Monday, March 13, 2017

The Corkage Policy at Restaurant Gougé

Remember when corkage fees were a hot topic on wine blogs? We do dwell on the trivial. I wrote this piece about legendary Restaurant Gougé way back in May of 2014. Restaurant Gougé is shuttered now, but this piece lives on.

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!


Ron Washam, HMW said...

I've never heard of that kind of corkage policy, but I like it! That's very innovative and cool, and a win for everyone. If you don't want to share, don't bring in a bottle. And then you make the other table share the exorbitant corkage fee, too!

Unknown said...

Ron, I keep bringing Screw-Cap bottles of wine to restaurants, hoping to one day hold a receipt with a line-item that says "Screwage Fee".

Unknown said...

Ron, I didn’t know such things (corkage) and fine establishments (Restaurant Gougé) were on the wine radar. Then again I am of the South American “el cheapo plonko” style with the greaser burger amongst the company of those who pick their nose, scratch their balls and fart – a few of’em can do that simultaneously. I never could, hence why I have not risen up the ranks.

Unknown said...

Finally someone making fun of corkage fees! I also agree with Oded regarding "screwage fees". I’m sure this will raise the hackles of a few, and maybe more. But this has always been one of my pet peeves when it comes to being financially taken for a ride by a restaurant. Many feel that there is some cardinal rule when it comes to bringing a wine you enjoy to a restaurant that provides that option, and in-turn charges you for that opportunity. I’ve express these same peeves many times in many places on the internet and during some of my wine education classes. The corkage charge is profit, nothing more and nothing less, and a good one at that. The glasses are washed with everybody's dirty dishes , so that’s not a good reason for extremely high corkage fees. Additionally, half the time the server, usually Ashlee, Ashley or Ashligh, knows less about the wine she's straining to yank the cork from than I do. So that's no educational reason. When some people see a stratospheric priced bottle of wine, and they pass because of the price, that's lost profit to the restaurant. If the same person came back in with his own bottle and paid the corkage, or purchased a reasonably priced bottle, that’s pure profit. I'm not worried about a restaurant "trying" to fleece me or anybody else, as some of them are accomplishing that quite well when it comes to corkage and wine mark-ups. If a restaurant doesn't want my business, or doesn't want me to enjoy my favorite wine with my meal, that’s fine. If not, maybe a new rule of NO outside wine should be in order. Then I wouldn't give them my business anyway. Many restaurants may have a decent wine list, that's true. But, if that decent wine list has indecent prices, it's the consumers place to make the decision to buy off the list or BYOB and pay the restaurants own established corkage charge. But it is NOT the consumers fault for that policy or pricing, and it's NOT the consumer’s obligation to assure the restaurants profitability. If an individual wants to bring a bottle of Two Buck Chuck, and pay a $20 corkage, that’s their decision to make, however foolish it may sound. But don’t blame the consumer for abiding by the restaurants own policy, or breaking some unwritten “cardinal rule” by not bringing in some $200 bottle of wine, or a bottle that’s on their wine list. Why would anyone want to pay $115 for a bottle of, lets say Silver Oak, off the wine list, when they can bring in the same $60 bottle, pay the $20 corkage and save a few bucks, $35 to be exact! If a restaurant feels that I'm breaking some "cardinal rule" or something by bringing in MY selected wine, then the restaurant needs to change THEIR wine service policy. They need to state their outside wine, no wines that are on their wine list or no corkage and such. First, there's the restaurant owner’s right to establish their own wine service policy. Second, there's the right of the consumer to visit that restaurant while abiding by the established policy without feeling like a slug for bringing in a wine that's on the wine list. If I pay the corkage for my own bottle of wine that’s on the wine list for twice the price, or more, then so be it. If there's some unwritten "cardinal rule" that a restaurant owner thinks is being broken, put it in writing.

Cris Whetstone said...

Keep preaching the Truth, Tom.

There are so many fun, false assumptions and excuses for corkage fees. My favorite that I've heard numerous times is that bringing in your own bottle means a lost wine sale for the restaurant. When was the last time you looked around a restaurant and saw a purchased bottle on every single table? I've never seen that either.

