Kurtis Kolt and Jake Skakun

24
Jul 2012
The Last Post on Corkage
Wine by 
Jake
  at 12:12 am | 8 Comments »


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.

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Greetings!


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,

X

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Hi X,

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.

Best,
Jake

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Hello Jake,

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).

X

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Winning hearts and minds in the corkage debate one person at a time…


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8 Responses:

Dave Stansfield said:

Jake, this is the most thoughtful take I’ve read on corkage so far. Thanks for taking the time to do so. Chimo.


Weston said:

Well Written, yeah its all realitive, and with a g ood wine program [liek yours] for example and others in the city you stock wine you cant even find in the store, small imports of Spec items so that makes people want to buy wine off the list, its the big chains that I can see not liking it

But as someone told me on twitter Fray on Fraser has set their Corkage at $5 that seems like an amazing place for wine and dinner to me.

And this isnt to say a restaurant cant do what tribeca in NYC does, where they have free corkage Mondays, and wine lovers come in bring in nerdy wines and do a big tasty and dinner and the Sommeliers love it, get to taste all these treats from people cellars

Now to find a Sushi restaurant with $5-10 corkage nice wine glasses so I can bring in my champage mmmm Sushi n Champage!

Weston

PS. Doesnt matter what people do good/bad people will always complain its in us ha
Cheers Jake


MARK HICKEN said:

Great post Jake. By the way, your correspondent said that he/she would not be able to use corkage for bottles purchased in the U.S. That is probably not true because if he/she declared that wine at the border upon return to Canada, then our bizarre BC liquor legislation actually deems that the wine was surrendered to the Customs Officer as an agent of the BCLDB and then resold to them as they enter Canada … so the wine becomes BCLDB product as it is brought in … Mark.


Lee Newby said:

Jake, very fair comments and policies.


Clinton McDougall said:

Thanks for elucidating the current landscape of the BC wine industry’s relationship to BC restaurants. Well said. Now we just need to be able to bring in spec items from private stores. Let’s open the whole thing up! And don’t get me started on cheese.


Shea said:

Good points and I agree generally. However, not that many places offer the level of service and food quality of L’Abattoir. Then again, I’m not all that likely to dine at those places. I think you hit the nail on the head on these points:

1. I’m most excited about bringing good wine to ethnic restaurants with no beverage program

2. As you know, I would never bring anything to L’Abattoir or a restaurant like it unless it were a special bottle. There is no advantage to allowing plonk into a restaurant.

However, my biggest concern is that it is very very difficult to go into any restaurant in B.C. and get excellent wine for under $40 a bottle. $25 corkage negates that. I admit that I think that price is entirely fair for L’Abattoir where the beverage program at all levels is fantastic.

However, there are very few places in the city that offer good sub $40 wines. And that is not because it is not possible to do so. I think so many restaurants go for the generic. I don’t buy the argument that these restaurants have beverage programs worth salvaging. Many of these places, however, do make good food. So why not either (a) step up the sub $40 or sub $50 beverage program or (b) lower corkage to $15-$20.


wine lover said:

jake, i disagree with your sentiments, it’s about putting bums in seats for restaurants your level or any, let people decide what they want to bring yellow tail or high end, who cares? you decide on corkage that works for you and clientele can decide whether they will want to go to your establishment. In Napa/SF no one gives two hoots what customers bring in as long as they support the dining establishment. lots of time to learn within BC market without over analyzing.


Jake said:

Thanks for the comments all.

Clinton, with the allowance of corkage comes an ironic twist. Restaurants can’t technically buy wine from a private retailer, however, a guest heading to a restaurant can stop at a private wine shop on their way, buy a bottle off the shelf and bring it to me, where I can open it for them and charge them a corkage fee. Figure that one out. I’m sure that will be the next change we’ll see.

Shea, I agree that the sub $40 restaurant selections in BC is lackluster. If I were running a wine program in a more casual dining room, I would relish in creating a list that provided gems in this zone. For our vision, we’ve stuck above $40 and it’s been working great. To be perfectly honest, during the early days, I had some great value bottles in the $35 range, but no one ordered them. There seems to be a strange stigma or psychological deterrent associated with ordering the least expensive wines on a list. But thanks for bringing it up, and I’ll consider working some gems in there again.

Wine Lover, as I’ve mentioned above, I’m very fortunate to work in a restaurant that is fully booked nearly every night. In our particular case, it’s not a matter of using corkage as a draw to put more bums in seats, yet as a service to provide diners with more flexibility. I do believe that it can be used as a marketing tool to set prices that attract diners on certain nights that may be slower and I’m sure many other smart restauranteurs will do so.

When it comes down to it, you’re probably right, it really doesn’t matter what wines people are bringing in, as long as they are enjoying them. As a fellow wine lover, I’ve spent two years curating the small list at L’Abattoir so that my staff and I have utter faith in every bottle sold in the dining room, so I’m sure you can understand a level of pride that comes along with wanting to see good wine consumed with good food.


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