As more Americans drink wine regularly with meals, more are asking their favorite restaurants that perennial question: Can I bring my own bottle? Like most practices created in the aftermath of Prohibition, corkage laws are a jigsaw puzzle of arcane, contradictory and confusing rules that vary from state to state and even from town to town. But whether they call it “corkage,” “BYOB” or “brown-bagging,” most wine drinkers want the freedom to bring a bottle of wine from their personal collection into a restaurant.
This year, some states with longstanding corkage bans have begun to reconsider. Last week the Virginia state Senate passed a bill allowing corkage; the House is voting on it today. Groups in Maryland are pushing to end their state’s ban as well.
A Wine Spectator survey of all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, found that 25 of these allow corkage in restaurants with a license to sell wine; some also permit the practice in unlicensed restaurants, though individual municipalities—and, of course, individual restaurants—can often elect to outlaw or limit the practice. Fifteen states forbid corkage outright, and an additional 12 have more convoluted regulations.
Of those states with complex laws, Arizona, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont permit corkage only at establishments with no liquor license. Illinois, Louisiana and Nevada have no state laws governing corkage; it’s left to county, parish or municipal governments. In Oklahoma, restaurants that wish to allow corkage can apply for a special “bottle club” license, but only in counties where by-the-glass service is illegal. Similarly, in North Carolina, restaurants can apply for a “brown-bagging” permit—but only in counties with laws forbidding the service of mixed alcoholic beverages.
Most state laws do not address corkage fees and leave them to the discretion of the restaurants, but in D.C. they are capped at $25, and in New Jersey unlicensed establishments may not charge them. Certain states also curtail the volume of wine that may be brought onto premises. In Arizona, the upper limit is six ounces of wine per person; in North Carolina it’s eight liters per customer. Oklahoma requires each diner to have his or her own bottle. Residents of dry counties in any state are typically out of luck.
Lawmakers in two states are debating ending bans on corkage in licensed establishments this year. On February 8, the Virginia state Senate voted 27-13 to pass SB 1292, which “provides that any restaurant licensed by the ABC Board may permit the consumption of lawfully acquired wine by bona fide customers on the premises,” and leaves the option and fee for corkage up to the restaurant. The House of Delegates has scheduled a vote for Thursday, Feb. 17. Update: On Feb. 22, the measure passed in the House, 78-18. It now goes to the governor for his approval.
Republican state Senator Jeffrey McWaters, who introduced the bill, argued its passage would be a boon to Virginia’s restaurants, which he finds are disadvantaged by the current laws. “I think it’s going to increase the business restaurants get. People who collect wines will take them out to a nice restaurant, they’ll go out more often and they’ll buy more items,” he said. “You can do it in D.C., so people in northern Virginia can take a fine bottle of wine to a D.C. restaurant. You can do it in North Carolina, so the people in Viriginia Beach can go to North Carolina and do it.”
McWaters also envisions a boost to the state’s burgeoning wine industry. Visitors to Virginia wineries cannot buy a bottle of wine and open it on a winery's premises. “This bill allows our wineries to say to someone who has a great Virginia wine, ‘Go to your favorite restaurant, try it and if you like it, come back tomorrow, and we’ll sell you half a case.’ It’s an opportunity for tourism and an opportunity for Virginia wines,” he said.
Though McWaters is optimistic about the bill’s chances in the House of Delegates, he still feels uncertain that all representatives know the facts, or even the details, of Virginia’s current corkage law. “I think the restaurants that are for this need to be more vocal,” he said. McWaters himself was recently frustrated in trying to bring a bottle from his daughter’s birth year to a restaurant’s private banquet room (the only place where corkage is permitted).
To the north, advocacy groups in Maryland are also pushing to end the present corkage prohibition. “We feel the restaurant owner should be able to make that decision himself,” said Adam Borden, president of Marylanders for Better Beer & Wine Laws. He echoed McWaters’ concerns about interstate competition. “If Virginia comes to pass its corkage law, Maryland will be sandwiched between jurisdictions like Pennsylvania, D.C. and Virginia that would all allow it, putting Maryland restaurants at a disadvantage.”
But Borden’s group faces multiple bureaucratic hurdles. The group has submitted a proposal to each of the state’s five county liquor boards. Each proposal must gain the sponsorship of local senators and delegates, be cleared by the two alcohol legislation committees in the Maryland House of Delegates and Senate and then win passage in the full General Assembly.
Not everyone supports the idea. The Restaurant Association of Maryland issued a statement opposing it, citing drawbacks to corkage: “The law change will decrease wine and beverage sales, create confusion about serving control and regulatory compliance, create potential customer relations issues for restaurants that choose to continue prohibiting the practice despite a law change, and lead to future law changes allowing customers to bring in other alcoholic beverages.” According to a survey of RAM restaurant members, 63 percent oppose corkage in general, though only 37 percent of those surveyed oppose it if restaurants could set their own corkage policies, which is what the current legislation proposes. Borden noted that unlike many state restaurant associations, Maryland’s allows suppliers such as alcohol distributors to sit on its board, which he believes might underlie RAM’s opposition.
Borden said he has heard other objections as well. “One of the arguments we heard from one of the county liquor boards was that they were concerned someone would be bringing in their own moonshine. They originally came up with arguments about how kids were going to be smuggling in alcohol, that this was going to lead from wine to people bringing in their own steaks or their own entrees.”
But the current thicket of corkage regulations hides a reality—many people ignore the law. The same RAM survey, according to Borden, showed 30 percent of respondents willing to ignore the current corkage laws in their restaurants. He called enforcement “uneven” and “capricious.” And Wine Spectator found restaurants in every state that prohibits corkage that were open to extending the option quietly. One Michigan hotelier explained that customers could hand a bottle off to the concierge and then “order” it at the hotel’s restaurant later on. The current state-by-state regulation of alcohol means the confusion is not going away anytime soon.