What does BYOB (Bring Your Own Bottle) to a restaurant really mean? What special laws and etiquette do you need to know about it? Which provinces and states allow it? How does BYOB benefit you as a wine lover, aside from reducing your restaurant bill? How should you calculate the tip when you bring your own wine?
On today’s episode of Unreserved Wine Talk, I’m sharing everything you need to know, plus my best tips for enjoying BYOB wines at restaurants. Enjoy!
- Which provinces and states allow you to BYOB to restaurants?
- Why is BYOB perfect for you if you don’t cook much at home?
- Why should you share your wine with the restaurant staff?
- What role does BYOB play in dining culture outside of North America?
- How does BYOB benefit you as a wine lover?
- Should you BYOB when venturing into more casual fare?
- What is the economic argument in favour of BYOB?
- How much does wine contribute to restaurant profits?
- What fees should you expect at a BYOB-friendly restaurant?
- How should you calculate an appropriate tip when you BYOB?
- What factors affect how much you’ll pay in corkage fees?
- Why should you buy a glass of wine from the restaurant list alongside your own bottle?
- How can BYOB help emerging wine regions and small producers?
- What aspects of BYOB especially benefit dining and wine culture?
- What BYOB etiquette tips should you keep in mind?
- Why do you rarely find chain restaurants with good wine lists?
- Which chain restaurants can you visit with a better selection of wine?
- How is wine helping some chain restaurants to differentiate themselves?
- 5 Wine & Food Pairing Mistakes That Can Ruin Your Dinner (and How To Fix Them Forever)
- The Wine Smart Course: A Full-Bodied Framework to Taste, Pair & Buy Wine Like a Pro
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Transcript & Takeaways
Welcome to episode 57!
Happy New Year! Did you ring in 2020 with some great wines? If so, should I be whispering this podcast?
I hope you had a wonderful holiday, and of course, it’s not over yet. Miles and I went to Montreal for a couple of days, as we always do between Christmas and New Year’s. We love walking around old Montreal and of course dining in the city’s fabulous restaurants.
And just a little bit of braggie boots news to share with you. Apple Podcasts, formerly iTunes, featured this podcast as one of the Best Listens of 2019. Yay! Thanks for making it so by subscribing and reviewing this podcast. You keep me running in my little hamster wheel over here.
If you haven’t yet joined me in my free online class:
The 5 Wine & Food Pairing Mistakes That Can Ruin Your Dinner
(and how to fix them forever!)
Then just go to nataliemaclean.com/class to pick your class time.
Alright, let’s dive into our topics today.
You can also watch the video on Bring Your Own (Wine) Bottle (BYOB) Etiquette that includes bonus content and behind-the-scenes questions and answers that weren’t included in this podcast.
We have some juicy wine topics to chat about this evening:
1. What are the rules (and laws) of Bring Your Own Bottle (BYOB) to restaurants?
2. Are there any restaurant chains with decent wine lists?
3. What are your favourite restaurants for wine?
I spent my early drinking years in Nova Scotia, 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.
However, when BYOB was finally legalized in Ontario, I decided to visit restaurants that allow you to “bring your own bottle.” This civilized practice was already legal in Quebec, the result of a more modern wine and food culture than Ontario’s lingering Victorianism.
BYOB is nirvana for people like me who love great wine and food but can’t cook worth a damn. A magnificent Bordeaux, for example, would be languishing beside soggy spaghetti or frozen pizza.
I also enjoyed sipping my wine while perusing the menu instead of having to wait twenty minutes for it to arrive.
I always offer our server a glass of my wine and often they share it with the kitchen.
Sharing wine with the staff feels more wonderfully generous than just leaving a tip.
Quebec, New Brunswick, Alberta and BC offer BYOB, a custom that is far more common in 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 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 often 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. 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. Robert Parker, the powerful, now retired 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.
Although 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 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.)
Corkage fees vary widely, from $5 a bottle to as high as $100 or more 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.
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.
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.
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.
Some 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.
SIDEBAR: BYOB Etiquette
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.
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. Even if you don’t 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
How about if you’re not sure, when you visit your home cellar, just what you’ll feel like eating when you get to the restaurant? Two of the most versatile and food-friendly wines are riesling and pinot noir: lots of flavor and great acidity to refresh the palate between bites.
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.
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.
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. And many cases come in chic designs and lend a certain aplomb that clinking bottles in a plastic grocery bag just don’t.
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.
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. But 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.
In casual restaurants, topping up your wine is usually acceptable, but may be discouraged in more formal settings.
