A Bad Experience at the Bistro of the Hotel de Beaune

I wish restaurants would adopt rational policies on corkage (as I argued in my previous blog). Alas, rationality in wine policy has not reached France, where I am spending July. I had a particularly bad experience at the Bistro of the Hotel de Beaune. Since Beaune is the center of the wine trade in Burgundy, you might expect some sympathy towards people who want to drink special bottles of wine for one reason or another. While there are some restaurants with a good attitude, the Hotel de Beaune is particularly hostile.

One of my visits on the Côte de Beaune was to Albert Grivault, where after a tasting of Meursault and its premier crus, M. Bardet opened an old bottle to illustrate its aging potential. “If Meursault had a Grand Cru, it would be the Clos des Perrières,” he said, as he opened a bottle of the 1985 from his monopole. It was splendid: mature but not too tertiary, with a faint trace of minerality. (What a counterpoise to the problems of aging whites in the Age of Premox!) After the tasting, he very kindly gave us the bottle to finish off with dinner.

We were staying at the Hotel de Beaune, which I have regarded as my watering hole in Beaune more or less ever since it opened, and we eat at the bistro once or twice on every visit. We always order a bottle from the list, but this time I took the Clos des Perrières along and asked if as a favor we could drink it with our meal. The waiter went off to ask his boss, who went off to ask the owner, and then came back to say “Pas Possible.” I explained that this was an unusual situation, and that we had to drink the bottle that evening because it had been opened and would not keep, I offered to buy a bottle from the list but drink the Clos des Perrières instead, but “Pas Possible.”

The bistro at the Hotel de Beaune where the attitude has become “pas possible”.

So we took our bottle and went round the corner to L’Ecrit Vin, where the reception could not have been more different. “You have a special bottle, we have special glasses,” said the owner cheerfully, producing some Riedel Burgundy glasses. The staff all showed interest in the wine, which was magnificent: I had been concerned that over some hours since opening it might have become too tertiary, but it went the other way, with its innate minerality really coming to the fore. It seemed younger six hours after opening than in the initial tasting.

I recognize that restaurants can establish whatever policy they like with regards to corkage (and obviously they don’t want people to bring cheap bottles they bought in the town), but as I pointed out in my previous blog, an inflexible policy seems economically against their own interests. The Bistro of the Hotel de Beaune was not full that evening, so all their policy accomplished was the loss of two covers. In case it seems that my description of the Hotel as hostile seems exaggerated, I can only describe our departure. I had not met the owner of the Hotel de Beaune, Johan Björklund, on our previous visits, but he made a point of coming to speak to us when we checked out of the hotel: “I hope you never come back,” he said. Indeed we will not.

A Win-Win Proposal for Wine in Restaurants

For people who believe that enjoying a meal requires a fine bottle of wine to match the food, dining out is becoming problematic. When I started eating out, markups on wines in restaurants usually brought the wine to about double the retail price. (Yes, I realize that makes me sound like Methuselah.) At that level, I certainly felt free to experiment and to try new wines that might interest me. In fact, I often made discoveries from restaurant lists.

With markups now usually bringing wine to three or even four times retail, this is a completely different game. Couple this with sharp increases in retail prices from classic wine regions, and this means that it becomes more or less prohibitive to order Bordeaux or Burgundy from a restaurant list.

Enter corkage. While once it was all but impossible to find restaurants that would let you bring your own wine, this has now become much easier in London and New York, to the point at which there are enough choices that I feel able simply  to avoid restaurants that do not have a corkage policy. It’s especially noticeable that new restaurants, for whom the cost of establishing a good wine list is significant, seem more reasonable about corkage than longer established restaurants.

Offering the sommelier a taste when you take a wine to restaurant sometimes leads to an interesting discussion. I was enormously impressed by one restaurant in London which not only has a reasonable corkage policy, but where the sommelier reacted to my bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon from Provence by saying, “I like your wine, it is very interesting, and I will investigate getting some for our list.”

