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Serious Grape: Embracing Corkage Fees

On Fridays, Deb Harkness of Good Wine Under $20 drops by with Serious Grape.

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Photograph from neeta_lind on Flickr

I love going out to eat, but do not love the high cost of mediocre wine service that often accompanies it.

Warm red wine, insipid wine list selections, and astronomical markups have finally convinced me that the time has come, wine lovers, to bring wine to restaurants. That means it's time to stop complaining and start embracing corkage fees.

Corkage fees are charges that restaurants assess on diners who bring their own wine to dinner. There is usually a flat fee (on average $5 to $20 per bottle), and it's meant to soften the blow to the restaurant's bottom line that would result if we all stopped buying their overpriced wine selections. And though you may grumble about paying $15 for someone to open your wine bottle, you are still probably paying less than you would ordering off the wine list.

I am a relative novice when it comes to taking wine to restaurants. I usually just swallow my amazement and pay $45 for the same bottle of wine I bought last week for $20. Besides, it's always felt a bit precious to me, as if you were saying "I know more about wine than you do and I want to drink my own stuff." Lately, however, I've been feeling less inspired by restaurant wine lists and more eager to drink my own bottles. It's part economics, part despair. And though I'm still still learning my way, I must say I like the results so far. Dining costs are down, wine quality is up.

If you want to take wine to a restaurant, here's what you need to do:

Call ahead of time and make sure the restaurant permits you to bring your own wine. Not all restaurants are willing or able to do this, and you don't want to show up with wine and get in an argument. Call ahead.

Ask about their corkage policy and fees. Some restaurants ask you not to bring a wine they serve. Some restaurants have a 2 bottle limit. Some restaurants charge $5—some charge $40. Know what you're getting into before you get there.

In general, I find that if you have a bottle of wine that costs under $10, it's probably not worth it to bring your own wine and pay corkage. If you spent $12 or more on a wine, however, you will probably spend less on corkage than you would on a comparable wine.

Let your server know when you sit down that you brought wine. If it needs an ice bucket, they will bring it. In some restaurants, they take it from your table to open, in others they open it right there.

Tip appropriately. Don't forget to include the corkage when you calculate the tip. The wait-staff doesn't determine the corkage fees or the wine markups that led you to bring wine in the first place. You're tipping them for their service, in this case taking care of the wine and pouring it. We're talking $3 to $4—just do it.

Do I still buy wine at restaurants? Absolutely. But given my positive experiences taking my own wine and paying the corkage fees, I'm going to be pickier about the restaurants and wine lists who will earn this business.

What are your thoughts about corkage? Do you take wine to restaurants, and what have your experiences been?

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