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What's the OMG over BYOB?

Bringing your own bottle of wine to a restaurant is easy if you know the rules
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Apr 18, 2012 10:30am ET

Bringing your own bottle of wine to a restaurant is routine in Napa and Sonoma, but it's not so easy if you live in Ohio or Colorado or nearly half the other states in the union. The alcohol laws in this country are kooky and outdated, but you've probably figured that out by now.

Even where it's legal, restaurateurs have mixed feelings about BYOB, or as it's sometimes called "brown bagging" or corkage. Like it or not, the profit margin is thin in the restaurant business and wine sales help balance the books.

There's a time-honored etiquette to BYOB that newcomers should learn, but even veterans need the occasional refresher course on the subject. Here are a few guidelines to follow:

Know the laws where you live. Every state has its own rules. Some ban BYOB outright, while there are varying degrees of regulation in other states. Some states allow cities and counties to have the final say. Do your research.

Know the restaurant's rules. Even if BYOB is legal, some restaurants don't allow it. If it does, what's the corkage fee, or the cost it passes along to open and serve your wine? It varies widely, but $15 to $25 a bottle is the average.

Familiarize yourself with the wine list. If you're not a regular at the restaurant, make sure the wine you're bringing is not on the list. Call ahead or check the website. Wine lists now are often posted alongside the menu online. Never bring a wine the restaurant serves.

It shouldn't be about saving money. Don't bring just any wine or, god forbid, stop by a discount retailer along the way. It should be a special bottle, a rarity or something from the cellar.

Consider buying from the list, too. It's a polite gesture (although not essential) to order a glass of wine or an additional bottle from the list. A party of two could start with a glass of bubbly, for example, or a larger party might order a bottle of white to compliment the red they brought. Many restaurants waive the corkage fee of your BYOB if you buy a second bottle.

Share a taste. Offer a taste to the sommelier or server who opens your bottle and he or she will pour a small glass if interested. Also, you can simply leave a portion in the bottle for the staff to try later. Both are considered good form.

If you follow these suggestions, your next BYOB experience will be painless.

Do you frequently bring your own wine to restaurants, and if so, what etiquette do you follow? Have your experiences been mostly positive or negative? What changes would you like to see in the laws where you live?

Whit Thompson
Rochester, NY —  April 18, 2012 12:32pm ET
All valid points, Tim. The only thing I'd like to see is a quid pro quo from servers, sommeliers, bartenders, etc. agreeing that if diners follow all of these simple and reasonable rules, they'll refrain from giving us the stink eye when they see us holding our bottle, or generally being indifferent to our dining experience once we've opened it.
Richard Gangel
San Francisco —  April 18, 2012 12:53pm ET
Every once in awhile when I offer a taste from the bottle for the server I get the response that he or she is not allowed by management to do so. The other day I offered a taste of 2005 Futo to the waiter who was quite interested in the wine because he had never heard of it, but he declined because of management policy. Shortly before we left I mentioned to him that I left some wine at the bottom of the bottle for him to taste and he sheepishly grinned in response. I hope he was able to try it.
Rob Hanratty
Mill Valley, CA —  April 18, 2012 1:25pm ET
Another good practice it to include the purchase price of the wine in the total bill when calculating your tip. Servers are always more appreciative of that.
Michael Schulman
Westlake Village, CA —  April 18, 2012 3:01pm ET
I applaud those restauranteurs who have embraced the idea of being supportive of patrons who want to bring in their own wine. They get my business. I keep away from those restaurants that want to punish folks for wanting to bring in their own wine. For the record, I always bring wine to a restaurant if it is permitted, and it IS primarily, though not completely for cost reasons. The wines I bring are typicall in the $50-$200+ range, and that translates to as much as $100-$600 on a restaurant's wine list, depending on the mark-up. I always offer a taste to the waiter, Som, or even the GM/Owner. When it comes to gratuity, I take my lead from a post Kevin Vogt, Head Som at Delmonico Las Vegas, wrote in the WS Forum in the last few years. I'll tip 20% on what the average price of wine the restaurant sells is. Typically in the $75-$100 range at the places I frequent. I actually do ask this question if there is a Som on duty. Rob Hanratty's idea of tipping on the price he pays for the wine at retail sounds fair too. Lastly, I try to make it a practice to by a glass of wine, usually a sparkler, off the list. I would think that most people don't bring wine to the restaurants they go to unless they have a relatively meritorious collection. Since this is probably a relatively small percentage of the restaurant's total patronage, I wished that restaurants would adapt a more consumer-friendly attitude about the BYOB practice. Punitive corkage fees of $50-$75 a bottle keep me away from those restaurants on principle alone. Let me finish by explaining why I want to bring my own bottles to begin with. Besides the cost issue, the plain and simple truth is that restaurant chefs cook better meals than I do. I want to be able to enjoy my good wines with good food, therfore I pair my wine with their food. Win-win situation. The restaurant gets the revenue from my meal, I get to drink my wine with the kind of meal it was intended to go with. As Rodney King says, "Can't we all just get along?"
Craig Plainfield
Portland, Oregon —  April 18, 2012 3:58pm ET
At my restaurant we charge $15.00 corkage except on Tuesdays when the corkage is zero.Even though I have a winelist with 750 labels I am happy to have guests bring their wines. Recently a waiter lamented that a party had brought 4 bottles. I explained that the corkage would be $60.00 and that would equate with them buying a $120.00 bottle of wine. I am fine with that. I don't have to buy the wines, store them, guarantee the quality, or sit on them until they sell.
I believe BYOB is a win win. Please tip your servers.