It is noticeable (perhaps counter intuitively) that it’s the restaurants that have an interest in wine, and which really try to have interesting wine lists, that are more receptive to corkage than those who simply buy their list from a distributor and regard it as no more than a profit center. Whatever the quality of the list, I think the restaurant is acting against its own economic interests by refusing to allow corkage. Unless the food is basically sold at break-even, and all the profits come from selling wine, what purpose does it serve in effect to tell winelovers to go somewhere else. Unless the restaurant is always full, all that has been accomplished is to keep a table empty.

A rationale way to handle corkage would be to charge the average profit on a bottle of wine. That way it would make no difference to the restaurant whether you brought a bottle and paid corkage or bought from the list. Another would be simply to charge the cost of the cheapest wine on the list (and the restaurant comes out ahead because they get to keep the bottle). Is it too much to ask that restaurateurs should realize it’s a win-win situation to have a corkage policy that is financially neutral for their bottom line?

Should there be corkage on bottled water?

In the era when restaurants customarily doubled the price of wine, I felt more or less free to order any wine on the list that I could afford.  As prices slowly crept up to three times retail, I began to feel restricted, and if I could not find a (relative) bargain, somewhat confined to less interesting wines than I would usually drink. As prices routinely increased over a three-fold markup (and remember that this is really probably closer to four-fold since restaurants pay trade rather than retail prices), I reached the point of gritting my teeth and saying to the sommelier, bring me the cheapest bottle of red on the list. Now I have decided that ordering off the list is a mug’s game and I have been looking for restaurants that allow corkage.

Even in New York City, there is a surprising number. By and large, at any quality level there are some restaurants that allow corkage and some (more?) that do not, and it’s only a rare exception when a restaurant offers something so unique that I feel it is worth patronizing in spite of the absence of the corkage. The most common range is $35-$45, going up higher at some grander restaurants. The case I always make to restaurants that do not have corkage is: why don’t you charge the price of your cheapest bottle, or the average profit on a bottle, for corkage: then it will be revenue-neutral and everyone wins. Some restaurants accept it, some don’t.

I will at a pinch accept the argument that a restaurant is putting thought into providing a wine list that suits its food and that they want diners to focus attention on it. But I really find in infuriating when the list is simply put together by a distributor, it has no particular interest, and it’s just another profit center. Sometimes the wines are simply so inappropriate (and expensive) that I feel, absent corkage, I must vote with my feet. In the course of research into  corkage, I have had some interesting exchanges with sommeliers or wine directors. The Atlantic Grill informed me that they do not allow corkage but have an appropriate list with well trained staff to help diners. When I replied that I did not actually like their white Burgundy selection and found the New World whites overbearing, but I thought there might be a place for Riesling in a fish restaurant, the response came with a distinct sense of “gotcha” that there were many German Rieslings on the list, perfect for someone with my taste. Sadly, the accompanying copy of the list showed that not a single one of those Rieslings was dry. I don’t know who is going to drink off-dry or sweet Riesling with their fish, but it ain’t me.

I have started  compiling a list of restaurants that do or do not allow corkage, attached at the end here: additions and corrections are welcome. In the meantime, that brings me to water. I happen to like sparkling water with meals, but everything seems to have changed with the introduction of equipment that allows restaurants to introduce their own bubbles into tap water. This may be good for the environment because the bottling is done at source, as it were, but the stuff has a lethal taste: it is not like  mineral water, it tastes like chlorinated water with bubbles. I think it is absolutely the ruination of a good meal: it gives no refreshing uplift to counterpoise the food. Now some restaurants that have the equipment also have real mineral water for those who ask for it, but some have switched over completely and there is no alternative. My question to them is: can I bring my own Pellegrino and will you charge me corkage (screwage?) on it?

Restaurants with corkage in Manhattan:

l’Absinthe $45

Antonucci $20

Casa Lever $65

Dovetail $35

David Burke $45

Eleven Madison $75

Gramercy Tavern

Jean Georges $85

La Mangeoire $30

Marea $75

The Mark $75

The Modern $45

Picholine $50

Sette Mezzo $35

Spigolo $35

Tocqueville $45

Union Square Cafe $20

Restaurants that do not allow corkage:

Atlantic Grill

Cafe Boulud

Crown

Daniel

Le Bernardin

Veritas

Vico