Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Corkage Policy at Restaurant Gougé

Recently, there has been some grumbling in the press about the corkage fees here at the World Famous Restaurant Gougé. While we do not feel that we need to justify the $150 corkage fee, Restaurant Gougé is the proud recipient of Three Michelin Tires as well as the prestigious Just for Men® Beard Award after all, we did feel the need to clarify our generous corkage policy. Just so you’ll shut the hell up.

First of all, Restaurant Gougé is under no obligation to allow any patron to bring in his own bottle of wine. What the hell is wrong with you? We’re trying to make money, and you’re bringing in some poorly stored, overpriced trophy wine from your own collection? We have an award-winning wine list filled with poorly stored, overpriced trophy wines! We don’t need yours. And then you expect us to charge you only $25 for the privilege of serving you your own bottle of wine as some kind of thank you for choosing us for your special occasion? How about this? We take $25 off the cost of your meal and then we get to open your “special occasion” wine and pour it down the sink. That’s pretty much what you’re doing anyway when you serve it to your idiot friends, only now, at least, you get $25 out of it. That works for us. Hey, $25 is two martinis that cost us $6 in ingredients—we’re fine with that.

Our generous corkage fee helps us to employ the many sommeliers who work here at Restaurant Gougé. Many have initials after their name, like M.S., or C.S.W. or LOL. These men and women work for virtually nothing so that one day they'll be able to add Restaurant Gougé to their résumé. It’s really cool. We get to pay salaries far below industry standard just because we’re such a famous restaurant and these clowns hope our misplaced good fortune will rub off on them. We’re proud to be known as the industry’s premiere Sweat Shop of Sommeliers, and your generous corkage fee contributions go a long way to sustaining this indispensable form of sommelier slavery. When you pay the corkage fee at Restaurant Gougé, you can sleep peacefully knowing that somewhere a sommelier is being vastly underpaid thanks to your reverence for our dining establishment. Surely, there is no way to measure in dollars what that’s worth. At Restaurant Gougé, we solemnly promise that not one single penny of your $150 corkage fee will see the inside of a sommelier’s pocket! It goes straight to our bottom line with no regard for the folks serving you, just as it should. You have our word.

There are enormous costs involved in having a great wine list. When you are widely acknowledged as one of the great dining establishments in the world, you simply cannot serve pedestrian wines. Not unless you’ve gone to the trouble to find them encased in bottles with very fancy and famous labels. At Restaurant Gougé, we promise that every great bottle of wine on the list is authentic enough to fool any auction house expert regardless of what’s actually inside it. Can you say that about your own wines, even the ones you bought at some shady New York auction house? And even if you don’t care about that, what about us? We’re running an upscale restaurant, world famous, patronized by some of the biggest food and wine fame fuckers you could ever imagine, do you think we can afford to have those bozos see us opening your lame old bottle of Sterling Cabernet and setting on the table?! Are you nuts? Might as well just fart the opening eight bars of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

There are some restaurants that will list all the expenses involved in running a great wine program—the cost of storage, the ridiculously costly inventory, the expensive stemware, the salaries of the sommeliers—and say those costs justify their exorbitant corkage fee, but that’s just a smoke screen. It’s like saying the food is expensive because we have to pay for all those goddamned plates we serve it on, and have you seen the cost of knives and forks! The Chinese are right! No, here at Restaurant Gougé we make no claims that our corkage fee is based on anything other than greed, vanity, and contempt--the very qualities that personify our best, most regular clients. Sure, we could charge a lot less than $150 to open your wine, but what sense does that make? You didn’t make a reservation with us to get a bargain! You dine with us for the ambience, for the experience, for the bragging rights. The big dinner tab at the end of the meal is critical to your enjoyment, and you know it. Tacking on a mere $25 is a slap in the face, and that’s not how we treat our clients. We respect you, and your ability to cough up $125 for the privilege of having our sommelier turn up his nose at your measly little wine. We wouldn’t have it any other way. Your needs always come first at Restaurant Gougé.

If you are mortally offended by restaurant corkage fees, we encourage you to vote with your wallet. Sadly, those of you who complain about our $150 corkage policy have little girls’ wallets and no one here gives a tasty Samoa’s sphincter how you vote. There are countless restaurants with countless corkage policies, but they’re not Restaurant Gougé. Go ahead, write a scathing review about us on Yelp. OOOH, we’re shaking. Yelp is just pinheads talking to other pinheads, a carnival sideshow of sadly deformed humans making a public spectacle of themselves. We’re Restaurant Gougé, we’re review proof now. The more the little people complain, the more the 1% want to be here, away from your lousy table manners and sentimental cheapass celebratory bottles. They don’t want to see you dining in their restaurant, they want to see you busing the tables, washing the dishes, and carefully fetching their Teslas from the valet lot. So please gripe about our corkage policy, gripe as often as you like. It’s exactly what we want.

