Bringing your own bottle of wine to restaurants is now legal in many provinces and states, but what are the rules of engagement?
I shared some tips on CBC radio this week on the etiquette of doing so, including the types of wines to bring, corkage fees and tipping. You can listen to that conversation below …
Does the thought of bringing your own wine to a restaurant make you feel cheap and arrogant? Get over it by practicing good BYOB etiquette.
1. Even when the practice is legal, check if the restaurant allows or encourages it. When you make the reservation, ask if you can bring a special bottle to celebrate your birthday—even if it was four months ago and you’ve celebrated it weekly ever since.
2. Although you may not get a flat-out no, you may sense some resistance in the tone of voice or in the cheery information that you certainly can, but the corkage fee is $100. Then it’s best to take your bottle elsewhere.
3. Sometimes a restaurant will have no problem if you bring one bottle to drink—but they’ll look askance at two or a whole case. It’s best to check about this beforehand too.
Still, you may want to bring a spare bottle just in case the one you open happens to be corked: otherwise what will you do, send it back?
4. Take wines that can handle some jostling and won’t be traumatized by the trip. Some older wines are fragile and those with a lot of sediment could take several hours to settle down to a drinkable state again.
You can still enjoy a mature wine, just be sure that it can take a bit of jostling. As well, be extra careful with sparkling wine—spraying the other diners is considered bad form, even in a BYOB establishment.
5. Don’t take your best wines if the restaurant has poor glassware—it’s an injustice to a great wine to be suffocated in one of those golf-ball-sized glasses. If the place allows it, bring your own stemware.
6. Take several half bottles of wine so you can match different wines and dishes. Have compassion for the dishwasher though and don’t bring a ridiculous number, especially for large groups.
7. What if you’re not sure just what you’ll feel like eating when you get to the restaurant? Two of the most versatile and food-friendly wines to take with you are riesling and pinot noir: lots of flavor and great acidity to refresh the palate between bites.
8. Avoid taking bottles that are already on the restaurant’s list, unless you have a much older vintage that they don’t stock. And unless you’re an award-winning amateur, skip the homemade wine.
9. Most BYOB restaurants allow only table wine—beer, spirits and fortified wines are mostly discouraged or even illegal. Check to see what types of alcohol are permitted.
10. Consider buying an insulated wine case. It will protect the wine and keep it at the right temperature. Some even have compartments for glasses, which is helpful if the restaurant doesn’t have good stemware.
11. If the restaurant is casual, and if there are just two of you, put one bottle on the table; leave any others in your case under the table. Larger groups can set out enough bottles for everyone to start with a glass of wine.
12. Sometimes it’s possible to ask the server to store your wine in the kitchen—more formal restaurants may prefer this, finding your bag under the table a tad inelegant no matter how chic the design.
There are drawbacks to this. One is that your precious Pétrus could be accidentally substituted for plonk. And often small operations don’t have the space or proper conditions to store your wine.
13. In casual restaurants, topping up your wine is usually acceptable, but may be discouraged in more formal settings.
14. Unless the restaurant’s wine list is horrible, consider buying a glass to whet your appetite—if only as a goodwill gesture. A sparkling aperitif is ideal—and the wise diner wouldn’t try transporting such an unstable wine.
15. It’s also good form to offer a glass of your wine to the server. He or she can drink it, decline it or accept it to share with the chef.
16. When it comes time to tip, remember that your server has done just as much work opening and pouring your bottle as one from the restaurant’s list.
Give what you would have if you had bought the bottle there. You save money on your total bill, not by stiffing the servers, most of whom make 80 per cent of their income from tips.
17. Don’t abuse BYOB establishments by treating them as a cheap place to drink, ordering very little food and drinking lots of your own wine.
Bringing your own wine to a restaurant is a privilege, not a right; and BYOB restaurants won’t last unless we support them honorably.
Here are several excellent articles on BYOB:
BYOB in BC Restaurants – Mari Kane
BYOB in San Francisco – East Bay Express
BYOB Etiquette – Wall Street Journal Smart Money
BYOB Wine Tips – CBS
Craig: Now another change in store for Saskatchewan. Wine lovers, is a, well, something like going to be a, music to wine lovers here. Today the government will, as said, will allow restaurants to offer ‘bring your own wine’ to customers.
This is known as corkage and it’s already legal in six provinces including Alberta, and Manitoba. Natalie MacLean is a wine expert and a wine writer. She said, it is a very good move for wine lovers in Saskatchewan. And Natalie joins me now from Ottawa. Good afternoon, Natalie.
