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Does The French Laundry Have the World's Highest Corkage Fee?

$150 corkage fee? No wonder Keller is laughing
© AFP | $150 corkage fee? No wonder Keller is laughing
The corkage fees at Thomas Keller's two top restaurants might be the highest in the world.

If you want to bring your own wine to The French Laundry or Per Se, you can, but be prepared to pay $150 a bottle for the privilege.

The huge corkage fee charged by Thomas Keller's two top restaurants in Napa Valley and New York City is believed to be the highest in the U.S., and probably the world. 

"It's plain old gouging," said Tom Wark, executive director of the American Wine Consumer Coalition. "There are a lot of really fine restaurants with outstanding wine programs and great sommeliers where the corkage fee is $25 or $30. I have to wonder if the wine service at The French Laundry is six times better.

"If you wonder why the average person has contempt for the idea of high-end diners drinking wine, this is a good example of why they do. It's not good for consumers. And it gives wine service a bad name," he added.

Thomas Keller Restaurant Group did not return an email and call from Wine-Searcher requesting a comment.

Throughout the U.S., corkage charges rarely exceed $50 with a few notable examples: Joël Robuchon in Las Vegas charges $100 a bottle and Masa in New York charges $95. On the other side of the Pond, the Shangri-La hotel at London's tallest building, the Shard, boasts similarly high corkage fees. Expect to pay £50 ($83.95) per 750ml bottle of still wine and £75 ($125.90) for a bottle of Champagne.

Presumably, Keller's high corkage fee is meant to discourage diners from bringing in their own wine from a visit to nearby Napa wineries but – incredibly – even at $150, sometimes it still might be worth doing.

2004 Schramsberg "J. Schram" Brut has an average price of $96 on Wine Searcher (all prices excl. sales tax). It's $395 at The French Laundry.

The 2007 Dominus Estate has an average price of $188 on Wine Searcher. It's $695 at The French Laundry.

However, there are more than 100 wines under $150 on The French Laundry's list, including Napa wines such as 2012 Cliff Lede Stags Leap District Sauvignon Blanc ($24 retail, $70 restaurant), 2012 Stony Hill Napa Valley Riesling ($29 retail, $85 restaurant) and 2012 Arnot-Roberts Watson Ranch Napa Valley Chardonnay ($39 retail, $110 restaurant).

You can even drink Napa Cabernet for just $140 with your French Laundry meal. The restaurant has two listings at that price: 2011 Round Pond Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon ($47 retail) and 2010 Purlieu Cabernet Sauvignon (a relative steal because it's $79 on Wine-Searcher, unless the listed wine is actually the $40 second-label "Le Pich." We can't afford to go eat there and order to find out, but if you do, let us know).

Ordering either of those Napa Cabs is $12.50 cheaper than bringing Charles Shaw Cabernet and paying the corkage fee and probably better as well, though we'll leave the value judgment to you.

Have you had a pleasant experience or horrible shock at the corkage charged in a restaurant? Leave your comments below.

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  • Comments

    Robert wrote:
    25-Jul-2014 at 19:41:02 (GMT)

    There is no justifiable reason for excessive corkage fees! When couples are going out for a special occasion dinner paying with hard-earned cash, they should be able to bring their own bottle for a reasonable fee, and have a truly enjoyable experience. Let the business-people, using the company plastic, pay the 3X-6X markup for wine purchased at the restaurant. They are investing in future business for their companies and eating and drinking for free! Price is really no object when you have to close that deal, so let them pay. Keep the corkage fee low for the people who pay with their own money. To me, that is how the dynamic should work.

  • DontLikeBeingScrewed wrote:
    25-Jul-2014 at 18:15:39 (GMT)

    Jade and David C. I don't begrudge high end restaurants charging a reasonable corkage fee to make something on the meal and cover their costs: staff, rent, wine storage, etc. Here in NYC corkage fees are around $40-$50 for a good restaurant with good glassware, up to, last I checked, around $90 at a 3 star like Jean Georges. If I bring a 30 or 40 year old bottle not on their list from my cellar, even with corkage and my original cost from purchase years ago and long paid off, its much cheaper than finding something of similar age and quality on their list. Everyone is happy. However with Per Se, the markups on the wines themselves are so extreme 5x -10x for recent releases at wholesale, that even a $150 corkage fee is a deal, if you want to drink something of high quality, let alone something with age. I found a wine I liked on their list that was selling at retail for about $50 (about 35 wholesale). They were selling it for $325 (might have even been the previous, lesser vintage that they had, but not a better vintage). Do the math 50 + 150 is a lot better than 325. And an older bottle more ready to drink from my cellar bought years back would be an even better deal than that. Who wants to pay $325 for a $50 bottle of wine? What? For the privilidge of eating in their immaculate dining room? Well, the same people that got duped by Rudy K, and have no problem spending tens of thousands on a bottle, are the same people who don't mind paying obscene prices at Per Se, and they are well catered too. So forget the corkage fee, their wine mark-ups are so insultingly outlandish that I stopped going there on principle. It's been 8 or 8 years now, so maybe they no long charge 10x. I will certainly not bother to find out.

