The Corkage Controversy -- It Popped
JANUARY 24, 2011
photos of iconic wines from a private collection to be auctioned at Sotheby's Auction House in London on January 26, 2011 by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
In Maryland, you may bring your own bottle of wine into an unlicensed (BYOB) establishment. You've likely done so.
State law prohibits you, however, from bringing your own bottle of wine into a restaurant with a liquor license. Proposed legislation in Maryland would permit this practice, known as "corkage," and individual restaurants would be allowed to set their own corkage policies.
You might not be aware of the corkage prohibition because: 1) it never occurred to you to bring your own wine into a restaurant that serves wine, or 2) you or someone you know has, in fact, done it; many restaurants either occasionally or routinely flout the prohibition for regular customers. It's a request typically made, not by the average consumer, but by a wine enthusiast who wishes to bring in a special bottle from a personal collection or by so-called "cellar groups" or wine aficionado clubs, in other words, the kind of desirable customer that some restaurant owners love to accommodate.
The corkage debate got heated for a few days last week. In one corner was the Marylanders for Better Beer and Wine Laws (MBBWL), which favors corkage; in the other, the Restaurant Association of Maryland (RAM), which opposes legislation that would change the state's prohibition of corkage.
Things got started on Thursday when MBBWL issued a press release provocatively titled Restaurant Association of Maryland (RAM) Industry Survey Supports Case for Corkage
MBBWL based this cheeky claim on the response to one RAM survey question: Despite that existing law on this issue has not really been well-publicized or strictly enforced, how do you normally respond when a customer asks the question? 30% of the respondents admitted to allowing the practice, if not routinely, at least for special occasions. For MBBWL, this indicated that corkage is practiced so widely that it amounted to tacit support for it in theory.
(MBBWL did not win many friends with the press release's sudden reference to a December 2010 letter Volt's Bryan Voltaggio wrote to RAM asking for support of corkage. The letter arrived with an attachment listing 34 Supporting Restaurants, among them the Prime Rib, Chameleon Cafe, Brewer's Art, Clementine, Corks, Peter's Inn and Woodberry Kitchen. Voltaggio wasn't thrilled with how the letter had been used, and a few of the names on the Supporting Restaurants list were surprised to find themselves there at all -- they had at some point indicated support for Voltaggio's position letter but told me they had not been clearly advised how their support was going to be used. However, Voltaggio, along with the restaurant owners I spoke with, restated to me their strong support for corkage.)
But it mostly was MBBWL's interpretation of the RAM survey that smelled funny to RAM, which later the same day issued a press release saying that, based on its survey results, it "strongly opposes legislation that would allow restaurant customers to bring their own bottles of wine into licensed restaurants."
(Note: In the aftermath of the MBBWL press release, Melvin Thompson, RAM's senior vice president for government affairs, perhaps understandably, declined to release RAM's survey or its results to me, however, I have acquired what I believe to be a legitimate copy of them. I don't find the results of this survey, to which 107 restaurants replied, as conclusive as RAM did; others who have seen it may interpret the findings differently. No one, however, should accept my or anyone else's interpretation of a survey he can't see. But, for the record, 63% of the survey's respondents marked Oppose when asked, Do you support or oppose the general idea of allowing customers to bring their own bottles of wine into licensed restaurants.)
What I found particularly unpersuasive though, were the conclusions RAM put forth in the press release announcing its opposition to corkage -- some of these concerns appear not to have been addressed at all in the survey:
While there is currently little consumer demand for the practice, we believe that the publicity surrounding such a law change would encourage more customers to bring their own bottles. Our member restaurants fear that, as a result, the law change will decrease wine and beverage sales, create confusion about serving control and regulatory compliance, create potential customer relations issues for restaurants that choose to continue prohibiting the practice despite a law change, and lead to future law changes allowing customers to bring in other alcoholic beverages.
None of those fears makes sense to me, nor has anyone offered me a good argument against allowing corkage.
I'd like to hear them.
Taking the stated members' fears one at a time, then:
"...the law change will decrease wine and beverage sales..."
The restaurant owners that I spoke with dispute this and welcome a change. Because the legislation makes allowing corkage optional, it seems irrelevant to me what a restaurant opposed to the practice assumes about its effects.
It's possible that allowing customer to bring their own wine bottles into restaurants might have an effect on the profits of the state's wine distributors, but that's not properly the concern of anyone but a wine distributor.
"...create confusion about serving control and regulatory compliance..."
This concern asks us to imagine a Bizzaro-world State of Maryland in which liquor laws are otherwise straightforward, governed by common sense and free of the odor of mothballs and special interests. Assuming the new policy is confusing, surely one resource for helping the restaurants of Maryland understand and implement it would be the Restaurant Association of Maryland.
This much is true, though. In states where corkage is allowed but its implementation is set by individual restaurants, the particular matter of how much a corkage fee should be, if anything, along with other provisions of corkage, is something that diners disagree very strongly about with each other in the same enthusiastic, caustic and spirited way they disagree about any number of issues.
...will create potential customer relations issues for restaurants that choose to continue prohibiting the practice despite a law change...
If this were truly a legitimate concern that might affect the welfare of a restaurant, I'd like to hear about it. My response, I think, would still be "tough." I don't see how a restaurant's not allowing corkage when its competitors do would create more of a disadvantage than myriad other policies that restaurant owners have to either defend or compromise on, ranging from allowing split checks, charging for splitting entrees or allowing guests to bring in their own birthday cakes.
Here's one D.C. wine store's guide to the different corkage policies in the District's restaurants. It was easy to find. As you'll see, some restaurants have higher corkage fees than others, some have limits on the number of bottles a customer can bring in and a very few disallow the practice entirely. It's not confusing.
....lead to future law changes allowing customers to bring in other alcoholic beverages...
....or bringing in livestock or multiple wives.
The issue may not be as cut and dried for you as it is for me. Feel free to explain here why you oppose the idea that a restaurant shouldn't be able to set its own policy regarding the practice.
I'm for corkage, and I'll state again that its particulars -- to charge or not to charge, how much and when, and how a restaurant will handle, say, an insistent customer who wants to bring in a wine that's on its own list -- should be governed by the same proprietary judgment and subject to the same kind of healthy consumer debate that characterizes a thousand other restaurant practices in which the State of Maryland takes no interest.