Is it a diner's right to bring a bottle of wine to dinner at a restaurant, or a privilege extended by a generous restaurateur? Ask a dozen people and you will probably get that many different interpretations.
The subject came up in comments to my recent blog post on chef changes in Las Vegas. Gary noted that he brought a bottle to dinner at one of the new restaurants at The Palazzo, was quoted two different corkage fees and finally allowed to drink the wine when the manager approved the bottle (Peter Michael Les Pavots).
I checked with the sommelier at the restaurant in question, who said that originally there was no corkage policy, but people were bringing in wine anyway, so they put on a corkage fee. The owners later raised it (thus the confusion over the amount), and required only that the wine not be on the list already.
Either way, the etiquette of bringing in your own bottle has been undergoing constant refinement as the practice becomes more commonplace. I am old enough to remember when hardly anyone did it, and only when the bottle in question was something special, not to save money. Nowadays, as Todd commented in his response to Gary, "99 percent of those who bring in their own wine expect to have the finest glassware, and experience the complete wine service out of a server that is left in the dust on the tip."
That's a bit harsh. As usual, the best path lies somewhere in between. Here's my take.
My motivation for bringing my own wine is that, like many wine aficionados, I have more wines in my cellar than opportunities to drink them at home. Why not drink them with the efforts of a good chef? I think of this as a privilege, because nothing requires a restaurant to let you bring anything in. (I've seen menus that annouce a fee imposed on bringing in one's own cakes for dessert. Apparently, it's not just for wine.)
To drink my own wine, I am willing to compensate the restaurant for the use of its glassware and service, in the form of a corkage fee. I always tip the service staff a little extra, too, because the fee doesn't find its way into their pockets. And I offer a glass of my wine to the sommelier or waiter.
In some states, BYO is not allowed at all. It's illegal in Colorado, for example, where I spend a good part of my summers, and Aspen's excellent restaurants tend to mark up prices to 2 1/2 to 3 times retail, which I find excessive. (I usually settle for a glass or two; the markup is higher but I spend fewer dollars.) Elsewhere, BYO-only restaurants let customers bring in their own wines without charge rather than get licenses, do the paperwork and store their own bottles.
At home in California, or traveling in places where corkage is permitted (and when I'm not reviewing), I tailor my approach to the restaurant. For restaurants with modest lists and ordinary glassware, I have no problem bringing a bottle from home just to have something better to drink than what they offer. For those places that have put some effort into their wine lists, price them fairly and serve the wines in decent glassware, etc., I only bring my own wine if it's an older bottle or something really rare.
Either way, I always call in advance to clarify any details. I never just walk in with a bottle or three. And when I get to the restaurant, I will at least order a couple of glasses of Champagne or an aperitif. (Many restaurants waive the corkage fee if you buy something off their list as well.)
Most people I know do all that, even when they really bring their own wine just to avoid paying the restaurant's wine markup. For their part, restaurants should price their wines fairly enough so that customers don't believe they must bring their own to keep from being gouged. That usually results in increased bottle sales. I hope that my friends at Aspen restaurants are paying attention.