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Wine 101: BYO and Corkage


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#1 Brad Ballinger

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Posted 21 October 2005 - 11:27 AM

Although there is a six page thread on the topic of corkage fees archived in this forum, most of that discussion took place between a handful of members over two days in July, 2002. Additionally, some of the disucssion took some side trips into wine pricing as well. What follows below is more of an "article" on the basics of BYO and corkage that encompasses much of what has been discussed in the thread referenced above and others in this forum. We thought it might be beneficial to have one reference point.

Wine 101 – Bringing Your Own and Corkage Fees

As consumers increase both their love for and knowledge of wine, they can become increasingly disconcerted with the options presented to them on restaurant wine lists. Some are turned off by the high markups restaurants take on wine. Others are disappointed with the selection, or lack thereof. Others yet, who don’t have an issue over price or selection, may not like seeing all recent vintages on a wine list. They’d rather drink a more mature wine. Yet, very few consider the option that they might be able to bring their own wine, and bypass some of the disdain they feel welling up when perusing the wine list. But, as with many dining practices, there are some points of protocol and decorum one should exercise before showing up with a bottle (or more) at the door.

Can I legally bring my own wine? Depending on the laws of the state, county, or city, it may not be legal for a consumer to bring his or her own wine (or any alcoholic beverage) to a restaurant. If you live or dine out in such an area, I’m afraid you’re stuck with the wine list as your only option – that’s if you decide to have wine with your meal at all.

Will the restaurant allow me to bring my own wine? Some will; others won’t. Just because it may be legal for customers to bring their own wine doesn’t necessarily mean that restaurant must allow their customers to do so. The decision is up to the individual restaurant. There are a wide variety of reasons why a restaurant will or will not allow its customers to bring their own wine. If the restaurant has a good wine list (e.g., large selection, older and newer vintages, wide price range), it may not offer its customers BYO as an option. Personally, I won’t even ask about BYO if I’m going to a place with a good and fair wine list. Other restaurants will offer BYO no matter what their list looks like. And some may offer it to you depending on what you plan on bringing (more on what to bring below).

Will the restaurant charge me a corkage fee if I bring my own wine? Again – some will; others won’t. In a very few places it is illegal to charge corkage fees (but that doesn't stop some restaurants from doing it anyway). From a purely transactional point of view for that particular dinner on that particular evening, the restaurant will not make as much money on the customer who brings his or her own wine instead of ordering from the list. (Of course, if the customer only orders water, less money is made, but let’s assume that the customer who brings a bottle would otherwise order from the list.) From a long-term goodwill point of view, the restaurant that allows customers to bring their own and doesn’t charge corkage may make enough money from the customer due to frequent repeat visits. It depends on the restaurant's philosophy.

Restaurants will give a number of reasons why they charge a corkage fee – they still open and serve the wine, you are using their glassware which needs to be washed (and replaced if broken), maybe they are providing you with an ice bucket, and you are still having the experience of dining out among the ambience the restaurant provides you. Some restaurants will also set their corkage fees at a dollar amount that deters customers from simply being cheap – and I don’t fault them for it one bit. I don’t know if this is still the policy at the following restaurants or not, but Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago and French Laundry in Yountville at one time had a corkage fee of $50 per bottle of wine. They also have excellent wine lists and provide(d) top quality food, service, and atmosphere. The policy was set to prevent someone from bringing in wine just to avoid buying off the list. Yet, in some instances, if a customer had a rare and special bottle of wine, which wasn’t on the restaurant’s wine list, the corkage fee would be waived. Jean Georges in NYC charges $75.

I don’t get upset about corkage fees. But I know several wine geek types for whom being charged corkage is the greatest affront they could experience. Usually, these are the same people who demand new glasses for every bottle, demand an ice bucket, tell the servers when to open certain wines, don’t offer any wine to the staff, and don’t tip as if they’ve ordered wine from the list., and feel the restaurant should be honored to accommodate them and their precious wine(s). I generally find that if I’m respectful, and handle bringing my own in the right manner, corkage fees will be lowered or not invoked altogether. But I never expect that I shouldn’t have to pay them.

