Sommelier Roundtable: BYO Dos and Don’ts

Five wine pros explain their corkage policies and how to get on your somm's good side when you want to bring a bottle from home

Sommelier Roundtable: BYO Dos and Don’ts
Proper glassware and decanting can make your special bottle shine—and make the corkage fee worth it. (iStockPhoto)
Oct 18, 2019

Should you be able to bring a bottle of your own wine to a restaurant and, if so, how much should it cost you? It's a perennial point of contention in the wine-and-dining world: Some diners want to be able to bring a special bottle from their cellar—or a bushel of bottles from the store around the corner—for little or no charge; some restaurants (and even entire states) completely forbid it.

For the somms who rely on selling wine for their livelihoods, it's an especially fraught question, but most want to find a fair middle ground. We asked these five wine pros from Wine Spectator Restaurant Award–winning spots about their philosophies and policies on corkage and the dos and don'ts of BYOB etiquette.

Wine Spectator: What's your policy and philosophy on corkage and the etiquette of BYO?

Amy Mundwiler, wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Maple & Ash in Chicago

We charge $50 a bottle for corkage, it shouldn't be on our list and you can only bring one bottle for every two people. I love when people bring in special bottles, bottles that they have kept for special occasions, bottles that have meaning for them. That means you chose us to celebrate your special occasion. I love that! What I don't love is when people bring in multiple bottles, abuse our hospitality, try to skirt the policy and expect all the bells and whistles: decanting, special glassware, etc. My team and I work so hard on our list and we take a lot of pride in it. There are exceptions to everything, though, and I always err on the side of hospitality.

As for the etiquette of BYO, respect the restaurant's policy, and if you want to break it, ask nicely. And smile. I love breaking the rules for nice people!

For more somm wisdom, read our feature "Sommeliers Pair the Holidays" in the Nov. 30 issue of Wine Spectator!

Elizabeth Kelso, beverage director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Craft Los Angeles

Our corkage policy is two bottles per party, with a $30-per-bottle fee … In my experience, many guests bring value-oriented commercial wine as corkage in an attempt to enjoy wine less expensively than what they think we will have on offer.

Here is my advice about this to the dining public: The bottle of wine you picked up at the store that you drink regularly and are very familiar with may have cost you $15. Then you paid $30 to open it in our restaurant. In actuality, the wholesale cost of that wine was probably $10. So now you have paid a 4.5-times markup for that wine you’re already very accustomed to. Our wine list offers many bottles in the $40–$50 range that we paid around $15–$20 wholesale for. In other words, you have the opportunity to drink a better-quality bottle of wine by choosing one from us, as well as having a new experience with a wine professional that might be educational, fun or enriching. I’m unsure if most guests think about it in this way, so my hope is that they will take a chance on one of my suggestions next time instead of relying on their comfort zone.

Carrie Lyn Strong, wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Casa Lever in New York

Casa Lever’s corkage policy allows a table to bring up to two standard 750ml bottles for $55 per bottle. My philosophy: If a guest brings a great wine, sommeliers get excited for their guests' experience. We are wine geeks; we can't help it. But a guest should understand that there is a loss of sales and/or tips that comes along with that experience. Be thoughtful, gracious and hospitable.

Some tips for corkage etiquette: One, always order another bottle of wine (or even a first glass of wine or Champagne) from the list. Two, always thank your sommelier for taking great care of your wine. Three, offer your sommelier a taste of your wine. A little appreciation—and the experience to taste a new wine—goes a long way.

Chloe Helfand, sommelier at the recently opened Water Grill at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas

One of my friends from L.A. [says of a local restaurant], "I love this place because they never charge corkage." I'm like, "That sucks!" Because, honestly, I think there should be some sort of corkage. You're cleaning the glassware, you're opening the wine, you're providing a service. I want the somm at the table; I want that added level of service. Otherwise your server's pouring it and you don't even know if they're pouring the same thing in the right glass; you want somebody who's taking care of the wine.

It's really just to support the wine programs. Also, the other thing we used to do [at another restaurant] was with regular guests who really supported the restaurant, if they wanted to bring in X amount of bottles, that's fine. "Would you be kind enough, for every two bottles you bring, to buy a bottle of this minimum amount?" So if you bring in two reds, would you like to start off with a bottle of Champagne or white? As long as you support the wine program, in some way, it just helps keep that added service of having a sommelier on the floor and a wine program that's worthy of you drinking there.

Andrey Tolmachyov, wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winners Maude and Gwen Butcher Shop & Restaurant in Los Angeles

In terms of etiquette, if you bring a bottle, it's always a nice gesture to buy one bottle from the restaurant. Wine professionals put a lot of thought into crafting wine lists that complement the cuisine of the restaurant, so we love seeing a guest enjoying and appreciating the wine we’ve selected for them. While some will say that it’s proper etiquette to share a taste of the wine you’ve brought with the sommelier, I tend to prefer letting the guest savor the bottle with their dining companions first, particularly when I am working.

At Maude, we offer tasting menus that showcase the wine and cuisine from a specific region, so we want to encourage people who have special bottles of wine from that region to enjoy them here. As a result, we will waive the corkage for a bottle of wine from the region we are currently featuring. For example, through the end of this year, if a guest brings a bottle of wine from Tuscany (our current regional focus), we would waive that fee.

Want to stay up on the latest news and incisive features about the world's best restaurants for wine? Sign up now for our free Private Guide to Dining email newsletter, delivered every other week. Plus, follow us on Twitter at @WSRestoAwards and Instagram at @WSRestaurantAwards.

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