Having usually been allowed to bring a special bottle of wine if I so chose to a nice restaurant as long as I was willing to pay a corkage fee, it was not until recently that it occurred to me that this could be considered a privilege and not a right. It was not actually until my first day at Uvinum that I learned that this was not a common practice in Spain, and since then I have noticed the online wine world has been commenting on a new BYOB (bottle in this case, not beer) club in London. Started by Christopher and Khadine Johnson-Rose, the idea is to pay an annual fee in exchange for permission to bring a bottle from your own collection to the restaurants on the list, most fine dining, and some of them among the big names in London’s restaurant scene such as Tom Aikens and The Ledbury, both which have Michelin stars. Restaurants can still place restrictions, such as limiting it to lunch or certain days of the week, however, or charge small additional fees.
It’s a tricky one for restaurants as they make a substantial margin on wine sold in house, though they tend to cite service as the reason behind the big markups. It is true that a nice restaurant with a sommelier needs to pay that salary, but it is not the same rationale that can be claimed for food. There is no transformation with the product in question as there is with food in the kitchen; the server or sommelier, other than helping a guest select a wine, just needs to open and pour the bottle. This is still very important, but it is likely something that can be covered in a corkage charge.
I have to admit I am biased coming from a place where this is not unusual, particularly in my hometown of San Francisco. Yet we also normally have a few unofficial rules:
- Bring a special bottle (not a cheap one).
- Never bring something that is on the restaurant’s wine list.
- It is always nice to also buy a glass to start with from the restaurant, or another bottle depending on the size of the group.
Despite the fact that bringing a bottle is frequently permitted in the US, the majority of customers chose not to. After all, selecting a wine is often one of the best parts of eating out. So I don’t think restaurants in other countries have much to fear. It simply allows their guests additional options. And for some diners, there can certainly be financial incentives to bring a bottle- they can often drink a nicer bottle than if they had to order one. Which means for the restaurant, they have more money to spend on food, or justify a dinner out. In this economy, I think that’s a win-win for both sides.