The Paperbag Princess: She Who Brings Her Wine to Restaurants

paper bag wine smallAs we walk into La Colombe restaurant, we’re greeted with warm light and laughter. All the tables in this modest 36-seat bistro are taken, except the one we reserved. On every table there are open bottles of wine that the diners pass back and forth, topping up their glasses. Occasionally, someone reaches discreetly under the table and brings up a new bottle.

I spent my early adult years in Nova Scotia and Ontario, so I’ve been trained to select wine politely from the restaurant’s list. I’d no more bring my own booze than I would my own cutlery or linen. But I’m here in Montreal for the weekend to visit restaurants that allow you to “bring your own bottle” or BYOB.

This civilized practice has long been legal in Quebec, the result of a more modern wine and food culture than Ontario’s lingering Victorianism, which adopted it only several years ago.

Encouraged by this scene, I put our own bottle of 1982 Château Lascombes on the table. This is nirvana for people like me who love great wine and food but can’t cook worth a damn.

At home, this magnificent second growth from Bordeaux would be languishing beside soggy spaghetti or frozen pizza. Another benefit becomes apparent when our server brings the menus and a corkscrew. It’s a welcome change to sip our wine while perusing the menu instead of having to wait twenty minutes for it to arrive.sommelier

When our server returns for our orders, I offer her a glass of the Bordeaux, which she takes out to the kitchen. Giving back a little something to the restaurant beyond the tip feels wonderful.

Through the window, I can see the irrepressible chef-owner Mostafa Rougaibi, a phone receiver cradled at his ear, a frying pan in one hand and the glass of wine in the other. He beams broadly at us and raises the glass in a silent toast.

The BYOB wine concept seems so brilliantly simple that I wonder why it hasn’t caught on across Canada. Only four provinces permit the practice: Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Alberta.

The change would bring our province in line with the customs of Australia, New Zealand and Europe, where bringing your own wine is an entrenched part of dining culture.

But the U.S., also still living in the shadow of Prohibition, is still a legislative patchwork: progressive states such as New York, New Jersey and California permit BYOB, but Massachusetts, Colorado and others do not.

The benefits to wine lovers are obvious. They can add a personal touch to their meals, particularly those who want to bring a rare or mature wine from their own cellars. (Most restaurants can’t afford to keep inventory for five to ten years to age fine wine to when it best suits food.)

Diners can complement their food choices by bringing several half bottles (rare on most wine lists) to go with different courses—or for those times when you want fish and your dining companion orders steak. And in Asian, Thai or Indian restaurants, which aren’t generally known for outstanding wine lists, customers can bring wine specifically chosen to suit spicy and exotic flavors.

As well, BYOB gives diners more choice in restaurants that specialize in one particular region or style. You may love French cuisine and agree that an establishment’s French wines complement their cuisine, but what if you’re a diehard fan of Australian shiraz?

What about pizza joints and roadside diners? Just because you’re eating casual fare doesn’t mean the wine has to be plonk. (My favourite shabby-chic combo is burgers and bordeaux.) And diners with special dietary or religious needs might prefer to drink their own trusted organic or kosher wines.

But let’s face it: the main draw for bring-your-owners is economic, not gustatory. Diners see it as a way to avoid overpriced restaurant wines—there’d be little support for this initiative if they felt that mark-ups were more reasonable. Some restaurants add as much as 200 to 300 per cent on wines. Even Robert Parker, the powerful U.S. wine critic, has described prices as a “legitimized mugging of the consumer.”

This is especially true for higher-priced wines. Even today’s savvy diners lack an understanding about wine mark-ups: we’re much more aware of the price of chicken than of cabernet. The fact is that although alcohol is usually about a third of a restaurant’s revenue, it often represents more in profit—sometimes as much as half.

Stock PhotoAlthough the percentage markup on pricey wines is usually lower than for cheap plonk, the final price is still substantial. For example, if a wine sells for $100 in the store, it may be priced at $150 on a list.

That’s only a 50 per cent mark-up, but it translates into an extra $50 on the bill. But at the low end, where markup percentages are greatest, wine lovers have good reason to be leery. A wine that costs $20 on the list probably sold for $7-$10 retail, a hit-and-miss range for quality.

The old restaurant adage is that customers will “eat you poor and drink you rich.” Profit margins on food have always been thin for most restaurants. That’s the main reason why most new restaurants go out of business in the first year.

Most restaurants make back on booze what they lose on food—an average 100 per cent mark-up is considered reasonable. This is why BYOB won’t work unless Ontario restaurants can either increase their food prices or charge a corkage fee, or both.

“Corkage” is when the restaurant pulls the cork for you. The fee is added to your bill to pay for the establishment’s glassware, decanters, cleaning, bottle disposal, lost profits and service, including topping up staff wages for lost tips on a meal with no wine sold.

But be fair: you should tip based on what the bill would have been had the bottle been from the restaurant, since it’s just as much work for the server to pour your wine as theirs.

At La Colombe there was no corkage fee, but prices were higher than the average bistro: an typical entrée costs $25.

Corkage fees vary widely, from $5 a bottle in New Zealand to as high as $85 at Jean-Georges in New York City. (The restaurants that charge the highest fees are often those that have made significant investments in their cellars and they don’t really encourage BYOB.)