  • Jade Forbes wrote:
    25-Jul-2014 at 15:55:05 (GMT)

    @David C. Yes David, our mark-ups are similar, although the end cost of sales on food is slightly higher due to wastage, I have been in this business for 15 years, and my last 3 shops all have had a similar percentages. Conversely I know there are some restaurants who have a low mark up on food in a bid to get bums on seats, and then try make up the money on beverage. I also base my prices on more than just a fixed percentage, we look at competitors prices who are at the same level as us, we take into account the original cost price, we would rather sell bottles than have them collect dust, so we set a profit value rather than a percentage. Look there are business who are ridiculous, the same as any industry, but I hate it when people whinge about corkage, or the fact that a restaurant puts a mark-up on wine, yet will not blink at the 300% mark-up that a clothing retailer adds on. I think at the end of it, you just need to consider a point of view from all sides before you make silly comments, like all you do is open the wine. I'm busy with my wine list now, and its taken me almost a month, and I still have a way to go before it is complete. I know the amount of effort that goes into compiling the perfect wine list, and I think it is rude to bring your own wine, as a general rule of thumb. As I said previously, I like most will waive the corkage, if it truly is an awesome bottle. At the end of the day, be informed, don't whine about something you don't understand, and vote with your bum, if you don't like a restaurant business practice don't put on their seat.

  • david c wrote:
    24-Jul-2014 at 22:02:26 (GMT)

    Question for Jade: As a business owner I totally understand your comments. My question is whether your wine mark-up is the same as the mark-up on the food you prepare and sell?

  • notKeith™ wrote:
    23-Jul-2014 at 21:52:23 (GMT)

    This is years ago - a restaurant on Hennepin Ave. in Minneapolis named Auriga had a $15 corkage fee. We had an anniversary; my wife and I decided on this restaurant instead of a couple others because they all charged $25. (Didn't have much money, but had a very nice wine as a result of a subscription to Beaulieu.) I'm trying to remember the specifics on this - it was a Georges de Latour Private Reserve, I think 1990 or 1991. The waitress, who said her boyfriend was a wine buyer, recognized this wine. I suggested she get a glass for herself. We shared our wine with the staff, including one of the owners, who eventually came to our table. He told us that this wine was probably better than anything they currently had in house; because I shared it with them they waived the corkage fee, and he told us that 'dessert is on us'. We continued to visit Auriga from time to time, but especially for our anniversaries. Loved that restaurant - they had amazing food - and it is in the list of Minneapolis' "most missed restaurants".

  • Bill Davy wrote:
    23-Jul-2014 at 19:53:39 (GMT)

    Hawksmoor in London charge £5 corkage on Monday. I do not suppose their business really suffers. I did once ask a restaurateur why their mark up on wine was so huge (I had just been to a wine tasting so knew the retail prices of some of their wines). She waved her arm at a beautiful but empty restaurant and said "To pay for all this"! On the other hand, Croque en Bouche (late lamented restaurant of Malvern, England) had such a stunning list reasonably priced that one went there as much for the wine as the food. You takes yer choice and pays the money.

  • Sonoma George wrote:
    23-Jul-2014 at 16:58:09 (GMT)

    There is a restaurant in Petaluma, California called De Schmire. I don't know if it's still their policy, but back in the 1980's, their corkage policy was quite unique and simple: You could either pay nominal corkage (around $10), or share a glass of whatever you brought with the chef! If you had a rare or unique bottle, you might prefer not to share, and would pay the corkage. Otherwise, you poured a glass for the chef, and enjoyed the rest of the bottle gratis . . .

  • Jade Forbes wrote:
    23-Jul-2014 at 16:09:45 (GMT)

    "Simply opening a bottle of wine and serving it?" Pray tell how does it get there, magic? I'm not saying that outlandish mark-ups are acceptable, but wine is like every other product any business retails, we do it to make a profit. And in fact, if it truly is a special bottle you will find that most restaurants will waive the fee, corkage is there to discourage you from bringing in wine, and that fee barely covers the time it takes to wash your glasses. I spend hours researching and selecting wines that would best suit my clientele, my restaurant's food and business practices. There are literally hundreds of thousands of wines world wide, its not just about picking up a bottle at random. The menu, with it's descriptions does NOT happen at a click of a finger, you don't just copy and paste. Don't forget cellaring, it is something that need close attention. Those sparkly glasses you sip out of, do you think that they come out the wash like that? What about the time training it has taken for your waiter to learn to tell you about your wine? Or how they expertly open, pour, and keep you topped up? All of these things combine into a theatrical experience that is apart of your culinary adventure. I wish there was some way to keep away people like you, oh wait there is: corkage. You could always have a beer, but you will be surprised to find we put a mark up on that to, its called business not do you a favour. You don't bring food into a restaurant so why you think it would be acceptable to bring drink is beyond me. If you cant afford the experience stay at home, eat McDonalds in front of the TV with your cheap bottle of plonk like the savage you clearly are.

  • PurpleTeeth of California wrote:
    23-Jul-2014 at 13:31:15 (GMT)

    It's my understanding California limits corkage fees to $15/bottle, unless the merchant offers the exact same wine and vintage. If anyone has DEFINITIVE information as to maximum corkage fees in California, feel free to chime in.

  • Bruce Zeiser wrote:
    22-Jul-2014 at 20:26:33 (GMT)

    Cmon folks...get a grip!! $150/btl too expensive? Vote with your feet. Whining about 'unfriendly, snooty, not memorable' is a waste of everyone's time. Keller is in business to make money. If people are willing to pay $150/btl (on top of the %$295 per person pre-fixe tab), so be it. You don't want to??? Go elsewhere. That's all there is to it. YOU are not owed anything by Keller or any other proprietor until you sit at his table. QED

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