Natalie: Hi, Craig.
Craig: Why do you think that ‘bring your own wine’ is a great concept for restaurants in Saskatchewan?
Natalie: I think it’s a great concept for both restaurateurs and for wine lovers. For restaurateurs, I think it gives them another tool or way to serve their customers that I think is very valuable. So here in Ontario, what a lot of restaurants do is offer the BYOB service, say on a Sunday or Monday night, when traffic is slowest…
Natalie: …to encourage wine lovers to come out, bring that special bottle and have a great meal with it. So it works both ways, I think.
You know, there are a lot of great bottles out there that you can’t get on restaurant lists, or, you know, you’ve been saving that special bottle for 10 years. There’s no way a restaurant can afford to keep a wine that long in storage, it ties up too much cash. So, there’s a lot of great reasons to offer this service.
Craig: So, just paint this picture for me. When I walk into a restaurant in some point in the future in Saskatchewan, carrying my own bottle of wine, what charges can I expect? What, what reception can I expect from the waiter? How does it all work?
Natalie: Well, it could vary, I expect it would vary by restaurant. So, again here, restaurants decide whether or not they even want to offer the service because it’s legal but not mandatory, of course.
Some choose to offer it on slow serve nights like Sunday, Monday or maybe, you know, earlier in the evening, 5 to 7 PM or whatever, or full service all the time.
So, one of the things that I do advise people is, call ahead and just make sure they are offering the service. Are there any parameters and so on? And you feel more comfortable about it.
When you arrive, you know, you should expect that you are going to pay a corkage fee and that’s the cost, the fee to open the bottle and serve it, because the adage in the restaurant industry is that customers will eat you poor and drink you rich. A lot of profit margin is in the drinks, not just the alcohol but coffee, tea, water.
And so, the restaurant providing that full service still has to pay that overhead which is not covered generally by the food. So you’re going to pay whatever it is, depends on the establishment, anywhere from $10 to sometimes even $30, if you are at the fancy place. But you know, that’s an expected part of this.
Craig: So, the $30 corkage fee is just, it goes to the restaurant. That’s to allow you the privilege to bring your own bottle of wine.
Natalie: Exactly, because on a restaurant wine list, that bottle of wine would be marked up anywhere from 50 to a 100%, anyway. So you are not paying that. You are paying for the service, so that is still the component of serving you that wine, but also just the total cost of your meal, much of which is in the drinks.
Craig: So you say it’s not mandatory, of course. How many restaurants, generally speaking, take advantage of this and offer corkage?
Natalie: I find here the restaurants, it might not be what you expect, but the restaurants with better wine lists do it because they are catering to a wine loving crowd who have an interest in wine, have rare special wines.
That is another tip that I often say, don’t bring a bottle that’s already on the list. Try bringing one that the restaurant doesn’t serve or an older vintage or whatever can make an anniversary dinner special. Whatever you like, that’s what I find in general.
Craig: Of course, everybody else talks about tipping. What would be some of the right ways to tip when it comes to that corkage fee? Do you tip on it or not?
Natalie: Yeah, don’t be a cheese ball. It isn’t about saving a dollar-fifty.
So just as there’s a corkage fee for the service and so on, just a normal built-in price that would be in that bottle of wine. Your server also depends on tips. Your server, sommelier, depending, you know, on the kind of specialty staff they may have, often, they’re paid minimum wage and depend on the tips for their living. And often, the big part on the tip is on the alcohol.
So if you are doing 15% to 20% or whatever you do on a normal basis, that’s not going to be in your end bill there, it’s just the $20 fee. That’s not the time to be cheesy about this. You want to think, generally, about what the cost of that wine was, there are limits of course – like if you really bring an astronomically priced wine, okay? Some do a percentage, but consider that had you purchased the wine like it from the restaurant list, what would you be tipping at that point.
Craig: Natalie, thank you.
Natalie: Absolutely! I’ve got lots of BYOB. What bottles can you bring at nataliemaclean.com.
Craig: Thanks again.
Natalie: Okay, Craig.
Craig: That’s wine writer, Natalie MacLean. She’s from Ottawa. And we were just talking about the fact, one of those changes, and that you may be able to bring your own bottle of wine to a restaurant should they permit it. And you just pay your corkage fee which can range from, very little to around $35 on the high end on the spectrum.