Judi Laing said...

Pardon me, but you wouldn't bring a steak to a restaurant and have them cook it for you because you bought the same steak for less. Or would you? You go to a restaurant for service, atmosphere and, obviously, the food. There are thousands of bottles of wine...why would you pick the same one that's on the menu to save a few bucks? Whining about bringing your own bottle of wine, the same one that's on the wine list, is pure brattiness.

Jet Fuel said...

"Screwage Fee". That was worth the entire column! Usually my attempt at a joke or an insult is limited to short quips like that which don't take a lot of intellect to remember with my limited mind. So much to little to remember it with. Brilliant- Thank You!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Of course, for wine in a box, there's a baggage fee. Good to see you here again, my friend! Been too long.

But can you sneeze and pee at the same time? (Thank you, My Gorgeous Samantha)

Tom and Cris and Judi,
These were the sorts of debates prevalent on wine blogs back when I wrote this piece. The same points are made over and over, Tom's and Judi's. I worked the floor for 19 years, and my policy changed by situation. Most corkage fees are flexible. In 19 years, I charged corkage fewer than 20 times. But restaurants have every right to insist on corkage fees, as you have every right to not patronize them because of it.

Many states don't allow you to bring your own bottle to a restaurant. That pretty much ends this entire debate.

obillo said...

I dine only at soigné places where they pronounce it kôrˈkäZH.

Judi Laing said...

Thank you for the update. I'm sure every possible argument has been stated :) May I ask when was the last year you worked the floor? A lot may have changed depending on how long ago...just wondering...

Here in California an "On-Sale General for Bona Fide Public Eating Place" liquor license allows a customer to bring in wine, spirits and beer if, of course, the restaurant allows it.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

I retired about ten years ago, from a restaurant in Los Angeles. I know how it works. I may not have liked people who brought their own bottles, but I found that few people really abused the privilege. Once in a while, but for the most part people brought great wines, and, in some ways, it was flattering they came to my place to enjoy them.

That said, it was a big restaurant. We had lots of tables. A small place cannot afford to have tables filled with wines brought from home. There are many scenarios where tasting fees are warranted, and many when they are not. I wrote the piece as a blast at places like French Laundry, places with insultingly high corkage fees. That's done simply as a dare, and a fuck you. I don't like that much. Don't allow outside bottles, that's fine with me, but also don't have insultingly exorbitant corkage fees. I don't need a restaurant to make me feel small. I have readers for that.

Judi Laing said...

Oh dear, hope twas not I to make you feel small. I agree with you and I got that it was French Laundry. Hard not to! Hype costs $$$$ and some people don't care. Chacun à son goût.

Aaron said...

That's a really interesting idea. Hm...

Heh, yea, I don't frequent (or ever go) to places that are that insane about prices or corkage. I think the priciest I saw was something like $40-50 at a very nice place. But well over $100? That's insane.

Most places I've been it's $20-30 or so, which is decent. More or less 2 glasses of the house wine that seems to work out to. Then again, a tiny little Italian place (not fancy, just good old Italian) has a $2 per person. Not per bottle, per person.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Dearest Judi,
No, you didn't make me feel small. I'm not that sensitive. I think that's apparent. I'm actually glad you showed up as a common tater. Please come back often. And I love the Patsy photo! AbFab is one of my favorite sitcoms, and I'm picky. So I admire your taste.

$2 per person is an interesting corkage fee. Even if they don't drink? Man, what a strange biz.

Bob Henry said...

I think you could have redrafted this sentence . . .

"When you are widely acknowledged as one of the great dining establishments in the world, you simply cannot serve pedestrian wines"


"When you are widely acknowledged as one of the great dining establishments in the world, you simply cannot serve wine to pedestrians"

. . . and it would be equally valid, as "we" don't deign to take walk-in customers.

Reservations only -- made months in advance when we open up our telephone line for 10 minutes each morning.

Bob Henry said...

"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."

Just not restaurant critic review proof.

