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January 24, 2011

The corkage controversy -- it popped

gettyIn 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.  getty3

(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 (UPDATE, 3:18 p.m: please see comment below from Melvin Thompson of the Maryland Restaurant Association regarding 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.

getty3None 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 heargetty4 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.

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


Posted by Richard Gorelick at 7:00 AM | | Comments (30)


Well and thoroughly said, Richard. I think the most important thing to take from this is that the State of Maryland has some of the most ridiculous and restrictive alcohol laws out there; laws that, as far as I can see, benefit no one at all. It's time to do away with them, and the public shouldn't stand for it.

The art of cooking and dining has always been a pas de deux between those who prepare and serve the food, and those who dine; both parties have responsibilities to know the steps and nuances and rituals of the dance. Corkage (like fleur de sel, sous vide, and "farm to table") is simply a more worldly detail.

In more sophisticated restaurant cultures like NYC, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, corkage is common practice. And I think Baltimorean restaurateurs are savvy enough to successfully execute the practice, and that Baltimorean diners are savvy enough to grasp the concept.

My impression is that the greatest resistance to the law in Maryland really comes from the wine distributors, who may need to change some of their business practices to stay competitive if diners are allowed to bring in their own wines, and restaurants are able to profit from a (nominal) corkage fee. The arguements put forth sound like a smoke screen to obfuscate the reality that a corkage law would actually open up the market for an increase in the quality and variety of wines that can be consumed in restaurants--either from patrons bringing their own, or distributers doing the legwork to source and supply better wines.

If Baltimore is to truly be a city that claims to have great restaurants, we need to consider how we stack up compared to the big kids. Corkage is simply one small step on our way up.

Thanks for bringing this topic to your readers, Richard. Smart, knowledgeable discussions about things like this are exactly what need to be happening in Baltimore right now.

Agreed... There is NO reason that I shouldn't be able to bring a bottle of wine to one restaurant and not another, the same way there's no reason I shouldn't be able to order a case of wine to be shipped to our house from our favorite PA winery instead of trekking 2 hours up there to get it in person, while also enjoying local favorites.

Well, there is a reason why we can't right now. Because the corrupt and antiquated special interest known as Maryland distributors. They use their license to print money to keep their stranglehold on the market, with fearmongering about false ghosts.

How bout we just work on getting the dang things shipped to us.

if places didnt charge up to 3 & 1/2 times the retail value of the wine they wouldn't have to worry about folks bringin their own wine

Mr. Gorelick,

To address your comment that the reasons for our oppostion "appear not to have been addressed at all in the survey," please understand that you have seen only the summary survey results. The member feedback used to explain our position comes from the many comments we received via the open-ended comment fields in our survey and follow-up discussions with members about this issue. While we certainly understand that you may not agree with the concerns expressed by our members, we wanted to be sure you understood exactly how this feedback was articulated to us.

Melvin R. Thompson
Restaurant Association of MD

Good article Richard. I'm completely in your camp on this one.

My reaction was much the same as that put forward by MCW. In a nutshell, many other states allow restaurants to determine for themselves whether or not to allow customers to bring in their own wine, and I dislike the suggestion that we here in Maryland/Baltimore are too simple or too stupid to understand the complexities of the practice, and so for our own good need to be protected from it. Perhaps that's an oversimplification of RAM's position, but that certainly seems to be at least one of their arguements.

Frankly, RAM's initial point (that member restaurants fear such a change in the law will lead to decreased beverage sales) is so ludicrous it's difficult to take any part of their arguement seriously. The proposed change would not be mandatory (if a restaurant feels for any reason that having a corkage policy would not be advantageous to them, then of course they are free not to allow the practice), and as MCW points out, many restaurants in LA, NYC and SF allow the practice, something that I suspect they would not do if they felt the practice was costing them any money.

My parents recently took some special bottles to their favorite restaurant in the enlightened state of Arkansas, and not only was it OK, they shared some with the manager who enjoyed it so much she contacted the winery and is looking into carrying it as part of the regular inventory...

Sometimes things just make sense.

My guess is that RAM is getting ""encouragement" from MD's wholesale distributor's to take this position. The opposition makes no sense. Places with some of the best restaurants in the country (San Fran, DC, NYC among others) allow corkage and while making money.

How many truly great restaurants exist in Montgomery County where the iron fist of the county controls ALL alcohol distribution.

But, if the citizens of MD like the current laws keep voting the same people you already do.

Follow the money. As noted briefly in the articile, the distributors are against it, so their well-oiled machinery is at work. It's exactly parallel to their opposition to direct wine-buying by consumers outside the three-tier system.

Maryland (and many other states for that matter) has many laws on the books that regulate alcoholic beverage consumption and restrict competition among licensees who sell those goods. These are the result of the "devil's bargains" that were made in order to repeal prohibition in 1933. The essence of the regulations was to restrict competition so that bootleggers-turned-alcoholic beverage distributors could retain their monopoly in the marketplace. Those in favor of prohibition looked at those same regulations as properly discouraging the sale and consumption of alcohol. Driving through Pennsylvania, Viriginia or North Carolina one must look carefully to see "ABC" (Alcohol Beverage Control) stores because they are prohibited from having any signage that might attract customers. Of course, the modern world has caught up - we have other demons scarier than alcohol - and many of these regulations seem downright quaint.

