Restaurants waive corkage fees to attract wine-loving bargain hunters

August is usually the slowest time of the year for Gol! The Taste of Brazil restaurant in Delray Beach.

So to attract guests this month, the restaurant launched a promotion it had never tried before – no corkage fees for customers who bring their own wines.

“We have people who call and ask how much our corkage fee is,” said Joao Pires, the eatery’s administrative assistant, who noted that Gol! normally charges $15. “We’re trying to give an incentive for those people to come in.”

Whether to lure in budget-conscious consumers at slow times or to cater to wine aficionados, restaurants nationwide are increasingly offering complimentary corkage. A corkage fee, by the way, is what a restaurant charges for opening and serving wine that a customer brings from home.

“Everyone’s bringing wine from their own stash from home to save money in this economic crisis,” said Charlie Arturaola, a noted wine consultant and educator who has a home in Boca Raton. “Restaurants that are smart are welcoming a bottle of wine someone brings in. They’re waiving corkage fees because you’re bringing bodies into their restaurants.”

Normally, restaurants that allow outside wine charge a $10 to $30 fee, in part to cover service and the stemware and cleaning involved with the bottle. Some restaurants, playfully dubbed by some as BYOW establishments, offer complimentary corkage, while high-end restaurants can charge upward of $75 per bottle.

But Arturaola said that people may prefer a bottle from their own collections instead of paying the markup for a bottle from a restaurant.

“People don’t want to pay $60 for a wine they can get for $20 at a grocery store,” Arturaola said.

In addition, some people just prefer to share a special bottle of their own during dinner instead of ordering from the wine list.

So, increasingly, restaurants are accommodating them.

Philippe Cherrault, the maitre d’ of Cafe Boulud in Palm Beach, said his restaurant offers complimentary corkage on Tuesdays, and that the promotion brings in significant traffic on a normally slow day. (The rest of the week, the restaurant does not allow outside bottles.)

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If you have a special wine you’d like to enjoy at a restaurant, here are some etiquette tips on how to go about it, courtesy of Jenny Benzie, an independent sommelier in Lake Worth who owns Pour Sip Savor:

  • Call ahead. Don’t just show up with the bottle. Make sure the restaurant is aware that you will be bringing your wine, and inquire about its corkage fee so they understand you aren’t looking for something for free. Make sure you know whether the restaurant has a maximum number of bottles if you are bringing a sizeable party, and see if corkage fees are different if you bring a large bottle of wine.
  • Bring a special wine. Don’t bring something on the restaurant’s wine list, and “don’t bring something from Costco,” Benzie said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive, but it should be something that is nice, that you wouldn’t have every day.”
  • Have something to carry the bottle in. Benzie said this isn’t essential, but it’s better etiquette to carry the wine into the restaurant in a wine bag or gift bag. Also, make sure that the price tag has been removed.
  • Have the wine at the proper temperature. Don’t bring in a bottle of champagne at room temperature and expect restaurant staff to figure out how to deal with it.
  • Offer a sip to the sommelier. He or she may not accept, but it’s nice to show why you are shunning his or her wine selection in favor of your own.
  • Don’t forget about the wine when you tip. In most restaurants, the corkage fee goes to the house, and is not split among the sommelier and wait staff. At the least, Benzie said, slip some money to the sommelier at the end of the night. Or estimate how much the bottle would have cost in the restaurant and tip based on that, she said.

In addition, Arturaola said, you should make an effort to spend something on the restaurant’s beverages. A glass of cognac after dinner is over, for example, or bring a bottle of white wine and then order a bottle of red from the restaurant.