants tells me those who dine out on a regular basis are tired of the high price of wine in restaurants, and they absolutely loathe paying a corkage fee. How else to explain the surge in business when those barriers are lowered?
Personally, I don't mind paying a corkage fee when I believe it is fair. But when I purchase four bottles of wine for seven people and still get tagged with a fee for the two bottles I brought from home, I leave feeling a bit gouged.
I doubt I am alone.
Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value.
Torres 2009 Vina Esmeralda, Catalunya, Spain ($15) — Aromatic whites often don't get the attention they deserve because of the perception they aren't serious wines, and that's a shame. Not every wine could or should be a monument to the glories of the grape. Sometimes a wine should be the embodiment of the simple pleasures in life, and so it is with Vina Esmeralda, a blend of Muscat de Alexandria and Gewurztraminer. This wine offers a floral nose of rose petal and jasmine, with hints of red citrus (could be orange, could be tangerine) and spice. It is light in body — with only 11.7 percent alcohol by volume — and delicate, but it has precise, focused flavors and a long, satisfying finish. It is the perfect wine with spicy Mediterranean or Asian appetizers. Rating: 88.
Beronia 2005 Rioja Reserva, Spain ($20) — The beauties of Rioja Reserva, and they are many, boil down to two key considerations providing quality benchmarks have been met. The wines are ready to drink upon release, and they are modestly priced given the quality. Beronia's current reserva is from the very good 2005 vintage. Improvements in the cellar, such as new casks, have lifted quality — it is evident in this wine, which shows lovely red fruits, ample but sweet tannins, and a judicious hint of the wood. The alcohol by volume is a moderate 13.5 percent, and the wines exhibits flavor complexity and balance. A steal at $20 or less. Rating: 90.
To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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