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.
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.
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.
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.
many chain restaurants don’t promote wine to attract customers. Rather, they offers quick, cheap, consistent food; big-name beer; and a casual ambiance
In my quest for wine in the land of grease, I visited forty-three chain restaurants—and then my doctor for a cholesterol check. Do diners want a Pétrus with their pizza? Probably not.
Last year, according to NPD Group of Canada, a Toronto-based food services research firm, two-thirds of Canadians ate in casual franchises at least once every two months, spending more than $7.5 billion. But with all those meals, only 7% of us ordered wine. Why is that—when a good glass of wine can make fried food taste better, slow service seem faster, and country music sound good?
There are a number of reasons, but selection and service stand out—both result from the cultural clash between the worlds of good wine and fast-food: slow versus fast, unique versus consistent, small versus large.
The biggest beef against wine lists is selection—or rather, lack of it. True, the odds are stacked against quality: are there any wines that pair well with MSG, ketchup or those mysterious dipping sauces? But even so, many lists are filled with wines better used for cooking—or cleaning.
When my waitress, Jenny, bounces over to my corner table, she announces that the restaurant has two wines: a red and a white. She adds that the generic chardonnay here is just to “keep the ladies happy.”
A few chains do offer good lists: Earls restaurants in Western Canada offers thirty wines—all are also offered by the glass and none is marked up by a modest flat fee rather than the typical 100-300%.
It offers thirty wines on the list that are either priced at $25 or $28, with a modest flat mark-up rather than a percentage. They are mostly New World wineries that produce easy-drinking, fruit-forward wines. Bottle neck tags give diners tasting notes and winery information that they can take home with them.
The Olive Garden sells five million bottles of wine a year. When guests arrive on Friday and Saturday evenings, they’re offered a complimentary glass of pinot grigio or chianti while they wait for a table—just as the owner of a trattoria in the old country might give the regulars a little sip on the house. Since this initiative was launched two years ago, more than 18 million guests have sampled wine while they wait. The menu even offers free tastes, so customers can try wines before ordering them.
Training young staff on wine service can be a challenge, especially when turnover is high and their knowledge of wine limited. But they can be motivated by the prospect of bigger tips that come with customers ordering wine. Within six months of servers joining Toronto’s Canyon Creek chophouses, they’re required to write the test set by the Wine Council of Ontario.
If they pass, they get an expense-paid visit to several Niagara wineries. The wine list not only features Niagara’s best producers, such as Henry of Pelham and Creekside, but also other well-known wineries from Italy, California and Australia. At Earls, staff can log on to an Internet site to get live web-cast training sessions, as well as interactive correspondence with a wine expert.
At all three restaurants, waiters are taught that the correct temperature and glassware are important to enjoying wine. Chains often serve white wine too cold, straight from the fridge. It needs to be warmed slightly before drinking—though not, as one server suggested, in the microwave. And some glasses arrive at the table dishwasher-hot, resulting in new drinks such as the Chardonnay Latte.
I expected to get stemware with big generous bowls—but got shockingly small cups. Big wine glasses allow you to swirl around eight ounces of wine without sloshing it onto clothes or the tablecloth, even if it is plastic and you’re wearing a bib. There are several sturdy, affordable lines for restaurants that fit into dishwashers.
As chain restaurants face increased competition, many are differentiating their dining experience with brand products, such as Starbucks coffee or Toblerone chocolate bars. They’re also working with professional chefs in their test kitchens to develop signature dishes. Soon, perhaps more will look at their wine service and selection.
Good wine can be part of casual dining. In fact, a chain restaurant is the best environment in which to poke fun at the pretension of wine and to get more Canadians drinking it.
But it’ll take a cultural shift for that to happen—one that will begin only when corporate head offices see the value of good wine selection and service. In the meantime, though, we can reward restaurants where we can drink wine, whether we’re wearing a bow tie or blue jeans.
Well, there you have it! You’ll find links to my latest wine reviews, the video version of this discussion and the link so that you can signup for my free wine class in the show notes at nataliemaclean.com/57.
If you liked this episode, please tell a friend about it, especially one who’s interested in learning about the etiquette of BYOB. My podcast is easy to find, whether you search Google on its name Unreserved Wine Talk, or on my name.
Finally, if you want to take your ability to pair wine and food to the next level, join me in a free online video class at nataliemaclean.com/class.
I can’t wait to share more wine stories with you next week.
Thank-you for taking the time to listen to this one. I hope something great is in your glass this week, perhaps a terrific, wine that you bring to a restaurant near you!