Tempest in a Bottle
Never in all my years have I come upon a topic of such pervasive misinformation and consternation as corkage in the great state of Minnesota. Now, corkage is the fee charged by a restaurant to open and serve a bottle of wine brought in by a customer. But the word also refers colloquially to all things surrounding that activity: corkage policies, corkage-friendly, corkage-baffled.
Most people hereabouts are corkage-misinformed. Even people who are eyeballs-deep in the business think it's illegal. There are even restaurateurs who believe they have been boldly breaking Minnesota's provincial, anti-wine, anti-corkage laws; they let customers bring in bottles, and then they fuss around with their recycling and lose sleep fearing for their liquor license.
It is totally legal in both Minneapolis and St. Paul for a restaurant that holds a license permitting the consumption of alcohol on the premises to allow patrons to bring in a bottle of wine. But is it polite? What's the etiquette of corkage? Is it welcomed or despised? Is it a cheapskate's trick or a true connoisseur's trait?
The answer is...yes.
I called a dozen restaurants for this story and found tales of horror and tales of joy, restaurateurs who welcome brought-in bottles and those who fear them, and fees that run from free to $25. But I'd like to put all this in context, because the topic can cause such a flurry of Minnesota-flagellation, with moans that we're some kind of Puritanical backwater. Which we may or may not be, but, you know, the laws and habits around here are not the weather around here; we do have some control over them. If you feel yourself getting hot under the collar already, please know that corkage is purely a matter of negotiation between diner and restaurateur.
Corkage is, above all, local. For example, in some cities corkage is such a normal part of the dining experience that restaurant reviewers put corkage fees in nearly every review, right in the box with the stars and all. In some circles, it's a way of life. In California's Sonoma County, one restaurant will rent you an on-site wine locker so you can store your cellar there: long-term corkage. California corkage fees run around $15, while in New York City, corkage is pretty rare and restaurants charge as much as $80 for the privilege. In the state of Virginia, corkage is flat-out illegal. So let's all be glad we're not in Virginia.
Minnesota liquor laws set basic guidelines--which permit corkage--for the state. But local governments can make stricter rules. Corkage might be illegal someplace or other, if some municipal government drafted legislation specifically barring it. If you live in Orono or Afton, you'll have to figure this out for yourself.
Let's consider the issue from the restaurant's perspective. There are some pretty substantial costs involved in serving you your own bottle of wine. In Minneapolis, an annual wine and beer license costs $2,000. Then there's their liability insurance in case you get sloshed from drinking your bottle of wine and drive through their front window. There's the cost of employing the person who does the wine. There's storage of the wine you're not drinking, printing the wine lists you won't use, etc.
"Selling wine is what we do, part of the way we make money," says Tim Niver, general manager at Aquavit. "We're still providing service for wine, the opening, the pouring, washing the glasses, all those things that go with it. That's what [Aquavit's] $20 fee goes for. But we're here to do what the guests want. That's the whole idea of service, and etiquette goes both ways. We have regulars that bring wine, wine collectors, and it makes them feel cool to bring what they want in, and that's great with us."
Everyone I talked to recommended a few points of corkage etiquette: Call the restaurant and ask or let them know you'll be bringing a bottle. Don't bring wine that's already on the restaurant's wine list. Make some kind of good-faith effort to make sure the restaurant isn't suffering because you're saving: Buy wine, too. Or better yet, become a regular: Regulars can do whatever they want, and they pretty much never get charged corkage.
"Lately we're seeing people bringing in one, two, even three bottles," says Scott Davis, one of Auriga's co-owners. "A lot of people around here bought a lot of wine in the early Nineties, and it's time to drink it. We bring out the nicer Riedel glasses for them, and then sometimes they send wine back to the kitchen, then we send out courses that aren't on the menu. It's a back and forth. One wine collector brings in four bottles of wine by himself. He needs to open them up and try them, and then we all get to try them. It's fun for everyone." For non-regulars, Auriga's corkage fee is $12.
I was surprised to hear time and again that the restaurants with the biggest wine lists, wine staffs, and highest corkage fees are also the restaurants where corkage most often occurs. At Restaurant Alma, where there's an ambitious list, Alma-only European imports, and a whopping $25 corkage, the policy is taken advantage of most nights. Meanwhile, restaurants with more modest lists, like Bobino and Café 128, said they see maybe one bottle a month brought in.
"Basically only connoisseurs bring in their own wine," says Natalie Obee, chef and co-owner of 128, where the corkage fee is $8. "Because we have a very small wine list, I'd almost rather not charge a corkage fee. But you don't want to open the door to people who'd like to take advantage of you."
"Corkage doesn't come up terribly often," agrees Alexander Dixon, owner of the Zander Café. "Our wine list is large enough and priced reasonably enough that most people see no need to bring in bottles." Still, to celebrate the opening of Solo Vino, the wine shop next door, the restaurant is offering the following policy for the next six months: Purchase a bottle of wine at Solo Vino that's not on the wine list at Zander, bring it in with the same-day receipt, and Zander will waive the corkage. (Otherwise $15.)
When I started researching this article, my hope was that Minnesota's corkage laws could be used to everyone's advantage at restaurants that have beer and wine licenses but don't choose to do anything worthwhile with the wine part. Say, neighborhood restaurants like Fat Lorenzo's, or ethnic places like My Le Hoa. But the guy who picked up the phone at Fat Lorenzo's told me the restaurant doesn't allow anyone to bring in anything, anytime, and the person answering at My Le Hoa said the question has never come up, and they expect it never will. So it's more of a chicken-egg loop than I suspected: These little places have bad wine lists because they don't care about wine, which is the same reason they don't have corkage policies. But then people who care about wine don't go to them, ever, and never the twain shall meet.
I can't remember ever putting a direct plea to the trade in a column before, but here goes: If $12 or $15 is a meaningful sum of money to you, and you have a beer and wine license, why not try a corkage policy? Let me know about it, and I'll get the word out.
Which may or may not make any difference at all. A few weeks ago I wrote about the St. Paul Bagelry and Pizza Napoletana, the good pizza place in Roseville that looks like a bagel shop and has an $8 corkage fee. For this story I called up owner Mike Sherwood to see if anyone had taken advantage of the policy. No one had, not a one.
Is corkage going to be one of those things that people like the idea of, but don't actually have the habits to promote--like 24-hour fine dining? Or will the combination of greater wine interest and the recession change the local corkage landscape forever? Zander's Dixon predicts that liquor laws in general will have to change. "Wine bars are becoming the thing right now," he says. "And the rules are going to have to change to allow more flexibility."
There's evidence that he's right. Both Minneapolis and St. Paul have issued virtually all of their limited supply of restaurant wine and beer licenses and are considering creating more. And no one is protesting. Is our legendarily paternalistic, moralistic, drinking-is-for-the-evil culture eroding? Seems like it--incrementally, but measurably.
Or have I just been bringing too many bottles to too many restaurants? Was it Thomas Jefferson who said, 'No country is poor where the wine is cheap'? Does the same go for a state, a city, a neighborhood, a restaurant?
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