Bringing Your Own (February 10, 2005)
Weird though it may sound, there are some restaurant-goers who prefer
to choose their wine before they choose their food.
Confession: I'm one of them. So the newly minted legislation that will
allow consumers to bring their own bottle of a wine to restaurants is
a God-send for wine geeks like me.
This way I'm guaranteed to find the wine I want in my own cellar or I
can buy it at the LCBO (a fact that makes the LCBO very happy because
this will raise their annual revenues already fattened this year by the
on-going strike of SAQ workers in Quebec).
Now that it has come into effect, Ontario consumers will have the same
opportunity that diners in New Brunswick, Alberta and Quebec have had
for some time.
But nothing in life is simple. Just because the government has passed
legislation to permit the practise it doesn't mean that you can turn up
at any licensed establishment with a bottle of your Uncle Aldo's homemade
Zinfandel. Nor does it mean that you can lovingly tote that Château
Mouton-Rothschild 1982 to the best restaurant you can think of - because
they might not want to join the party. Restaurant participation in the
Bring Your Own Wine scenario is purely optional.
Restaurateurs I have spoken to are not exactly jumping up and down at
the prospects of customers bringing in their own bottles. As one owner
told me, "Food is your draw, wine is your profit." And nor are
waiters very happy at the prospect of lower tips. Then there are the "policing"
and liability issues: "How," asks one operator, "do you
cut off a patron whom you believe to have had enough to drink when it's
his own bottle?"
On the question of lost revenues. the Minister Consumer and Business
Services Minister, Jim Watson has said: "To offset lost wine sales,
licensees may charge a corkage fee for providing this service." Now
what does a corkage fee mean? Usually wines are marked up at least 100%
of their purchase price to licensees; this means that a bottle that costs
you $19.95 will appear on a restaurant wine list for around $42. The more
expensive the wine, the more money to the restaurant. In order to make
the same kind of return they would have to charge at least $20 corkage.
So it's really not worth bringing in a $9.95 Chilean Cabernet.
A corkage charge of $10$15 for your neighbourhood bistro is fair
enough. After all, the restaurant does supply the glasses which have to
be washed and the waiter does have to open the bottle (though I imagine
that you'll be left to your own devices once the cork is drawn and the
first glasses poured).
Montreal has had BYOW restaurants for years but their set-up is different.
You either have a license to sell wine or a license to allow diners to
bring their own. The two are mutually exclusive. Toronto restaurants will
be able to opt in or out of the scheme. They can retain their original
license to sell wine and have an endorsement to allow patrons to bring
in their own wine. You will probably find that those restaurants who allow
you to do so will only permit it on certain nights i.e., slow evenings,
like Monday and Tuesday. And I imagine many of the small ethnic restaurants
Chinese, Thai, Greek, Mexican, etc. will be happy to open
their doors to patrons with their own wine. This way there will be no
need for them to maintain their own cellars and tie up capital.
Then there are the restaurants that will jump at the chance to increase
business through the BYOW scheme. Jameson Kerr of Crush Wine Bar &
Restaurant told me, "We're going to embrace it. I'm happy if someone
brings in a great bottle of wine. We'll grade our corkage on the quality
of the bottle and it's not going to affect corporate business." Crush
is planning to have themed nights and menus to match regional wines. ("Monday
Night is Bordeaux Night," for example.)
When the opportunity to BYOW finally comes into effect, here are some
- Call the restaurant ahead of time and confirm that they will accept
your wine (since not all restaurants will allow you to do so.)
- Ask what the corkage fee is and whether there is a minimum food order.
- Ask whether they limit the number of bottles you may bring in (five
bottles for one couple is excessive even by Toronto standards).
- If the restaurant has a website, check their menu to see what style
of wine works best with their dishes.
- Chill your whites before you leave home and carry your bottle(s) in
a bag that keeps it cool.
- If you have a precious old bottle, drop it off at the restaurant earlier
in the day and have them decant it before you arrive.
- Tip on the service you get keeping in mind what your bottle would
have cost if you had bought it from the wine list.
- Don't bring in a bottle of wine that is already on the restaurant's
wine list. Again, check the website.
If you haven't the chance to check menus, the most versatile wines when
it comes to matching with food are Beaujolais (especially the named village
wines, such as Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, etc.), which can
be served at room temperature for most meat dishes or chilled for fish,
and Sauvignon Blanc (for seafood, fish and chicken).
Finally, another part of the legislation allows you to take home unfinished
bottles of wine that you have either brought or purchased at the restaurant.
If you're driving, put the corked (or screwcapped) bottle in your trunk.