What wine should I bring? It might be easier to answer this question from the view of “What shouldn’t I bring?” Even if part of the reason you are bringing your own wine is to save a bit of money – and we all know that is certainly one factor – what you don’t want to do is be obvious about it. If you bring a bottle of Two Buck Chuck, for example, you might as well carry a sign with you that says “I’m being cheap, and I don’t care what anyone thinks about it.” Even if you actually like Two Buck Chuck, it would still be bad form to use it in a BYO situation. Similarly, if you bring a bottle of wine that the restaurant already features on its list, it could appear that you are bringing your own simply to avoid paying the restaurant’s markup. So you may have to do a bit of homework, and take a look at the restaurant’s wine list beforehand.

Therefore, you should bring wines that don’t appear on the restaurant’s wine list, and aren’t bargain basement specials. Along these lines, I would also suggest not bringing wines for which there is a reasonable alternative on the wine list. For example, if the wine list contains several Chianti Classico wines from the most recent vintages that normally retail betweens $15-$25, it would still be tacky to bring the latest vintage of a different producer’s Chianti Classico that retails for $20. But it would be acceptable to bring an older vintage (and not just one year older) Chianti Classico or a recent vintage Chianti Classico not on the list that retails for a much higher price, or a Chianti Classico regardless of vintage or price that is extremely rare.

Should I inform the restaurant that I’m bringing my own wine? Yes. Even better, you should call ahead to inquire about the restaurant’s BYO and corkage fee policies? You may be asked what you plan on bringing. If you don’t know, you can respond with, “I haven’t had a chance to determine that yet, but I can call back if you’d prefer.” Usually it’s a good plan to have an idea before calling: “It’s our anniversary. We were married in 1990, and I have a few Bordeaux from that vintage that I’ve been saving. Would I be able to bring one or two to your restaurant?” If you are told that the restaurant charges a corkage fee of $25 per bottle, let’s say, you simply respond, “Great. See you Saturday.”

What is the best manner in which to carry in my wine? Unobtrusively and respectfully. If you are bringing in your wine at the time you show up for your reservation, it would be best to have it enclosed in a wrap of some sort – a cloth bag, wine carrier, etc. Unwrapped, or in the brown paper bag from the liquor store is tacky. If you are bringing wine that is best served at a chilled temperature, you can either bring it with you chilled and then politely ask your server to keep it chilled for you, or you can show up ahead of time, and ask the restaurant to have it chilled for your dinner reservation (they are earning that corkage fee already). If you have a red wine that you’d prefer to have decanted, you can show up ahead of time and ask that the wine be decanted X number of hours prior to your reservation. Or you can ask your server to decant the wine as you hand it to him or her. Or you can decant the wine at home. If you choose this latter option, I strongly recommend double-decanting it back into the bottle and re-corking it.

A quick aside here – believe it or not, I’ve heard of (but never witnessed firsthand) people bringing in a bottle of wine that has a prestige label on the outside but has something like Mondavi Coastal on the inside. I don’t recommend doing this.

Should I also order some wine from the restaurant’s list? That depends. How much wine did you bring, and how much can you drink and still be able to drive home? Generally it’s a good idea to also order some wine – even if it’s only a glass – from the restaurant’s list. Again, even if one of the reasons you are bringing your own wine is to save some money, you don’t want it to appear as if that is your only reason. You can order a glass or bottle for before dinner, as an alternative to have with your dinner, or perhaps with cheese or dessert.

What if the wine I brought is flawed? If you bring your own wine frequently enough, this will happen. There’s really nothing you can do other than decide whether or not to dump the wine, or re-cork it and try to return it to the retailer for a refund. Then you need to decide if you want wine at all. Not ordering a bottle, by the way, will make it appears as if you only brought your own wine to be – well, you know what. Even if you bring your own wine, if the server opens it for you, he or she will go through the tasting ritual for you to evaluate the wine’s integrity. Some people bring “back up bottles” for such situations. If I bring a back up bottle, however, it is generally a duplicate.

Should I offer to share my wine with the staff? Yes. You don’t have to, but it is courteous to do so. Your server may decline your offer, which is fine. Some wait staff aren’t allowed to accept such offers. You can also offer to send some back to the kitchen. There have been times when upon tasting the wine in the kitchen the chef has altered the preparation of my entrée. Does it happen all the time? Of course not. Would it matter if it never happened? No. But people are generally appreciative of an opportunity to sample a wine that may be new to them or that they might not otherwise get an opportunity to taste. Whether you offer the first glass or the last bit in the bottle is up to you.