We hope to see you soon at Restaurant Gougé! Remember, we're not happy unless you're not happy!


renzo said...

The wit is rapier in this one ;)

Steve Lay said...

Wow, Restaurant Gouge appears to be a national chain. Their Mission Statement, though not original, would put most hedge fund managers to shame.
Corkage fees are already out of control.
Background to my logic: Restaurants buy wine at a discount relative to retail and then mark it up 100% (Keystone) on Retail price. That gives them a mark-up in excess of say 133% (on wholesale). If they turnover their wine inventory (value) a minimum of 10 times a year they are doing quit well on a cash flow basis. So why gouge on cork fee if they do not buy, store, and sell their cellar wine? In Las Vegas most hotels pay the Sommelier a commission on wines they push. A decent sommelier can make upwards of $150,000 per year on wine sales. Assuming further a table turnover of 3x per night/day (whatever) restaurants should be doing quit well.
Now, to corkage. I paid $35 about a month ago for a cork fee on my retail priced wine ($40). Won't go back. Also, the MS came around and ask if he could taste our wine and we said yes.
The day will come when consumers, after reading a few installments of HoseMaster of Wine, will say cork fees are getting out of hand and simply not pay or will boycott establishments with outlandish fees. A $10-$15 corkage seems reasonable.
Ron, as a born again sommelier, how many times a very is wine inventory (values) turned over in a year?

Kbell said...


Ron Washam, HMW said...

All your made up numbers make sense to you, but they don't matter. Much of the money in a fine restaurant is generated by sales of alcohol. The menu is profitable, but it's wine and spirits that generate most of the profits. So restaurants are understandably offended by people who try to avoid paying for their alcohol. They don't pencil out these numbers, they're just offended, so they charge a corkage fee. They don't need it to be, or care if it is, sensible.

Corkage fees are not about numbers crunching--they never have been. In many states, it is illegal to bring a bottle of wine to a restaurant, and they don't have these tiresome debates. In my long experience, I only rarely charged corkage fees, though the restaurant had one (the person answering the phone needs to have a solid and absolute answer to the question, "What's your corkage fee?"). My corkage fee was always discretionary. Waiters wanted to charge it because they felt it might increase their tip, as it makes the meal more expensive. My argument to my boss was, there are people who simply don't drink who patronize the restaurant--do we charge them $25 because they don't order alcohol? What's the difference between that and corkage fees?

Of course, this whole piece was "inspired" by the Wine Searcher article (Wine Searcher--the FOXNews of wine journalism) about the French Laundry's corkage fee, and the stupid debates it triggered on Fermentation and elsewhere. I tried to imagine Thomas Keller's response, and that became this piece.

Unknown said...

Just curious.. is Keller a Hosemaster subscriber??

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Helen is, I don't know about Thomas.

Thomas said...

"Helen is, I don't know about Thomas."

Funny, that.

Almost funnier than a debate about corkage fees.

Daniel said...

I always thought the custom was to order a bottle of something from the list, or at least some glass wines or cocktails and then the 'special' bottle with or without corkage is fine.

of course, that's why I learned how to cook good food, so I can stay home and drink my good wines and not have to share them with some guy I don't even know.

if you really have a truly special bottle of wine, you're wasting your time taking to a restaurant where the chef is trying to impress with his food. It's not a wine pairing, it's a war on your palate between the food and the wine.
I say keep it simple; get a nice cheese that goes with your bottle and enjoy it at home!

Unknown said...

Love it Ron!

Mark ups on my wines range from 125% to 300% depending on the restaurant! That amounts to 72% - 207% over our retail price but, as you say, they make real money on wine.


Bob Henry said...

Regarding Ron's reply that "Waiters wanted to charge it [a corkage fee] because they felt it might increase their tip, as it makes the meal more expensive."

Here's are some little-known statistics from the hospitality world.

According to The Wall Street Journal's April 3, 2014 article titled "In Minimum-Wage Debate, Tipped Workers Have Place at Table":

"the federal minimum [base] wage . . . for tipped workers . . . [is] $2.13 [an hour]."

"A Democratic bill now in the Senate would raise the base wage for tipped workers to at least $7.10 an hour . . ."

". . . employers of tipped workers across the nation . . . [are] required by law to kick in extra pay if tips don't push . . . workers' wages up to at least the $7.25-an-hour federal minimum wage, or more than that in states where the full minimum wage is higher."

"The Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics said the median wage for waiters and waitresses, including tips, was $8.94 an hour in May 2013, the latest figure available."

Bob Henry said...


Regarding your "what if" projection:

"If they [fine dining restaurants] turnover their wine inventory (value) a minimum of 10 times a year they are doing quit[e] well on a cash flow basis."