I love food and wine, but I have rarely taken my own bottle(s) of wine to a restaurant. One reason is that I am a licensed wine merchant myself, and I respect my colleagues' desire to run a profitable business. However, I believe it is entirely up to the individual restaurateur to decide whether or not he/she will permit customers to bring in their own bottles of wine. There is simply no reason why the state should have any say in regulating this practice.

Laws prohibiting corkage and shipping wine in and out of the state are simply anti-competitive. I don't want or need the state of Maryland's "protection" against outside competition. Like thousands of other retail merchants around this country, I am happy to deal with competition on my own terms, confident that my business will be just fine, thank you anyway, dear legislators!

To: Restaurant Association of Maryland-

I am glad to bring my business to DC.

If MD restaurants don't want it then they should have the option to not allow corkage.

But why should there be a law to prevent ALL restaurants this?

Trust me, MOST MD restaurants would be wise to listen to their customers and consumers, and increase their appeal. Not run them out of state.

Oh gravy, it's a longtime tradition of civilized dining in so many other places. Enough said.

Now can we get rid of that MD law where we burn witches and unwed mothers.

@ owl meat

There are witch burnings going on in town? Damn, I love a good witch burning. Where and when do these take place?

I peruse the entertainment section of the Sun pretty closely and this is the first I've heard of this. I feel very, very deprived...

I think liberal witchophile O'Malley has put a hold on all auto-da-fé.

I prefer witch dunking. It's more scientific.

The state shouldn't get in the way of business and the current law clearly does. But, every business should be able to set prices on corking or prohibit it.

the proposed changes, as I understand it, allows an individual business to set its own price (maximum of $25 per bottle) or prohibit it

@pop, you're right on. I truly believe if restaurants are more reasonable with their margins (mark-ups) they'll more than make up for it with the increased sales volume.

Somebody has to say it:

When I think of corkage, I think of two kinds of people:

1) wealthy wine collectors

2) douchebags

In O.C. there is Liquid Assets - wine bar ,Liq. store and restaurant - you pik out a bottle pay for it and they charge you $10 corkage - very fair - it's a win-win for both sides

@ pop.

Have been to Liquid Solutions, which I agree is a goldmine in an otherwise very barren desert.

Actually, there are several places here in Baltimore that are comparable. Grand Cru and Cheasapeake Wine Company both have the same arrangement, though neither one is what I would call much of a dining destination. However, the food at the wine market is very, very good, with a $9 corkage charge for any bottle of wine you grab out of their wine store. Also, if memory serves, I think they give you a 10% or 15% discount coupon (it's actually just on your receipt I believe) to use for any wine purchases you might want to make on your way out.

The only criticism I have for any of these places (including Liquid Solutions) is that their regular retail prices tend to be just a tad high. Still, given the sort of mark-up I see at a lot of restaurants in town, it's still a great deal.

I think this is a quality precedent for the future. I am vegan and gluten sensitive. Also I am lactose intolerant as well and various allergies and sensitivities. I think it should be my civil right to supply my own food when I eat with a grop or my family. I think any nominal fee ($2) to heat and plate the food should be negotiable. After all I suffer every day, why should I be excluded from fun? Do people in wheelchairs have to pay to use the rmp? Think about it people.

Tear down those walls!

Clearly the next step will be to allow all restaurants to have wine stores. Not kidding.

How about selling wine in grocery stores? Makes all kinds of sense.

@ Tammi

I don't see anything wrong with your idea at all. There's actually something of a precedent for this out on the West Coast, where some SF restaurants will let folks bring in their own dessert (the restaurant charges a "cakeage" fee). If a restaurant can do something like for dessert, why not for someone who has the sort of allergy problems you have? I doubt this is ever going to rise to the level of a civil right, but I think it's an idea that makes sense if a restaurant doesn't have anything on their menu that you can eat. Especially if you're there with a large group or your family.

Burn it down!

Laissez-faire democracy. Let everybody do everything unless it hurts another person.

Liquor distributors – burn 'em down. Free markets baby! Competition creates jobs

Liquor sales? If you can sell cigarettes, you can sell alcohol. Burn it down!

Entertainment, carryout sales, outside seating – if you have a liquor license (cost $300) you can do all odf these.

Put the lawyers it of business, get rid of 90% of laws.

I'm looking for a restaurant that will allow me to bring in my bathtub gin from home.

Since I have discovered an excellent box of wine from Portugal (red and white) I keep an empty screw top wine bottle next to the boxes and when I go to a BYOB place I fill the bottle, screw on the top, and enjoy. RoCK could do the same thing with his bathtub gin.

Good idea, Mark. What's the name of the vinho?

I have heard that there are good boxed wines now. Does anybody know of any?

Good idea, Mark. What's the name of the vinho?

I have heard that there are good boxed wines now. Does anybody know of any?

Olaria from CARMIM. I shouldn't post it since it sells out so quickly. I don't miss the $15 Cote du Rhones I used to drink all the time. This wine is (are sitting down?) $19.99 for five liters. I won't reveal my source (hint).

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About this blog

You are reading the archives. For updated blog posts about the Maryland food scene, see Richard Gorelick's new Baltimore Diner blog.
Richard Gorelick was appointed The Baltimore Sun's restaurant critic in September 2010. Before joining the paper staff fulltime, he contributed freelance criticism and features articles about food to area and regional publications. Along the way, he dispatched for short-distance trucking companies, shilled for cultural non-profits, and assisted in cognitive neurology research – never the subject, always the control.

He takes restaurants seriously but not himself, and his favorite restaurant is the one you love, too.

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