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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 recommendations:

  1. Call the restaurant ahead of time and confirm that they will accept your wine (since not all restaurants will allow you to do so.)
  2. Ask what the corkage fee is and whether there is a minimum food order.
  3. Ask whether they limit the number of bottles you may bring in (five bottles for one couple is excessive even by Toronto standards).
  4. If the restaurant has a website, check their menu to see what style of wine works best with their dishes.
  5. Chill your whites before you leave home and carry your bottle(s) in a bag that keeps it cool.
  6. 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.
  7. Tip on the service you get keeping in mind what your bottle would have cost if you had bought it from the wine list.
  8. 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.




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