D.C. restaurants to set their own corkage fees

Columnist August 13, 2013

The D.C. Council last month approved a change in the city’s alcohol regulations affecting “corkage,” eliminating the limit on the fee a restaurant may charge you for opening your own wine to drink with dinner.

Corkage is a rarely used privilege. It is tolerated by many restaurateurs (who would obviously prefer you buy a wine from their list) and even encouraged by some as a way to entice people to dine out. It is also controversial, opposed by wine wholesalers who fear a dent in sales. Virginia did not approve corkage until 2011; Maryland followed a year later.

Dave McIntyre is a wine columnist for The Washington Post. He also blogs at dmwineline.com. View Archive

The District has long been amenable to corkage, imposing a $25 maximum on the per-bottle fee a restaurant can charge. (The fee is intended to cover the cost of service and glassware.) But the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington lobbied to allow restaurants to set their own fees, provided customers are informed in advance.

“Our members were always puzzled as to why the law set pricing on corkage,” Andrew Kline, legislative counsel for the RAMW, said in an e-mail interview. “After investigating, we determined that it was a consumer issue that arose when a patron complained they were charged a large sum for corkage and had no idea of the amount when they asked for corking. We thought the simple solution was to require advance disclosure of the fee before the wine is uncorked, and leave pricing to the marketplace. Indeed, that is exactly what the new regulations require.”

Restaurants are not required to offer the service, but some might try to discourage BYO customers with a high fee rather than reject them altogether. “As long as there is disclosure, it seems to RAMW the pricing is a matter between restaurants and their patrons,” Kline said.

The amended regulation was published Friday and took effect Aug. 14, said Jessie Cornelius, a spokeswoman for the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration.

The change sparked a public relations kerfuffle for Del Campo, the meat-lovers’ paradise in Penn Quarter, which changed its corkage policy before the amendment took effect. A dissatisfied diner complained on Post food critic Tom Sietsema’s online chat that the corkage fee — $25 on a previous visit — had increased to $50 and that he had not been alerted to that change until the bill came.

“When we asked the manager, she said that there had been a change in D.C. law and that was now the charge,” the chatter wrote. “When we discussed this with a second manager, we were told that the fee was high so as to encourage diners to explore [the restaurant’s] list.”

Del Campo’s chef-owner, Victor Albisu, responded during the chat, reflecting the frustration of a restaurateur who has compiled an interesting wine list only to have customers bring their own: “We have experienced diners bringing more than five bottles without prior notice, and it can be contrary to the spirit of allowing someone to bring a special bottle or two to accompany their dinner,” he said. “We’ve generally been very liberal with our corkage policy and are happy to work with our guests if they talk to us ahead of time about their plans.”

In response to my inquiry, Albisu said through a spokeswoman that he has since lowered his corkage fee to $25, with a two-bottle limit for parties of six. Requests from larger parties will be considered case by case.

“Like many restaurants, wine is both a significant part of our revenue and dining experience,” he said. “We ask that guests who wish to bring wine to enjoy at Del Campo choose something that is not already part of our extensive wine list, which has been curated to pair with our menu.”

That’s good corkage etiquette for anyone taking wine to a restaurant: Call ahead and ask the policy and fee, and don’t carry in something that’s on the list.

McIntyre blogs at dmwineline.com. On Twitter: @dmwine.

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