A corkage fee is charged by a restaurant to patrons bringing their own wines to a meal. The corkage fee is usually minimal and is considered a convenience charge to the restaurant for opening and serving wines from outside their cellar. The use of a corkage fee is widespread in many parts of the United States, especially heavy wine producers such as Napa County in California. The corkage fee is not designed to be a penalty for the diner and should not be viewed that way.
Depending on location and sometimes wine, the corkage fee can vary widely, and it is a good idea to call ahead if you intend to bring your own wine to a restaurant. Some establishments do not allow outside wines, while others are happy to allow them. In some states, it may not be legal for patrons to bring their own wines to a restaurant.
When calling to make reservations, inquire about the corkage fee so that you are prepared upon your arrival. Many establishments offer scaled corkage fees depending on the type of wine brought in and how many bottles there are. Others may waive the corkage fee if customers order a bottle or two from the restaurant's wine list as well. If the wine needs special care, such as chilling or extra breathing time, make appropriate arrangements.
Wine is a major source of markup for restaurants, and loss of wine sales can depress earnings. For this reason, most restaurants charge a corkage fee equivalent to their cheapest bottle, to recoup at least some of the potential lost revenue. As a general rule, bring in a wine that is at least as expensive as the restaurant's cheapest offering. Restaurants that invest a great deal of time, energy, and money in developing a wine list may be offended by patrons who eschew their wines, especially as many chefs keep the wine list in mind when developing new dishes. Exploring a restaurant's wine list and talking with the staff about their wines is sometimes a wonderful way to make new discoveries.
When bringing in outside wines, it is considered common courtesy to offer the waiter, and sommelier, if the restaurant has one, a taste. Usually, the wines that diners bring in are special and unlikely to be on the wine list. Perhaps the dinner is a special event, or the diner has an extensive cellar at home to choose from. Bickering about the corkage fee is considered poor form – accept it with grace and enjoy your meal.