When dining out at a nice restaurant, those of us who don't make six figures sometimes have a painful decision to make: Buy a woefully inadequate bottle of $8 retail wine outrageously hiked up to $30, or splurge and suck up the $50 cost of a decent bottle.
Though not all restaurants add 300-400 percent to a wine's retail cost, the steep markup is a pretty common practice in our capitalistic country. It pisses me off regularly, but restaurants do have staff, insurance and utilities to pay.
There are, however, solutions to our suffering: Bring in your own wine.
Say there's a special bottle you've been aching to drink, and you want to pop it at a restaurant. Or maybe your local Thai joint doesn't exactly carry a stellar wine selection of Rieslings (or anything, for that matter). A carefully chosen brown bag can be your meal savior. Not all restaurants embrace bring-your-own (and I've rarely seen it publicized), but increasing numbers are OK with it, provided you pay a small service charge called a "corkage fee."
Corkage fees vary from restaurant to restaurant, with average costs ranging from $5 to $20. The fee helps cover costs, not to mention the loss of profit. It's a fair deal all around. There is, however, strict etiquette to follow. If you practice good corkage, the server or sommelier may decide to waive the corkage fee and let you off with a freebie.
DOs and DON'Ts for BYOW:
• Call ahead to the restaurant to make sure it allows you to bring in wine. Ask up front what the corkage fee is. If it tops $20, rethink the decision, or at least bring in a wine worth more than that. Chances are the staff will oblige since you didn't assume it was OK. And remember, they don't have to allow it – consider it a favor.
• Don't bring in something that's already on their wine list. The point is to bring something they don't offer.
• And since you're reaching into their pockets a bit, don't be obnoxious by toting in something cheap. The general rule is to bring a wine that costs at least as much as the corkage fee.
• Offer your server or sommelier a taste of your wine. This is the No. 1 way to suck up.
• Tip the server respectably for the wine you brought, since they did open and serve it for you. Bear in mind, you don't need to drop 20 percent if you brought a $500 bottle of Bordeaux.
• If you drink a second bottle, make sure you buy it off their wine list. This shows you're not a cheap ass.
With proper etiquette, BYOW is a beautiful budget balm. Drink better, splurge on that filet in wild mushroom sauce, but tip your server well.
THE LOCAL LOWDOWN
Many thanks to Hardy Wallace of Atlanta, who told me about BYO policies at some of his favorite places. His wrap-up: "Most higher-end restaurants will offer BYO for $15-$30, but some supercasual places do not have corkage fees. You may have to bring a corkscrew and don't expect decent stems. Little Bangkok's corkage is $8, but Tasty China, Rolling Bones and Caramba Café charge $0 (well, these guys have no policy, but the manager said, "Bring it on in, as long as I can try it"). When I called Krog Bar, they said $30 (but added it may be waived "if you're cool" with your server). Ecco: $15 (fee waived if you also purchase a bottle off the list); Floataway Café: $25; Tierra: $15; Ray's In the City: $15."
Chateau Souverain 2005 Chardonnay Sonoma Valley. SW = 3. $17. Although a tad expensive, hardcore oaky-buttery chard fans will love this. Loaded with peaches and a lemony aftertaste. 3 stars.
J Lohr 2005 Seven Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles. SW = 1. $13. Incredible value for a sophisticated, hearty wine with blackberry, baked cherries and leather. 3.5 stars
Sweetness (SW) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar. Star rating is out of 5, 5 being wine nirvana.
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