Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Customer-Owned wine in restaurants: Issues and strategies

I have a strongly held belief that a meal is incomplete except paired with a glass/bottle of the appropriate wine. When the meal is eaten at home, the wine consumed is taken from the owner's stash (and, hopefully, is reflective of what that individual likes to drink). If eating out, however, the diner can choose from the wines that the restaurant has on offer or, where allowed, can bring his/her own. I almost exclusively bring my own and will, herein, explore some of the issues associated with the practice.

There are a number of considerations which motivate towards "packing" your own wine. First, the diner is accustomed to drinking what he/she likes when they sit down to a meal at home. My personal preference is for mature French and Italian wines and not every restaurant caters to this need. Second, most restaurant wine offerings are restricted to corporate norms, lists developed by consultants, or what the owner can secure in the dance with the distributor. These wines may not pair optimally with what you are looking to order on that specific night. Third, the diner has already paid at retail for the wine(s) that he/she likes and it is sitting at home in the cellar. Why should that diner now pay between two and four times the price paid at retail in a restaurant environment. Even if a restaurant charges a $50 corkage fee (only the case at high-end restaurants) a diner will still have a lower total cost (retail price + corkage fee) and higher satisfaction than if they bought off the list.

While a corkage fee represents a revenue stream for the restaurant, it is dwarfed by the opportunity cost that comes along with it. The sale of wine and spirits is a key revenue stream for most establishments and the corkage fee from two bottles of customer-owned wines is quickly swamped by the profitability of two facility-owned bottles which have each been marked up between two and four times. In most cases then, allowing customers to bring wine is more of a goodwill gesture and customer-service driven, rather than a hard-nosed business decision.

There is no uniformity in the corkage-fee strategies employed by restaurants. Some restaurants allow no customer-owned wines under any circumstances while others allow it with no corkage fee (Hillstones's in Winter Park, for example). Some apply a flat fee of between $10 and $50 per bottle while others ask that you buy one bottle off their list and all bottles opened subsequent to that are not assessed a fee (Bleu Provence in Naples, FL, for example). In February of this year, Redd (Yountville, CA) charged me $25 each for the first two bottles and then $50 for every bottle thereafter. Some restaurants will vary the corkage fee by bottle size with magnum's being assessed twice the charge of a 750 ml bottle (neddless to say, I am in disagreement with this policy).

I will not take wine to a restaurant that has a great wine list and attractive pricing (Berns, Caps, Colombia, for example) but I will carry wine on a plane or buy at a fine retail store to ensure that I am drinking what I like if I am travelling out of town. Some of my strategies for making it easy for a restaurant to allow me to bring wines are as follows:
  • When I eat out I patronize the restaurants that allow me to bring wine with no corkage fee.
  • I hold wine dinners and tastings at these restaurants and recommend them whenever I am asked.
  • I will buy a bottle of sparkling off the list at the beginning of the meal if the list is accomodative.
  • I will open and pour my own wine thus freeing up the wait staff to take care of other tables.
  • I offer some of my wine to the server, chef, and owner so that they can (i) enjoy along with me and (ii) see why I am bringing my own.
  • If there is no corkage, I will tip the wait staff $15 per bottle over and above the meal tip to ensure that their earnings do not suffer as a result of my being in the restaurant.
  • I strive to bring wines that are not on the restaurnt wine list.
Some people do not want to carry wine to a restaurant because, somehow or the other, they see that as a bad thing. Others may not do so because they "lack the courage" or they are not aware that that possibility exists. Finally, a large percentage of the restaurant population would prefer to get recommendations on what wines to drink with the food from restaurant staff and, as such, will never bring a bottle.

If you are going out with a group that brings wine, bring something along regardless of your qualms as to the comparative quality of your wines. People prefer participants to moochers. If you are not bringing wine to a dinner with this group, you should consider buying that bottle of sparkling off the list, or picking up some portion of the food tab or wine tip.

Happy drinking.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme