If you’re planning on bringing a bottle of wine to either of Chef Thomas Keller’s three-star Michelin restaurants---Manhattan’s Per Se, or The French Laundry in Napa---it will be a more expensive proposition than you thought. Keller has just raised the corkage fee to $150 at both establishments.
For the uninitiated, a corkage fee is a levy charged to diners for the privilege of bringing in wine from their private cellar, a practice that not all restaurants allow. Many of the ones that do allow it use the fee as a means of encouraging customers to order wine from the restaurant list. For a long time $20 was standard, and $50 was viewed as a conscious attempt to keep personal wine at home. A few restaurants around the country are flirting with the $100 level (Masa in New York, Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas) but $150 is definitely a new frontier. Even then, you are only permitted to bring in a bottle not included on the wine list.
Of course, you’d be extremely lucky to have dinner at either place. Per Se has a two-month lead time for reservations, and a table at The French Laundry is almost impossible to obtain. If you succeed, you’d need either a great deal of disposable income or a winning lottery ticket. The French Laundry offers a fixed-price menu at $295 per person, service included, which places the cost of dinner for two at roughly $1000 for a pair of moderate drinkers. Per Se is likely to be even higher.
Amazingly enough, the corkage fee actually makes sense for high-end collectors. Say you have a bottle of 2007 Joseph Phelps Insignia. The average national retail on that wine is $211, and The French Laundry is selling it for $795. Add the $150 fee, and you’ve saved $434. As you ascend the quality scale, things get better: 2005 Harlan Estate retails for $585, and the restaurant charges $2,250; with corkage, you’re still more than $1500 ahead. The cheapest Napa Cabernet currently on the list is the 2011 Round Pond at $140 (average national retail $47).
The corkage fee is prominently displayed on the front page of the wine list, along with the statement that “We are pleased to offer wine service for bottles not represented on our list.” At those prices, I assume they’d be delighted.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, published by Lyons Press; his second book, Moonshine Nation, is forthcoming from Lyons Press in July. For more information, go to amazon.com