Hungry Hinch

What Price Corkage?

It’s enough to drive you to drink. What price should restaurants charge you for taking along your own bottle of plonk?  It’s even more frustrating, and annoying, when the BYO bottle contains non-alcoholic wine that you can buy in a supermarket for less than ten bucks.

I had the opportunity for a comprehensive (and expensive) personal survey on a recent trip to Los Angeles and New York.

American eateries are even more ignorant and intolerant of non-alcoholic wine than their Australian counterparts. In many, I couldn’t convince them that it wasn’t real wine.

The corkage charged in more than two dozen restaurants ranged from zero (after a mild Aussie accent persuaded the manager)  to $50  at the  famed Polo Lounge  at the Beverly Hills  Hotel and then there was the wallet-busting experience at the opulent Carlyle Hotel in New York. That’s the place where Bobby Short has been tickling the ivories for  decades and where President John Kennedy  was rumoured to have done his share of tickling  in those well-protected extra-marital  trysts.  

The corkage at the Carlyle was $75 but that’s another story I’ll deal with further on. 

The average charge was between $15 and $35. Still a big hit. Especially when they offer no acceptable alternative. Some sommeliers said things like ‘well sir, we have orange juice’. I don’t want orange juice with my dinner.

And you get very bored/tired when only offered water or a lemon-lime-and-bitters. Even that’s hard in the U.S. because it has to be translated into 7-up, lime and bitters or Sprite, lime and bitters.

At the Polo Lounge, I avoided the fifty bucks because, as an afterthought, the waiter produced a bottle of Ariel for $35. The Californian equivalent of Australia’s Edenvale. Was quite happy to pay that and take the bottle I hauled along back home again. Can’t understand why it wasn’t featured on the menu when so many skinny starlets dine there on a lettuce leaf and distilled water.

I can’t understand why more restaurants don’t have a non-alcoholic wine  featured on the menu. Especially with the .05 campaigns, the designated drivers, people on diets, Muslims, exercise fanatics, people on Febfast and DryJuly and Movember. Not to mention alcoholics and people with health problems. Even those on antibiotics. The only place I know that serves it is Riva in Melbourne and I suspect they only get it in for me.

I’m happy to pay some corkage. Maybe $10- $15 a bottle. You have to understand that restaurants work on about a 6% profit margin. Much of that comes from the wine list. If I’m drinking an ersatz wine brought from home I’m not adding to the coffers. Also there are expenses in providing the glass and the full waiter service. But not $50 worth.

I have been lucky because of who I am (OK, I’ll admit it) and because my health problems have been well publicised. I have never been charged corkage in Australia and have only ever been refused service once, at a Southbank Japanese restaurant in Melbourne. That was because of a language problem. I left.

And because nobody charges me corkage in Australia I always leave a 20% tip  to show I appreciate it.

 So let me finish with the Carlyle story. The $75 sting. It was a special occasion. In late 2010, in the midst of chemotherapy for liver cancer and while waiting for a transplant I didn’t think would come, I convinced my doctors to let me go to New York.

I had an operation to remove some tumours on the Wednesday, flew out on the Sunday and had to go straight back to hospital from Melbourne Airport on our return 12 days later.

One of the reasons the medicos let me go was that I convinced them it would be great therapy for Chanel because I knew 2011 would be a helluva year whatever happened.  And I was right.

As we left New York that December I looked back at the receding Manhattan skyline and thought ‘I’ll never see this again’.  Didn’t tell Chanel but it was quite a moment because the Big Apple is my favourite city in the world, I had lived there for 11 years in the 1960s-70s  and it had moulded me as a journalist.

I vowed to go back. And in June – almost a year after my liver transplant – we did. I even went to Pittsburgh to meet Professor Thomas Starzl, the man who invented liver transplants nearly 50 years ago.

 Saturday night, date night, at The Carlyle in New York was the big celebration. Then I got hit with the $75 corkage fee. Almost tempted me to buy a bottle of the real stuff because they had some great wines for less than that on the list.

Back in our hotel room I vented my spleen on Twitter. I had booked the restaurant from Australia through an Internet restaurant service called Open Table. They asked me for a post-meal comment. I obliged:

‘Why give a restaurant top marks for food, service and ambience and only three stars overall? Because of a snooty, unmovable policy. I recently had a liver transplant and can't drink alcohol. Took a bottle of alcohol-free cab. sav. to the Carlyle. Expected to pay some corkage. Understand why. They have a fine wine  list. But they didn't have a non-alcoholic version. Explained to the waiter but he insisted rules were rules and charged me $75 corkage for a $10 bottle. Equivalent to 3 glasses of Margaux. A record. Other NY places have charged  zilch to $35. I am sympathetic to restaurants. Used to own one. Write reviews on website This intransigent experience nearly drove me to drink’

Either that or my tweet prompted this from the Carlyle:

Description: The CarlyleThe Carlyle ‏@TheCarlyleHotel

@HumanHeadline We're sorry to hear ab ur experience - would love to discuss via email

And then this letter from the general manager:

Dear Mr. Hinch,

Please accept our sincere apologies for the inconveniences you experienced during your recent meal at The Carlyle Restaurant. I understand you were celebrating a special milestone in your health and I'm sorry if we affected your celebration in any way. We will, of course, credit the corkage fee of $75 to your account. Furthermore, we are already looking into our corkage fee policy for non-alcoholic beverages with our Director of Food & Beverage, to make sure similar incidents will not reoccur.  
Please let us know if we may be of further assistance to you in any way.

Kind regards,
Giovanni Beretta | Managing Director
The Carlyle.


My Reply:

Dear Mr. Beretta

Thank you for your note of apology. I am writing a piece about corkage prices and will mention the fact that you are looking at the Carlyle policy on non-alcoholic beverages. As I said in my critique to OpenTable:  I am not opposed to corkage fees. I used to own a restaurant and a vineyard here in Australia. And I have been writing restaurant reviews for more than thirty-five years.

If I brought a bottle of Grange Hermitage to the Carlyle I would expect to pay a sizeable fee for the privilege when you have similar high quality vintage wines on your list.

But when it is a $10 bottle of non-alcoholic wine, and you have nothing similar to offer, then $75 is outrageous.

You should consider putting a bottle of Ariel [or an Australian Edenvale Shiraz or Chardonnay] on your list.  You could charge a 300% mark up and we would pay it.

You would be surprised how many people would buy it: Pregnant women, sportsmen in training, Muslims, people on antibiotics.

Rest assured we still had a great night at your restaurant. It was my first Saturday night back in a city I thought I would never see again after being diagnosed with terminal cancer and been given only 12 months to live in 2010. A liver transplant last year made it possible.


Derryn Hinch

True to his word, they did refund the $75. Interesting to see what happens when I go back there next year. In the meantime, I’m going to double my efforts to get non-alcoholic wines on to wine lists in Melbourne and Sydney.

Keep you posted.

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