"At Thomas Keller’s Per Se, Slips and Stumbles"


(As reviewer Pete Wells observed in a profile of him in "The New Yorker" [September 12, 2016]:

"The danger is getting friendly with people [e.g., restaurateurs] you should feel free to . . . savage, when you have to.")

Charlie Olken said...

Restaurants can do whatever they want with their corkage fees and their wine lists for that matter. It is my option to do whatever I want including giving them the finger as I drive past if I think they are being greedy.

I do wonder, however, how restaurants that sell $25 bottles of wine no one has ever heard of on their list for $90 (thus making tops about $70) justify charging corkage twice that amount.

And that is before I even comment on wine lists so arcane that they exist only to impress other sommeliers.

And, now this. I have just returned from a holiday down under during which I ate at one of Sydney's finest. A great meal ruined by the fact that even the Aussies had very little knowledge of the unheard of French and Spanish wines that dominated the wine list at the expense of carefully chosen wines from their own country.

There are wine snobs everywhere.

Aaron said...


No, only for those that drink. I suspect it's the whole "we're providing and cleaning a glass for you". It's not as if they have a very extensive wine/beer list or what not anyway, they definitely aren't making most of their money from alcohol for sure.

Unknown said...


Rest assure I'm always here, I keep waiting for you to make fun of people who insist on Sabering Bubbly bottles, so festive... reminds me of the gathering during my circumcision at 8 days old... Let's take something beautiful and hack at it. Plus, where else am I going to get the REAL alternative news about the industry?

Unknown said...

In 1996, five of us dined at La Tante Claire. The meal got off to a bad start.....

I had enquired when booking if I could possibly bring some wines from my cellar, and was told yes, at £15 per bottle corkage. (I had said that I was embarrassed to ask and that I expected the answer "no", but "yes" it was.) However, when the sommelier offered us the wine list and I told him that I'd brought my own wines by prior arrangement, his jaw dropped. Now I know what it's like to be in a Bateman cartoon. He returned much much later, and explained that the lady who'd said yes was new, that she shouldn't have said it, that they didn't normally do it, but that they would accommodate me on this occasion.

Strange.....when I rang, she had had to enquire of someone else the price, so was that other person also new, and from where did they get the price? I shall remain mystified.

The food was excellent. But that incident made it a less than pleasant occasion. Since that, I've never eaten at any of Pierre Koffmann's restaurants. And I never will.

Why on earth didn't they just say "no when I asked? And when I said that, I'd expected them to say "no". Why did they quote a price?

I should mention that I wouldn’t for one moment have dreamed of asking Tante Claire about bringing wine, except that at the time I was working near John Burton-Race’s L’Ortolan and had lunched there about a dozen times, and they’d mentioned to me that they were open to BYOB. So when I was planning to lunch at L’Ortolan with some colleagues, I asked about BYOB, Madame Burton-Race said ok and quoted a corkage charge. And I’d availed myself of that.

Bob Henry said...

In my in-box was this offer from WineAccess:


“The Only Pinot Grigio You’ll Find on the Wine List at Thomas Keller’s Per Se”

2015 Tiefenbrunner Pinot Grigio Vigneti delle Dolomiti IGT @ $16

And the sales pitch:

“Last year, WineAccess members snatched up 200 cases of the 2014 Tiefenbrunner in just under 48 hours. Then we offered the 2015 vintage and again, our 200-case allocation sold out in a matter of hours. A thank you to those 79 buyers who took the time to rate it an outstanding 4.09 out of 5 stars. For those who missed out, as long as you made a reservation well in advance at Per Se, the 2015 Tiefenbrunner is still on the wine list for $65 … or today on WineAccess you get another shot at just $16/bottle. Only 100 cases are up for grabs — you make the call.”

Back of the envelope math: Per Se pricing is four times retail.

Quoting this Wine Enthusiast magazine article:

“Industry-wide markups average two and a half to three times wholesale cost . . . A bottle priced at $10 wholesale might sell for $15 retail, but $25 to $30 in a restaurant.”