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Food and Travel: A corker of a corkage charge!

I’LL be controversial again (how unusual!) and raise the vexed question of corkage fees.

In Zimbabwe –– as globally –– this hotly disputed item on restaurant bills causes perhaps more raised hackles than any other subject.
At Greendale Good Food & Wine Appreciation Society’s lunch on Friday at Meikles’ five-star La Fontaine Restaurant above Africa Unity Square, my good friend Robert Marple, retired academic and former Royal Navy officer, was puce with rage to hear corkage fee on a very ordinary vin rouge would be $12.
That does sound exorbitant on a bottle costing $2,99 retail. I’d anticipated this in an e-mail to members, suggesting: “It’s unlikely to be worth bringing economy wine, as the hotel’s corkage policy is a bit steep, but the wine list is very competitive.”
In other words, if you’ve some really magical special wine from overseas (Robert’s family has a Provençal vineyard) bring it, pay corkage; or buy the hotel’s own wine, from $12, and keep yours at home in the fridge; drink something other than wine or….(unlikely in our case!) don’t drink at all!
And $12 was the cost of a range of reds ordered by members; $16 the dearest: for good stuff from some of the Cape’s premier producers.
Bulk-bought, through Meikles’ sister hotel, the appropriately named Cape Grace, economies of scale on prime labels can (and apparently are) passed on, via reasonable mark-ups, to local end consumers.
I wear two hats. As a regular diner out, I naturally, wish to see the bottom line as low as possible. I’d also like to sample a wide range of wine, difficult in a country with no great tradition of selling wine by the glass or carafe (unless it’s “chateaux cardboard”, of which most of us know the taste anyway!)
At luncheon clubs, gourmet and wine society dos, that’s the idea: “Try a sip of this impudent little Croatian Riesling I found recently at only three euros a litre.”
“Certainly, old chap, I’m letting this splendidly robust, spicy, Lebanese Shiraz breathe, we’ll try it next!”
I’m also (but they often dispute it!) a friend of “the trade”. They must make a fair, legitimate, profit to stay in business; part of that is from wine sales. If their stock of wine is not being sold, expensive inventory, often with limited shelf-life, isn’t turned over. Income’s not generated.
Punters want their own wine in glasses: at Meikles’, top-of-the-range crystal; in ice-buckets (silver), filled with ice (dear); served by a sommelier knowing his calling (expensively trained and re-trained) and, afterwards, glasses (minus any broken or  –– perish the thought “liberated” by clients) –– must be washed. Those items justify the corkage fee, they say.
Would-be diners out should check the policy of restaurants to be visited. Do they charge corkage, yes or no?
If yes: how much? Is it a sliding scale: the more bottles opened the more we’re charged, for instance?  What’s the fee for 750ml bottles as opposed to a five-litre cask?
We rarely now see Zimbabwean wine, thanks to the knock-on effect of “land reform”, but some outlets once charged less corkage on domestic labels than imported ones. Others were vice-versa.
My own feeling is, if an outlet isn’t licensed (as for instance the “new” Jaipur at 117, King George Avenue, awaiting its licence: reviewed in tomorrow’s NewsDay) they just shouldn’t charge corkage. Meikles’ policy is –– I suspect –– to charge the same price as the cheapest house wine. I would argue the fee should be the cost (or profit: not both) element of their cheapest bottle.
Overseas, it’s often accepted that if the hotel or restaurant doesn’t stock the wine brought in they don’t charge corkage. But there are few hard-and-fast rules.
I would argue a case for give-and-take: when one or two members of a large party of revellers spending good loot on food, having propped up the bar for an hour or more and most of them choosing from the wine list want (for whatever reasons: usually economic) to open a bottle from home.
Corkage-charging can be extremely unpopular. It costs eateries trade, as the public resent being “fleeced” at one place when a local competitor waives the fee.
It is hard to police. Robert, sitting on my right, asked about corkage and was told $12: which possibly took six months off his life! The guy on my left just asked the waiter to open his bottle of white; one diagonally opposite borrowed my Swiss Army knife and opened his own. Both uncharged for!
Despite much chaos at Meikles, due to the presence there of one Akon, apparently an entertainer with a string of international criminal convictions, the meal was splendid. Like most members, I had the wonderful value $20 table d’hôte menu with plaice (a grand flatfish not found in southern African waters) “duxelle”: stuffed with mushrooms (and garlic), served with mashed potatoes, drizzled with lemon, garlic and paprika butter, and sound vegetables, as main.
Options were griddled pork fillet on caramelised apple rings with golden-turned potatoes, topped with light mustard sauce; or pepper-crusted beef fillet flamed in port wine and cream, with croquettes. I doubt if any of my members had the vegetarian rosemary and mushroom quiche.
I started with butternut and macadamia nut soup, ending with extremely well-kept Brie, Camembert and blue cheese followed by two or three delicacies from a trundling dessert trolley.
On the down side, the air conditioning needs adjusting. It was far too hot and airless in that large windowed room with sun streaming in. Casual drinks were 50% dearer than the barman quoted:  beer, for instance, was hiked from $2 to $3 (why?) on the computer, but apparently no one told bar staff.
And we didn’t get the last round. Despite assuring us he wouldn’t leave his post, the barman was nowhere to be found, the place locked, when a final round was ordered. When I suggested the drinks be obtained from the Explorers’ Club, downstairs, I received a look from someone in a DJ that suggested it was akin to sending round to the Holiday Inn for them.
We were told to leave it to him. Maybe 12 minutes later, our hard-core rump of perhaps eight simply walked out, fighting its way through an unruly throng of Akon fans.

dustym@zimind.co.zw

Dusty Miller

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