Hoyt Hill
Nashville, TN USA —  April 18, 2012 5:57pm ET
I also add $10 to the tip for every bottle of wine I bring, so that the server does not make less from my table because I brought my wine.
If my tab is $100 and I brought two bottles of wine, I tip $40
That way, the server is glad to see me the next time I come in
Brian Peters
Broomfield, CO —  April 18, 2012 6:21pm ET
It's been nice living in Raleigh NC after years in Colorado, being able to bring a bottle of wine into a resturant and pay a corkage fee. CO has antiquated laws that prohibit bringing wine into a resturant. Here in Raleigh, my wife and I will usually have a glass off the list first, then always offer a taste of our bottleto the sommelier or server. As for tip, I usually add an amount equivalent to the corkage fee and the servers seem happy with that.
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  April 18, 2012 6:49pm ET

Good advice all around.

Rob, I'm happy you got the discussion going about tipping because that is another issue worth noting.

And Craig, I'm glad to hear that you have an open mind about corkage at your restaurant. Very refreshing.

Thanks for joining the conversation everyone.
David Weissberger
Lake Worth, Fl. —  April 18, 2012 8:32pm ET
I live in south Florida where BYOB is embraced at many fine dining establishments. The range of corkage prices here is $15-$30. Since I have a rather large cellar, I only frequent restaurants where I can bring my own wine.

I'm planning on being in NYC in 3 weeks and put together a list of 20 restaurants that I was interested in dining in(All scored 23-25 for food in Zagat). Of those 20, 9 do not allow any corkage. Of the 11 remaining that do, the corkage fee ranged from a low of $25 to a high of $50(most were $35 or $40). Also, of the 11 that allow corkage, 2 limit you to only 1 bottle. Since my party is going to be 5 people, these 2 place do us no good. So basically 11 of the 20 do not offer corkage, while most of the others have corkage fees that are ridiculous. It seems to me that the better places in NY that are already crowded and popular frown upon BYOB or do not allow it at all.

I always, always, always offer the server or wine steward a generous taste from every bottle that we bring. I also tip on the cost of the wine as if I had ordered off of their list. Lastly, 90% of the time we end up ordering either a bottle off of their list, or sparkling and/or dessert wines.