How does bringing my own wine affect how much I should tip? You should tip something. Yes, you may have shared some of your wine, but a sip is not a tip. Part of the answer depends on if you were charged a corkage fee, and how much you were charged. If corkage is not charged or is usually charged but has been waived, I tip at least 33% of the entire bill, sometime higher. I want to show my appreciation to the restaurant for allowing me to bring my own and for not charging me to do so. I don’t know if it is right or not, but generally the higher the corkage fee, the lower the tip on the wine and wine service portion of the bill. This will, of course, depend on the quality of the wine service and what the restaurant and its staff did to justify the corkage fee.

Should I bring my own wine every time? For those restaurants I patronize that do not charge corkage fees or have waived corkage fees for me, I don’t always bring my own. I don’t want it to appear as if I’m taking advantage of their generosity.

Do these protocols apply to restaurants that are BYO only? We don’t have any of these where I live, but for those of you who have restaurants that are BYO only – meaning that if you want to drink wine or beer with your dinner (generally, spirits aren’t allowed), you will have to bring it yourself. In such places I’ve seen all sorts of wine and all sorts of beer. Typically, it’s not Two Buck Chuck or Pabst Blue Ribbon, but there really are not rules. The restaurant has chosen to make its money on food and non-alcoholic beverage sales only. Do what you’d like.

There are going to be some instances where you are going to have to figure it out as you go along. But the overall theme I’ve attempted to reinforce here is to be courteous, be respectful, and be appreciative. Remember, restaurants do not have to allow you to bring your own wine, and they can charge you whatever they want for affording you that privilege. Restaurants will stop the practice altogether or raise their corkage fees if too many customers take advantage of their generosity. And I use the word generosity because, remember, the restaurant is making less money (per transaction) on customers who bring their own when they would otherwise order from the wine list. And they have a business to run, after all.
We cannot employ the mind to advantage when we are filled with excessive food and drink - Cicero

#2 Della

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Posted 21 October 2005 - 12:11 PM

What a great rundown on rules and ettiquette. Thank you!

#3 Rebel Rose

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Posted 26 October 2005 - 08:29 AM

Should I offer to share my wine with the staff?  Yes.  You don’t have to, but it is courteous to do so.  Your server may decline your offer, which is fine.  Some wait staff aren’t allowed to accept such offers.  You can also offer to send some back to the kitchen. 

In casual restaurants, like family Italian places, they may even waive the corkage entirely if you offer a glass to the chef or staff. I wouldn't expect it, of course, but in some of these places they only have four wines on the list anyway, most of which have been sitting in a warm kitchen for months! When Papa Segreto was still with us, we always took a bottle and planned on one glass for each of us, one for the waiter, and one for Papa Segreto. His lasagna and calamari was the best ever, and the spumoni was homemade. ::sigh::

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#4 jrufusj

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Posted 26 October 2005 - 06:18 PM

Brad:

Thanks for a great summary of BYO etiquette and opportunities. If more people were aware of and followed these guidelines, I expect that BYO would be available at more restaurants.

Jim
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#5 primowino

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Posted 27 October 2005 - 05:33 AM

Just an example of how it pays to make enquiries. For the 25th anniversary of meeting my wife last year I wanted to dine at one of the top restaurants in Edinburgh, but take my bottle of 1986 Pichon Lalande. Of course none of the top restuarants have a BYOB policy.

First I emailed Atrium and got a very pleasant reply saying they were pleased I would consider celbrating the occasion there and that althoguh it was not usually permitted I could take my wine and corkage would be £15. This wasn't a great surprise but I thought I would also contact Martin Wishart. They sent back a very short reply to the effect that corkage would be £35 (ouch!).

I relayed this to a friend who said that he had enjoyed the restaurant in the Prestonfield House Hotel, Rhubarb - run by the same people as The Witchery. They quoted me £5 and needless to say we ate there, had a lovely meal and the wine service including decanting at the table was excellent.