I don't know of any wine-selling establishment -- be it on-premises or off-premises -- that turns their physical inventory that fast.

It goes back to the classic "80:20 Rule" of retailing: 80% of your sales revenue comes from 20% of your physical inventory.

There is a large percentage of wines on restaurant wine lists that are there (1) to pump up its prestige to garner a Wine Spectator award, or (2) because the sommelier likes geeky wines, or (3) because the restaurant owner stocks the brand because it is made by one of his best dining patrons.

Those wines get few inventory turns.

As for this related projection:

"Assuming further a table turnover of 3X per night/day (whatever) restaurants should be doing quit well."

Outside of Las Vegas, I don't know of any fine dining restaurant that does three turns a night.

In this slowly recovering economy, most restaurants have resigned themselves to a single turn of the table most nights.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Helen is a big fan of my Blind Book Reviews.

There is little to no consistency in the restaurant world when it comes to corkage policies. There's a sense of entitlement to both sides of the issue which is deeply annoying. My personal feeling, and, yes, I often take wine to restaurants, is that if you can't afford the wine list prices, you also probably can't afford the restaurant. I think you make a great point, those great old bottles of wine (which, believe me, make up about 10% of the bottles brought into restaurants--the rest is average plonk) deserve a home-cooked feast if you want them to be the centerpiece.

For some reason, people are offended by wine list markups when it's liquor that is ridiculously marked up. If you pay $10 for martini, which might have two ounces of gin, you've just paid $125 for a bottle of gin. Yet no one complains.

Those waiter statistics are stupidly misleading when it comes to the discussion here. The vast majority of wait staff in those numbers is folks working in restaurants that rarely have wine lists, much less corkage fees.

And, as I said, the numbers don't matter when it comes to corkage fees. They are as imaginary as retail wine prices for expensive wines--more often than not, ego-driven, or, occasionally, in the case of a fine restaurant with very limited seating, necessity driven.

Charlie Olken said...

I love the article, but not the commentary. Topics that affect wine drinking, including corkage fees, are reasonable game for all of us. Talking about those topics is what we do. It is what you do.

The discussion on Fermentation may or may not have been brilliant, but it was not out of bounds in my view. Sorry, but I disagree.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

I didn't say it was out of bounds. I believe the word I used was "stupid." I'll stand by that.

Yes, restaurant customers resent high corkage fees. No, that never changes a restaurant's mind about charging them. Wark argued with me that he didn't see the value in a $150 corkage fee for the customer. Well, there isn't any. And that's not the point. What value is there for the restaurant to not charge corkage, and if you're Three Puff Michelin, how can you not charge a lot?

I'm not on the side of charging exorbitant corkage. Nor am I in favor of eliminating corkage fees as a subject for debate. But, like the 100 Point Scale, it's a subject that generates a lot of meaningless blather. Both are here to stay. Everyone thinks they're right. Makes for stupid debates.

I'd like the opportunity to pay the $150 corkage at French Laundry, as long as someone else picks up the tab for the meal. I've got old Rayas!

Charlie Olken said...

Meaningless blather? Isnt that another name for blogs--except this one, of course.

As for your old Rayas, well, that is not all that you have that is old. But, since I am way ahead of you on that front, except for the Rayas, I am not bragging. Just sayin'.

No one has ever paid the bill for me at The French Laundry, but what used to be dinner for a $100 and $50 corkage in now dinner for $250 and corkage for $150.

My mother always said to marry a rich woman. I didn't listen.

Thomas said...

The next time I go to a theater, I'm bringing my own performer.

How much is the corker fee?

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Yup, meaningless blather and wine blogs are synonyms. I don't exclude HoseMaster from that either. My contempt is all-encompassing.

You're an economist by training, wouldn't you argue that French Laundry's corkage is simple demonstration of the laws of supply and demand? Perfectly rational behavior, in other words. One may not like it, but one has to understand it.

My mother just asked that I marry a woman. She wasn't fond of adjectives.

I know the kind of theater you're talking about, and bringing your own performer for the lap dances results in a stiff Un-corkage fee.

Charlie Olken said...

Re TLF: Supply and demand is one way to look at it. Another is the exclusivity factor. A third is the desire to force people not to bring new wine they just purchased down the street.

That would be all well and good if the alternative were not a $95 dollar bottle on their list--for which by the way they paid $25 and thus are content to make $70 for wine service.

However, I readily agree that it is not my place to tell them how snobbish they want to be about their business. They could get away with all kinds of bad behavior (in my humble opinion) given that the laws of supply and demand are the only limiting factors.

Some people might argue that they already do.

