The Great San Francisco Corkage Debate

San Francisco readers may have noticed a flurry of letters to the wine section of the Chronicle recently about one of this wine drinker’s favorite topics: corkage policies.

Specifically, these letters address a controversy (stirred in part by a quote from Vinography in the paper a few weeks ago) over the fact that Pizzeria Delfina, the new venture by Craig and Annie Stoll, does not allow diners to bring their own wine.

I’m very pleased to see that this topic has been of interest and has fueled some public debate on the subject. If you’d like to catch up on the story, here’s a series of links to help you do that:

The original mention in the Inside Scoop section of the Wine pages. (You’ll find it halfway down through the column.

Letters in response 1/25

Another mention of the controversy.

More letters in response.

It’s amazing to me how many of the letters in response to this issue really miss the whole point of the discussion, though, at least from my point of view. Partially that’s due to the fact that the mention in the Chronicle was brief, and didn’t fully express my argument (perhaps it didn’t fully express Craig Stoll’s argument either), so I thought I’d give it a little more space here on Vinography and perhaps clear up some of the misperceptions that people have about the issues at stake here.

Here’s the background. Stoll has two restaurants side by side:

One is a pizzeria that serves excellent pizza (see my review) and where diners get out for around $25 a person without any wine if they order an appetizer and dessert. There are (if my memory serves me correctly) about two dozen or so wines on the list, all of which are less than $40, some of them considerably less. Additionally, if you like, you are able to order any wine off the main wine list of the restaurant next door. You are not allowed to bring your own wine to this restaurant.

The second restaurant (literally 15 feet away, next door), is, of course, Delfina. An endlessly popular (and rightfully so) San Francisco dining institution that serves great rustic, yet refined Italian food. Here, prices are higher and diners usually get out for around $50 to $70 per person without wine. There is a decent wine list with lots of Italian selections ranging from inexpensive to high-end. Here, there is a corkage fee of $20.

So here’s the debate. Why should the pizzeria have a zero corkage tolerance policy, when right next door (same owner, presumably same wine director, presumably same wine distributors, presumably same wine cellar) diners are free to bring their own wine for a modest charge of $20?

Many of the letters to the Chronicle and indeed, even Craig Stoll himself in an e-mail to me after I mentioned my shock at his policy, imply that this is an issue of economics, of a restauranteur’s survival in a hard line of business. The argument goes something like this: Stoll should be able to do whatever he needs to in order to make a profit, including preventing penny pinching wine lovers from bringing their own bottles rather than buying one of the modestly priced bottles on the Pizzeria’s list.

I call bullshit.

These arguments are so preposterous and illogical because THE ENTIRE POINT of having a corkage fee is to ensure that the restaurant owner makes the profit they need to when diners bring their own wine. Everyone who knows about even the most basic economics of the restaurant business is aware that the biggest margins are in the bar and the wine cellar. Most restaurants simply calculate the average profit that they make on most bottles of wine on their list, round up to the nearest five dollars and set the corkage fee at that price. That way, when some wine lover walks in with their bottle of wine, whether it is Yellow Tail or an ’82 Latour, the restaurant will make at least as much money or even more than they would had that person ordered a normal bottle of wine off the list.

It’s that simple and it’s purely a business calculation for most restaurants. Some restaurants go so far as to put their corkage fee very high (say $50 at the French Laundry) to dissuade customers from bringing their own wines, but even those restaurants know that if someone does bring a bottle, they will not go out of business because of it.

So the second argument here, and the line that Stoll took with the Chronicle when he was interviewed for this story, is that it’s his restaurant, his concept of matching food and wine, and he should be able to do whatever he wants.

This is absolutely true. There’s no law saying that Stoll has to allow outside wine to his restaurant. He’s the owner/chef he gets to make the rules. Even, apparently, if the rules are totally stupid and ultimately a bad business decision.

Before we talk about this from a purely subjective point of view, let’s look at it objectively from the standpoint of a business decision. If we take for a given that Stoll wants his restaurant to be profitable and successful, and that profit and success come from more people visiting the restaurant rather than less, having an anti-corkage policy makes zero sense, because it ultimately means that you will alienate some (even if it is just a small portion) of your potential customer base.

This isn’t some whiny argument from a wine geek who thinks his wines are better than what he can get at the restaurant. I’m going to continue to go there because I like the food, but the reality is that the there are some people who simply won’t. How can it make business sense to drive those people away when you could be charging them a $25 corkage fee (which incidentally is probably twice the profit that the restaurant makes on ANY of the bottles it has for sale at the pizzeria)? It boggles the mind.

So what it comes down to is Stoll simply wanting only certain wines to be served with his pizza. Which is fine, conceptually — he has some vision as a restauranteur for what he wants the experience to be. But it’s rather silly, especially considering that 99% of the other restaurants in the city (fast food chains and taquerias aside) allow you to bring your own wine. Those of you in San Francisco, help me out here. Can you think of any other restaurant in this city, or even in the entire Bay Area that serves wine but has a no corkage policy? I can’t.

At the end of the day, as one letter writer to the chronicle pointed out, bringing your own wine to a restaurant is a privilege, not a right. But when every other place in town lets you do it, finding a place that doesn’t feels like a slap in the face. To me, Stoll comes out of this looking, instead of like someone with a unique vision for a dining experience, rather like someone who just wants his way, no matter what the facts of the matter are.

His prerogative, our loss.