Wine connoisseurs will no longer have to put a cork in it when lamenting for a better Bordeaux to go with their porterhouse.
Virginia’s Senate Bill 1292, which was signed on March 25, 2011, and went into effect on July 1, 2011, permits “the consumption of lawfully acquired wine” in ABC-licensed restaurants, thus allowing customers to bring in their own wine to the establishments. A similar bill was shot down by the Maryland state legislature last year.
Businesses acquiring a BYOB — or bring your own bottle — license need not worry about cuts to their alcohol revenue, though. They can charge a “corkage fee” for wine brought in, and will uncork a bottle and serve its contents to customers, much like if a patron ordered restaurant wine. The fee usually equals the markup restaurants add to the base cost of a bottle of house wine.
“If (the restaurant) charges $10, $15 or even $20 more than what they pay, that should be their corkage fee,” said Keith Roberts, the owner of Vintage Cellar. “I have paid corkage fees that were $25, but I brought wines that, if they were on the menu, would be $100. It’s still worth it.”
The Cellar Restaurant charges an $11 corkage fee per bottle, while 622 North and Poor Billy’s Seafood Restaurant both charge $20 per bottle. Natasha’s Market Cafe in Floyd, Va. has a fee of $2 per glass used. Corkage fees in some areas of Virginia, such as in restaurants closer to Washington, D.C., can range from $25 to $35.
Randall Horst, a Vintage Cellar employee, finds the fee fair and reasonable.
“If you’re going to be using your glassware, washing your glassware, and (if) there is going to be a certain amount of broken glassware, it makes sense to have a corkage fee,” Horst said.
While the law permits restaurants to become a BYOB establishment, it is not mandatory. Many restaurants, such as Boudreaux’s, have not adopted the policy due to perceived lack of need, among other reasons.
Some restaurants and chefs were initially worried that the corkage law would result in inexpensive wines being brought in that would not complement their food, but Danny Doolittle, an employee at The Cellar, has found the opposite to be true.
“Some of the customers have complained that we don’t have fine enough wine for The Cellar’s food,” Doolittle said. “People who do really love our food want a very expensive bottle of wine with their meal.”
When customers bring in their own bottles, he said, the wine was at least $40 to $50 higher than their house wines. He said it would not make sense for the restaurant to keep very high-priced bottles of wine constantly in stock.
Horst said restaurants should not worry about proper drink-and-meal pairings, as patrons should plan accordingly.
“It’s on the customer,” Horst said. “If they’re bringing in a special bottle, then hopefully they already have a special meal they want to have with that wine.”
John Boyer, a geography instructor who teaches geography of wine at Virginia Tech, said he believes having a corkage fee will deter customers from bringing lower-quality wines. He said the corkage law is aimed more at oenophiles who own bottles that restaurants could not obtain.
“Another primary reason for this (law) is that you would bring a wine that is simply not able to be bought on the open market anymore because it’s a 10-year-old vintage,” Boyer said. “You bring one of those into a restaurant and people recognize it immediately.”
Many have commended the law for being welcoming to the customer. Sean Domer, a Poor Billy’s employee, said the law gave patrons more choices.
“If somebody just came back from California and they had this great wine
that they found and they want to share with friends or with some food, then we’re not going to stop them from having that experience,” Domer said.