Brad and a big ass bottle of Bergstrom at Pinot Camp.
I feel like corkage is all I’ve been talking about since Thursday and even saying the word is starting to give life to a lump of anxiety in my chest (I must have said the word ‘corkage’ this weekend more than in all the previous ten years). Some restaurant owners are embracing it, and others are terrified of it – unjustifiably worried that no one will ever buy wine off their list again. Debates have sparked about fees and what people think are reasonable and others feel are outrageous. All should agree that it’s a good thing. Questionable laws and policies are relaxing which is giving wine lovers more freedoms. People are talking about wine and getting excited about wine and all this will grow our fickle, yet improving, wine culture.
Corkage should not be feared. It will help the small ‘cheap eats’ restaurants without the best beverage programs attract dinners. At most places, once diners settle in and everyone forgets there was a time corkage was forbidden, it may only mean four or five bottles on a busy night. If you set your fee to a level that is appropriate for your style of restaurant, it shouldn’t mean much, if any, of a revenue loss.
Since announced on Friday that the corkage floodgates had been released, to the absolute surprise of nearly EVERYONE I should add, I’ve opened seven bottles. That’s over four nights of busy dinner service. All of the bottles were high-end and some of them had obvious sentimental attachments with the guests. This is a testament to how great our clientele is, but so far there hasn’t been a single bottle that I’ve had any qualms about being seen on a table in our dining room.
I want to sum up my stance and rationale behind our corkage policy at L’Abattoir with a letter exchange I had after a Globe and Mail reader saw a quote that he/she disagreed with and it just so happened to have my name attached to it.
I noticed that one of your sommeliers, Jake Skakun, was quoted in the Globe and Mail as saying that your corkage fee was likely to be $25. Having spent a large part of my life living in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the ability to bring your own wine has long been a norm, corkage fees rarely exceed $20, and in most cases are closer to $10 per bottle. This allows patrons to buy a good bottle of wine — not “the cheapest bottle they can get their hands on”. Most people who are interested in fine dining have no interest in accompanying their meal with plonk, but neither are they interested in paying $100 for a bottle that retails for $40. I hope that Mr. Skakun’s estimate proves to be a very high, off the cuff remark and that your corkage fees wind up being much lower than that.
Wishing you all the best,
Thank you for your message. It seems that you have strong feelings about corkage in BC, which is great, and as it happens, I do as well.
I’ve also lived and trained in San Francisco and am familiar with operations and policies of restaurants in California. A major point to consider is this: while wine prices are painfully more expensive on wine lists than they are in California because of our taxation of wine (123%), restaurants in BC have lower mark-up margins per bottle of wine. The behind-the-scenes workings I can speak on at length from experience! Restaurants in San Fran are afforded a wholesale price and from there usually aim for a 33% cost percentage ($10 wholesale bottle costs $30 on a list). In BC, there is no wholesale price and the cost percentages range from 40% to 50% (I aim for around 45% on lower-priced wine and less on higher-end wine on our list, meaning that $10 bottle will sell for, in theory, $22). The reason I bring this up, is to highlight the fact that restaurants aren’t given as much of that little extra boost from wine sales in BC than they are much of the States. Wine and booze sales are often the bread and butter that restaurants survive on. The restaurant industry is a fierce one and long-term, or even mid-term, survival is extremely rare.
Your assertion that corkage in San Fran ‘rarely exceed $20, and in most cases are closer to $10 per bottle’ may be true when you scour accessibly priced dinning spots and little operations, yet when you’re comparing restaurants on the same tier as L’Abattoir (a casual environment with a high level of service, 80 seats with usually around 20 staff members working on any given night, and mains ranging from $25 to $30), I will confidently state that $20-25 in SF is standard (I’m comparing restaurants like Nopa, Coi, Bar Tartine, A16, Absinthe, La Ciccia, SPQR, Slanted Door (which is $35 actually!)). When you start to consider fine dining restaurants, they then range from $35-40 (Michael Mina, Quince, Benu and Gary Danko are all in this range). All of these numbers are easy to find online. Not only do I feel that it’s an uneven playing field when comparing corkage fees in places like San Francisco and Vancouver because of the completely different wholesale/distribution/retail systems and profit margins, but I can clearly see that your rosy image of corkage fees in San Francisco is fundamentally flawed.
I am a huge proponent of corkage and have been public about my stance on many other senseless laws surrounding wine in British Columbia. I love corkage, because it is a step at making Vancouver a more enjoyable and flexible place to drink wine. It will get people chatting about wine and it will advance our wine culture. Let it flow free! I am very excited to begin toting bottles of wine to my favourite hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese restaurants and Sushi restaurants, where I’d expect to and will happily pay $10 (or less even). Places that don’t invest in large, properly stored wine inventories or in expertly trained sommeliers or in high-end stemware and decanters. Let’s face it, these are the kind of places that we’ll mainly be attracted to bringing wine to, and they’ll probably benefit in traffic and in sales. Restaurants that are busy every night and sell large volumes of high-end wine, which L’Abattoir is fortunate enough to be one of, should also be an option as a place for you to bring a special bottle of wine. It can’t, however, be at a significant detriment to our margins, which are required to operate a restaurant that sells high quality food, with a high level of service and high rent. And while my comments in the Globe and Mail were pulled from a longer conversation where I did cover much of the above, I still stand by my stating that we don’t want bottles of Yellow Tail or any other bulk wine on the tables at L’Abattoir. I agree with you when you say that most diners in a restaurant like L’Abattoir appreciate BOTH good food and good wine, but I also feel that there needs to be a fee in place to set a precedent for what kind of bottles we’d like to see and not those that will clash with my vision of a wine list that I’ve spent two years creating and tweaking (one that I’m also quite proud of and has been given a Gold Award at the last two Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festivals). I also think that if our price was, say $5 or $10, and despite what I expect, it did really take off and a high portion of guests brought their own wine every night, we’d either have to close our doors, bump up all the food prices, or change our concept significantly. So I guess in short, the $25 rationale is founded on a delicate balance of protecting our margins, detouring low-end wine, and encouraging a reasonable number of special bottles each night.
This letter has become much more long-winded than I planned, yet I want you to understand how much thought and consideration was behind me deciding on a corkage fee that was appropriate for L’Abattoir to remain successful.
I invite you to dine at our restaurant and bring along a bottle of wine that you would enjoy with our food and we will charge you, what I consider to be, a very fair $25.
Thanks for your reply. I certainly agree that the odds are stacked against restaurateurs here in Canada, and maybe even more so in B.C., what with the very high taxes on what I consider to be a staple of life. And the fact that there is no wholesale price for wine astounds me — that single fact is probably the largest reason for the high cost of wine in restaurants here in BC.
So I will try L’Abbatoir the next time I in Vancouver, and I will bring a very good bottle with me (although, having learned that I will not be able to bring bottles purchased in the States, perhaps not quite as good as I might otherwise).
Winning hearts and minds in the corkage debate one person at a time…