By the way, the single most significant reason for my sadness at the loss of Cyrus was that the food was more or less in the same league as TLF, the folks there were considerably easier to get along with and they did not " Gouge' " their clientel.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

There you have it. Gougé or French Laundry can charge whatever the hell they want for a corkage fee and ain't nobody's business but their own. Blinky's insipid report on it, and Wark's predictable column after, and the reactions to them, are the equivalent of the poor villagers trying to storm Frankenstein's castle.

The corkage fee debate boils down to an ugly sense of entitlement on both sides of the argument. It's the worst of us.

Samantha Dugan said...

My Love,
I think I'm actually less shocked by Restaurant Gouge's corkage policy and more shocked that you read Wine Searcher columns...and Fermentation. You think you know somebody....
I love you, still.

Samantha Dugan said...

And on a side note:
I was in a restaurant this Monday and there was a party of five there, one of the ladies, holding a Pyrex dish.....brought in their own dessert. No lie.

Charlie Olken said...

What is the restaurant's Pyrex fee? Is it higher or lower than their bring your own habachi fee?

Ron Washam, HMW said...

My Gorgeous Samantha,
I do scan a few blogs looking for topics. "Reading" them is a different thing.

Oh, restaurants see it all--own desserts, own wine... What's really common is people bringing their own salad dressing, usually Low-Cal. So order a 16 oz. steak and a baked potato, but use Low-Cal dressing on the salad. Nothing surprises me when it comes to restaurant customers.

Most restaurants have a Pyrex fixe menu.

Thomas said...

There should be a byowb fee (bring your own wine bore), and it should be expensive.

Unknown said...

The corkage fee (if I bring a Stelvin-sealed bottle is it then termed a "screwage fee"?) is only part of the revenue-generating brilliance of Restaurant Gougé.
Telephoning the restaurant for a reservation, one must dial a "900" phone number ($10 for the first three minutes and $2 a minute after that) and they routinely put callers on hold!
Valet parking costs $25.
Retrieving your car from the valet is another $25!
You'll need a credit card to use the bathroom! And they have different amenities depending upon your card...Amex gets you Charmin and perfumed soap...Discover gets you sandpaper.
There's a list of bottled waters (including vintage dates) and tap water is $5 a carafe.
Renting a wine glass costs extra, too. Riedels are $15 to rent, per stem, while Libbeys are $5.
Silverware is actually gratis , but if you want a Laguiole steak knife, those add ten bucks to the dinner tab.
They have an auction in the middle of dinner to determine what tunes are played on the sound system. If nobody bids, they play The Hosemaster singing acapella with Samantha & Charlie until someone ponies up a Ben Franklin to get that to stop.
Flowers on the table? That's another ten bucks.
Napkins add to your bill, too. $5 each for cloth. The last time he dined at Restaurant Gougé, The Hosemaster asked something about the napkin being "sanitary."
We understand the chef is working to cook up some additional money-making ideas.


Ron Washam, HMW said...

Anonymous 1,
And what's amazing, truly, is how willing people are to pay all the hidden, surprise costs for the privilege of bragging to their friends that they went to Restaurant Gougé. Even if you complain about the corkage fee, the price of the prixe fixe menu, the service, it still says to everyone, "Hey, I can complain, I ate there. You should be so lucky to one day dine there and get your pocket picked."

Thanks for showing up late for your reservation. You owe me $150.

Bob Henry said...


"[Charlie Olken,] You're an economist by training, wouldn't you argue that French Laundry's corkage is simple demonstration of the laws of supply and demand?"

As the commenter on Wark's blog who introduced the concept of "demarketing" when dealing with the law of supply and demand, let me chime in here.

Outside of efforts to bring excess demand into alignment with limited supply, demarketing tactics can also be used to create "artificial" supply scarcity.

Is The French Laundry sold out every night? Based on reports from Napa folks I trust, the answer is "no."

Do they create the impression they are? Again based on reports from Napa folks I trust, the answer is "yes."

Can they operate at less-than-full-capacity and still have a "very good showing" for the evening?

Sure, because (as an economist would explain) they have covered all of their variable costs (e.g., labor, food, utilities) and pro rated fixed costs (e.g., building lease) in comfortably moving past their break-even point into pure profits.

They don't have to maximize sales revenue or optimize profit selling every seat and every turn of the tables.

From the diner's perspective, this larger question stands out: "Is the restaurant looking out for me?"

By way of example as I pointed out on Wark's blog, The French Laundry charges $995 for a bottle of 1995 Ridge "Monte Bello Vyd." Cabernet Sauvignon.

A wine that anyone can buy -- today -- from at least two different Bay Area wine stores for less than one-fifth that price.

If the historical rule-of-thumb for restaurant wine bottle pricing is three times wholesale (on the high side), then pricing at five times "retail" draws warranted scrutiny.

~~ Bob