My experience with BYOB has generally been positive, but I guess it depends on where you live. The restaurants in NYC(and I'm generalizing this)should be ashamed of themselves. Then again, they're busy anyway so why do they need my business?
Gerry Ansel
Fullerton, Calif —  April 19, 2012 8:48am ET
Tim (and the other posters) - can we please get a definitive answer on the maximimum corkage fee restaurants can charge? I've heard that, in California (where I live), the limit is $15 per 750ml bottle, but in actuality fees are all over the map. I've also heard any restaurant that serves wine cannot probibit patrons from bringing in their own bottles, yet many do. What are the facts?
Stewart Lancaster
beaver,pa —  April 19, 2012 11:21am ET
I always offer a taste of the wine to the waiter and or sommelier and most of the time they end up waiving the corkage fee
Mitchell Soffer
Bradenton Florida —  April 19, 2012 11:38am ET
Tim I commend you for bringing this subject out into the open because it's near and dear to my heart and although I can concur with all the recommendations here because it is the system and we have to work with what we have, I do take exception to your note in reference to profit margins are thin in the restaurant so let's try and make a ton on money on wine?? Profit margins are thin in all businesses today, correct? I originally come from New Jersey for 45 years and you can ask any foodie from New Jersey that a majority of the Best restaurants are BYOB completely because the cost of a license in way too expensive to buy. So many of these BYOB's have to completely make a living/profit on the food alone because most of them don't even charge a corkage fee...Basically, they have to make it own their own with no help from beverage sales...and most of them do a great job...just ask anyone from NJ..I don't think most foodies would mind paying a bit more for the food if they have to, so just raise your food prices on the menu if profit margins are too thin!!!
Atul Kapoor
los angeles/california —  April 19, 2012 10:04pm ET
I agree with all the points above, all the bloggers seem like good, generous people. I wish most diners were like that. Either way, we are more happy when diners love our food, as that is our creation. We are merely a conduit to our customers for wines at a reasonable price.
Corkage is $12 n no limit, Stemware is Riedel, Markup is winery retail upto $100 price point, then gradual reduction somewhere in the region of $30+Card Fees+wine costs. If a winery gives us a break on cost, we reward our customers with special lower pricings.
Everyones Happy! Cheers!
Jason Carey
willow, ny usa —  April 20, 2012 2:15am ET
When restaurants stop ripping off customers on the wine list I will stop worrying about their bottom line on wine.
Alexander Velto
Upland, —  April 20, 2012 9:06am ET
in California it is common to bring your own bottle but in Arizona it is not permitted, Hawaii varies from county to county, Maui county does not allow it if the restaurant has a liquor license so I make a point of frequent those few restaurants that do not have a license. When ever we do bring our wine we never bring in something available on the wine list, usually something with a few years on it and always bring extra and share with the servers, chef and others. Plus in California we can re-cork the bottles and take home anything we have left.
Jeremy Matouk
Port of Spain, Trinidad —  April 20, 2012 9:11am ET
Serious wine lovers shun restaurants that gouge on wine. At the same time they do not mind paying a significant mark-up for well-cellared older vintages but very few restaurants offer such wines any more. Most times restaurants hold wines for relatively short periods and that does not justify 200-300% mark-ups. No restaurant needs to charge more than $15-20 corkage, anything more than that is punitive, regardless of the wine involved. It is good to see more and more restaurants understanding these issues and pricing accordingly. A restaurant should stand or fall based on their food alone.
As for offering a glass to the waiter/sommelier or chef, that is in my opinion gratuitous and apologetic unless one knows them personally, as might be the case when one is a regular at the restaurant.
Interestingly, BYOB is almost unheard of in Europe and their mark-ups are horrendous, even for wine from a mile away!
Chad Dikun
NJ —  April 20, 2012 5:53pm ET
Mitchell, I am from NJ and completely agree that there are many excellent BYOB restaurants here with no liquor licenses that are doing quite well and have excellent food. The majority of the time that I go to a restaurant in NJ, I go to BYOB restaurants with no liquor licenses as I love bringing my own wine. When you are able to bring your own bottle of wine, you really get a better wine for the price as you're not paying a high restaurant markup. Being in NJ, perhaps I am also a bit spoiled in that restaurants with no liquor licenses are also not allowed by law to charge a corkage fee the last I heard.

Some restaurants have found some creative ways to get skirt around the expensive full liquor licenses and still "offer" wine. Their solution is to have an actual small retail wine shop inside the restaurant. So they are still BYOBs, but you can just walk right into the wine shop and buy a bottle at pretty typical retail prices if you forget (or if your friends didn't realize the restaurant was a BYOB).

That said, I've always felt that I would feel somewhat awkward if I went to a restaurant with a wine list and brought my own bottle. If I go to a restaurant with a wine list, I always feel compelled to buy the wine off the list. Perhaps I would feel differently if my only choice was to go to restaurants all the time that had their own wine lists. The great selection of "BYOB-only" restaurants in NJ is one of the unique "advantages" of NJ that people really don't think about much.
Mitchell Soffer
Bradenton Florida —  April 21, 2012 1:32pm ET
Chad, I guess we are kind of spoiled coming from the homeland of NJ.....but the one thing that surely always comes into my mind over the years is where did the idea come from that a restaurant has to charge 2 to 3 times over their cost for a bottle of wine ?? Did they do something special to that bottle? I would love to know??? thanks.
John Nelson
Dallas, Texas —  May 8, 2012 10:36am ET
Here in Texas, and especially Dallas, the rules and approach are almost impossible to decipher. Some restaurants allow corkage and tell you so. Some could but tell you they don't. Some could and tell you they can't. I wish that most restaurants of a higher quality offered corkage. My goal is not to bring a 2009 Caymus from Central Market. My goal is to bring a mature vintage of Ornellaia. Most don't even have that and if they did it might be the 07, etc and not ready to drink. I follow all the rules as outlined by Tim. Sharing tastes etc, is a great way to get to know the Som or the owner. I still believe the ultimate success and enjoyment of fine wine is in sharing it. That goes for the dining out side as well.

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