Fine wine and terrific dining experiences go hand in hand. While we love nothing more than perusing a restaurant’s wine list and ordering a great bottle with the guidance of a sommelier, many restaurants also invite diners to BYO, with corkage fees that typically hover around $40. There are also restaurants that don’t have a liquor license to sell wine, so they welcome diners to bring in their own and the bottle will be opened with a more modest corkage fee. And then there are restaurants where the corkage fee is waived on certain nights or a corkage fee that doesn’t exist at all, ever.
We spoke to top sommeliers and experts for advice on how and when to bring wine into a restaurant so you can BYO like a pro. Then check out the more than 50,000 restaurants on OpenTable to find a spot near you. Insider tip: Search our city-specific start pages under “Your Local Dining Scene” to find restaurants offering free corkage, such as this one in New York City.
Dollars and Sense
Your optimum wine experience is one in which you choose your wine with a restaurant’s sommelier or beverage director. You’ll enjoy a wider selection, including vintages that are hard to come by in your local wine shop. Plus, you’ll have the ability to try different wines by the glass as opposed to buying a single bottle.
And it’s good to remember that if there is a corkage fee, BYO is not always your best bet. “Bringing your own bottle of wine isn’t always going to save you money,” says certified sommelier Michael Pickering, the wine director and general manager at BANKERS HILL BAR + Restaurant in San Diego. “I’ve heard that some people feel like they may save on the meal if they stop by the grocery store to purchase a bottle of wine. But, once you add in the corkage fee, you may not be saving much.”
However, some restaurants will promote nights or occasions where the corkage fee is waived entirely, which of course, can be especially lucrative for wine lovers looking to save. Take, for example, Bayside and Bistango, sister restaurants in Orange County, California, that partner with local wine shop Hi-Time Wine Cellars. If guests purchase a bottle of the “wine of the month” at Hi-Times to bring to either restaurant, they’ll get a 10 percent discount off the wine when purchasing. And, there’s this: the restaurants’ $18 corkage fee will also be waived (receipt required). Marc Ghoukassian, owner of both restaurants, advises his guests to select a bottle “a little outside of your typical range,” keeping in mind you are receiving a discount both at Hi-Times and with the waived corkage fee. And remember, “One bottle is about four glasses of wine, so pick your bottles accordingly, depending upon how many people you have dining with you,” he says. The wine of the month at Hi-Times in April is domestic Pinot Noirs, so there are lots of options at different price levels.
And, if you do a little research, you’ll find BYO restaurants that never tack on a corkage fee, such as at helm in Philadelphia, which sees a real mixed bag of wines brought into the restaurant from pricey to affordable. Kevin D’Egidio says, “Our style of food is elevated enough that a lot of diners pair fine wines with their meal, yet, at the same time, our atmosphere is very relaxed and our pricing is reasonable so we get tons of diners on a budget, who pick their favorite, modest wines to pair.” And with the always-on, no-corkage-fee policy, it’s really affordable for diners on a budget.
The Leopard at des Artistes in New York City offers free corkage on Sunday evenings from 5-10PM. “More often than not, purchasing a wine bottle off-premise is cheaper than on-premise,” says owner Gianfranco Sorrentino, especially if there is no corkage fee. “This makes it a good deal for customers who save money in the long-term.”
Should you tip for that bottle of wine you bring into the restaurant? That depends whom you ask.
Kevin Bratt, concept wine director at Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab, with locations in Chicago, Las Vegas, and Washington, D.C., suggests this approach: “Gratuity for a bottle of wine brought in should be exactly the same as what you would tip for a bottle purchased at the restaurant.”
However, D’Egidio says, “There’s no need to tip on a BYO bottle of wine. The beauty of the BYOB is that it’s more affordable for the diner,” he counsels. “That being said if you have a great meal with great service, and your wine pairs well, I’m sure the server wouldn’t mind a few extra bucks.”
Tapas-themed Cava in Toronto serves more than 40 wines by the glass and offers 200+ different bottles. Still, diners are welcome to BYO. General manager Kyle Burch suggests that not only should you give the restaurant a heads up but that you should go one step further. “Do bring in the bottle ahead of time; depending on the wine, it may need to breathe for you to enjoy the full flavors,” says Burch. “This will give the restaurant time to decant the wine if necessary.”
Sorrentino agrees. By giving the restaurant and staff a heads up that you’ll be bringing your own wine, “We have the opportunity to set up our service accordingly,” says Sorrentino. “It also helps us chill the wine if required, providing the diner with the best experience we can.”
Brandy Coletta, owner of MC Kitchen, a popular modern Italian restaurant in Miami’s head-turning Design District, says communication and transparency are key for BYO, and you should absolutely call ahead to make sure you are aware of the corkage fee and other details. “It’s best when the customer is forthcoming; they should also be somewhat discreet.”
No Dupes, Please and Thank You
Everyone seems to agree on this faux pas: Do not bring a bottle of wine that is already on the restaurant’s wine list.
“I personally request the bottle to be rare and collectible and limited to one 750-milliliter bottle per four guests,” says Bratt.
Brandon Rastok, advanced sommelier at Ascend Prime Steak & Sushi in Bellevue, Washington, adds, “We do know that many of our guests own and collect their own special bottles, and they want to open and enjoy them when dining with us. We will happily accommodate them.” But, “we ask that the bottles they bring not be on our wine list. Our mission is to make our guests happy but with an eye on balancing our business, too.”
Share with the Somms
No matter the vintage, offer to “share, share, share — allow the sommelier a taste,” says JP Potters, restaurant director and sommelier for Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar in Vancouver. “It might be the first or only time they will ever get to try certain wines, and it will help to form their knowledge so that they better understand the full range of wines that are available throughout the world.”
In fact, Potters says he’s seen some pretty special wines brought into the restaurant. “While it isn’t a regular occurrence, the restaurant has seen some guests bring in 100-point wines from such notable producers as Château Mouton Rothschild, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Sine Qua Non, Eisele, and Château d’Yquem,” he says.
Miho Kataoka, sommelier and sake professional at Yuwa Japanese Cuisine, also in Vancouver, says that while it is not an absolute rule to share, it is appreciated by service staff for sure. “Encourage sommeliers to taste a small amount for their study, especially if the wine is rare,” says Kataoka.
And If You Don’t Know, Now You Know…
“Do not open the bottle at home,” says Cava’s Burch. “It is against liquor laws for restaurants to allow wine that has been opened by guests to be served.”
And, just because you’ve brought a bottle in, don’t ignore a restaurant’s wine list entirely. Complement it with something on the menu before you dive into BYOW. “I always appreciate the guest who will buy a bottle of Champagne from our list to enjoy while their prized red wine is decanting,” says Bratt.
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Laurie Bain Wilson is a Boston-based journalist, author, and essayist who writes often about travel, food, and baseball. Find her on Twitter @laurieheather.