I am an absolute nut when it comes to bringing wine to restaurants. It started six years ago when I was living in San Francisco. San Francisco is notorious for having corkage-friendly policies as one might expect, given its proximity to Napa and Sonoma. I found the city’s policies to be very encouraging, particularly since I was/still am a relatively young wine drinker with a small, inexpensive wine collection. I had attempted to bring wine to restaurants in other cities, but I could not bare the idea of paying the steep fees restaurants were charging ($40+ / bottle). And while I understand that a) wine sales are important revenue drivers for restaurants and b) restaurants / sommeliers invest quite a bit of time to curate their own collections, I do as well. I am not a good cook, so if I choose to pair a wine I have hand-selected with great food, I have to do it away from home.
Like most major metropolitan areas, Chicago boasts a wide range of the policies above. I have seen corkage fees of all shapes and sizes:
- Flat fees – Most restaurants charge a flat fee, assuming they do not carry the wine you intend to bring. This could range from free/BYOB to an exorbitant price > $50. Some restaurants also have a cap on the number of bottles you can bring from your own collection
- BOGO – Some restaurants also agree to waive the corkage policy if you buy a bottle of wine from the house list. This enables them to achieve some profits while also letting you drink your own wine
- Free nights – Other restaurants may adjust their corkage policy based on the night of the week to drive traffic to the restaurant. This policy is particularly popular earlier in the week (Monday-Wednesday)
This past summer, however, I found a new policy when I visited Au Cheval in Chicago’s West Loop. Au Cheval, which opened in February 2012, has enjoyed great success with its unique menu that features everything from matzah ball soup to a 32-ounce porterhouse with foie gras. I was particularly intrigued by the menu when I learned the restaurant was recently named one of The Best 33 Burgers in the US. The burger was incredible, sort of like an In-N-Out Burger on steroids with bacon so thick you could mistake it for pork belly.
Au Cheval’s corkage policy is quite simple: the corkage fee for all wines is free, with the caveat that you must share at least one glass of your wine with another table (of your choice). I have always been of the belief that wine is best when it is shared with others – colleagues, friends, or family – so the idea of having to share my wine with complete strangers did not turn me off. My girlfriend and I found the policy to be entertaining. We found ourselves scouring the restaurant trying to find the right people with whom we could share our wine (a 2010 Mark Ryan Wild Eyed Syrah). The selection process took us a good 10 minutes, primarily because we thought the ordeal would make a great icebreaker so we were hypothesizing which couples in the restaurant were on a first date. Unfortunately, it did not seem like “date night” that Friday, so we settled on a friendly-looking duo across the restaurant. The duo was very appreciate of our wine and we felt good about the “wine tax” Au Cheval enforced.