Corkage is often calculated as a flat fee per table or a charge per bottle or person: there’s more effort in the opening and pouring five bottles for a table of ten than there is for one bottle for a table of two. Some base the fee on the cheapest bottle on their own list or twice the cost of their wine by the glass. And some restaurants waive the fee if you order a bottle from their list as well as drinking your own.

A cautionary corkage tale comes from famed The French Laundry in Napa Valley, which found that a $30 fee failed to cover its costs. Diners would bring wines they’d bought at local wineries or even cheap bottles left in their hotel rooms as welcome gifts. Before the restaurant raised the fee to $50, it lost some $100,000 in wine sales.

Even if charging corkage doesn’t make up the entire profit-shortfall, the resulting higher volume of business might. In lean economic times, the practice would encourage people not to give up on dining out altogether¬, thereby keeping the restaurant culture alive.

It would make dining out more affordable for those on tight budgets: college students, young families and obscure poets. And even well-off diners might order more courses and pricier entrées when wine doesn’t loom large on the bill. Opening wine

People might also dine out more often, and on nights that are traditionally less profitable for restaurants, such as weekday evenings. Some restaurants encourage this by offering BYOB only from Monday to Thursday—on the weekends, diners must order wines from the house list. Other places simply don’t charge corkage on weeknights, but do on weekends.

Some restaurants in wine country don’t charge corkage if diners bring in wine bought locally—it’s their way of encouraging the regional industry. In turn, the wineries send business their way, advising visitors which restaurants to patronize with their bottles.

For emerging wine regions, such as Ontario’s, this is especially important. Small wineries don’t often have the volume to get their product into provincial liquor stores; instead they have to rely on direct sales to visitors and on the services of wine agents.

In fact, small producers from around the world depend on wine importers and agents who sell directly to restaurants. So any change should also allow diners to buy wines from agents too. Without the support of these passionate champions for small, artisanal producers, choice would diminish and many diners might default to drinking Wolf Blass all year.

Whatever the scenario, flexibility is critical to its success. Restaurants must be able to choose whether they want to offer diners BYOB, or their own wine list, or both—rather than being forced by law to pick just one or the other, as is currently the case in Quebec. They should also be able to choose which nights and meals can be BYOB and set their own corkage fees.

“I’m all for allowing customers the option to bring their own wine into our restaurant for a corkage fee,” says Steve Beckta, the sommelier-owner of Beckta Dining and Wine, which has one of the city’s best wine lists. “The practice allows people to dine out more often and with greater flexibility. And we could host dinners with vintners from small wineries that aren’t listed in the LCBO.”

But not all restaurant owners are as passionate about wine as Beckta. Some prefer to focus on excellent cuisine and leave the wine to diners. Some new establishments adopt BYOB only because the license required isn’t as expensive or time-consuming to secure as a full liquor license.

They also don’t need to spend the cash up front to establish and insure a temperature-controlled wine cellar. BYOB also allows small restaurants to compete on food alone with well-funded restaurants that can afford a large wine list.

That doesn’t mean that the concept will be embraced any time soon. When the Alberta government legalized BYOB last year, there was strong resistance from established restaurants, with dire predictions of wiping out the entire industry. But that didn’t happen: there have been few, if any, wine-related bankruptcies.

Other opponents raise concerns about customers drinking too much of their own wine. But existing laws already give restaurateurs protection in dealing with drunken patrons—it doesn’t matter whose alcohol they’re drinking. And logic tells us the situation is likely to work the other way.

Diners feel less obligated to drink the whole bottle when they’ve only paid the retail cost for it. And they should be permitted to take home what they don’t drink, re-corked in the trunk of the car. This is especially important when there may be only one wine lover and the other person prefers beer or non-alcoholic beverages.

Rather than encouraging drunkenness, allowing diners to bring their own wine to a restaurant makes dining out more a part of our culture. One likely benefit is increased knowledge about wine and the appreciation of it. Diners who don’t know much about wine might be motivated to learn more online or from wine guides when they’re not under the pressure to choose quickly from the restaurant list.

And the awkwardness of two couples trying to decide on a wine they both like and can afford is avoided when each brings a wine according to their taste and budget.

When our bill at La Colombe arrives, it’s a pleasant surprise: at least 40% lower than we’re used to paying for such a meal. That’s not just because there’s no wine charge but also because we’ve avoided the double tax on booze.

When restaurants buy wine from liquor stores or wholesalers, they pay tax on it, just as we do. However, as diners, we pay tax again on that bottle as part of our restaurant meal: 17 per cent in fact, higher than the 15 per cent levied on our food.

Bringing your own wine to a restaurant is about making wine and dining more a part of our culture. It’s not about ripping off servers and driving restaurants out of business. It reflects a more cosmopolitan culture.

Back in the 1970s, it was illegal to stand up and drink in restaurants, only a waiter could move your drink from one table to another and your food bill had to exceed the wine bill on Sundays. Aren’t we at the point now where we can also trust diners to choose good wines on their own?

La Colombe: 554 Duluth Street East, Montreal, 514-849-8844

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