For every great restaurant with a top-notch wine list, there are at least 10 more with boring wine lists. Finding a fine restaurant that also offers an incredible array of diverse wines is a rarity, especially when cities like New York ban sommeliers from buying wines sold by private collectors. Wine Spectator’s Jim Fish suggests that many restaurants struggle with food and wine menus because the restaurant owners rely on customer satisfaction to survive. A restaurant is more likely to include wines that most people enjoy, like Napa Valley Chardonnay, instead of pushing the envelope with unusual wines. Restaurants are pushing for wines that will let them the most customers, meaning that serious wine lovers will sometimes want to bring their own wines to restaurants if they’re looking to drink something more experimental. In this atmosphere, wine collectors need a thorough guide on bringing wine to restaurants without angering the wait staff. You might think that bringing wine to a restaurant has nothing to do with your cellar at home, but in fact, when you treat your neighborhood restaurant’s sommelier well, you stand to gain a great deal in your personal collection.
Why Are You Bringing Your Own Wine?
- This is a question that many collectors fail to ask themselves before they bring a bottle of wine to dinner. The fact is, every time you bring a bottle of wine to any restaurant, you risk appearing rude; with this in mind, it’s essential to have a good reason for bringing the bottle. There are two reasons you might bring your own wine to a restaurant: when you want to drink a supremely fine bottle of wine for a special occasion (imagine an anniversary dinner with a vintage Lafite) or when you want to try something more experimental than what the restaurant carries on its wine list. Never bring wine to a restaurant because you hope to save money. Corkage fees are often just as expensive as buying a bottle at the restaurant anyway.
- Before you complain about high corkage fees, think about it from the restaurant’s perspective. Not only are restaurants losing a huge chunk of profit whenever a guest brings his own bottle of wine, the guest is also avoiding one of the standard expenses of the fine dining experience. You wouldn’t bring your own food to a restaurant, so why would you bring your own wine without paying a fee? A guest can easily knock $20-$30 off of the check when he brings his own wine, which is why most corkage fees cost this much. High-end restaurants like Per Se often charge around $150 for corkage, which isn’t all that surprising considering the caliber of wines the restaurant carries on its wine list.
- With this in mind, treat restaurants you want to bring wine to with respect. Before you bring your own bottle, be open to the restaurant’s current wine list. Go on a reconnaissance mission of sorts first, looking closely at the restaurant’s wine list and trying a few staff-recommended glasses. If you’re still not impressed with the list after you’ve genuinely given it a chance, you can consider bringing your own bottle for your next meal. Writer Michael Bauer says, “Part of the fun of eating out is not only being seduced by familiar flavors, but finding something that feels new.” The only exception to the “try the list first” rule is if you are saving a legendary wine for a special occasion. Not all of us want to cook our own meal right before tasting a high-end wine like DRC, so it’s perfectly appropriate to bring this type of bottle to a fine restaurant to enjoy the luxury of the experience more thoroughly.
The Bottles You Should Never Bring to a Restaurant
- A sure-fire way to insult any restaurant owner and his sommelier is to bring along a $20 bottle of wine that you purchased from Trader Joe’s yesterday. These kinds of wines are perfectly fine to drink at home, but high-end restaurant owners will feel outright insulted by your choice in wine, and even casual restaurants will view you as a cheapskate if you offer up an inexpensive bottle for corkage. Instead, bring a bottle that is worth at least as much as an average mid-range wine on the restaurant’s list, and that’s more special than anything you’ll find at a typical grocery store. In high-end restaurants, it’s not enough to bring a bottle that is equal in price to what they’re selling; you should be adding something that the restaurant doesn’t have, contributing to the unspoken wine conversation. If a restaurant specializes in Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, bring along an interesting bottle of Argentinian Malbec, rather than yet another bottle of Cab.
- After you’ve convinced yourself that a bottle is worth bringing, call the restaurant ahead of time to ask about a corkage fee. Showing up to a restaurant unannounced with your bottle tucked under your arm is a rude gesture in most upscale restaurants. Owners like to be prepped ahead of time, and it never hurts to err on the side of caution in this regard. Most restaurants appreciate a phone call in advance, but sommeliers and owners appreciate it even more when a wine lover establishes a good rapport with them in general. If you want to consistently bring your own wine to a neighborhood restaurant, start talking to the staff and owners as much as possible whenever you eat there; casual conversation goes a long way in establishing a connection.
Get Friendly with the Sommelier On-Staff
- The more you visit a restaurant and speak with the staff, the more the owner and sommelier will grow to appreciate your views on wine. A sommelier isn’t likely to listen to a stranger giving unsolicited opinions about his wine list, but sommeliers are more likely to listen to customers who have established an ongoing dialogue with them over time. Not only can this relationship potentially improve a restaurant’s wine list (or, at least, make it more appealing to yourself), you’ll gain a valuable source of wine information in the sommelier. But don’t get cocky; your sommelier will probably want to hear about the entire case of 2011 La Tache you have stored in your cellar, but he doesn’t want to be lectured about it.
- Once a year, I spend about a week in Florida, often eating at the same restaurant for the duration of my trip. In that time, I’ve become casual friends with the restaurant’s owner, who always recommends the rarest and most obscure bottles he’s found over the past few months. Because I always agree to try any wines that the owner recommends on his list, and because I am open to his opinions, I’ve been given the opportunity to try wines before they’ve even been officially added to the wine list. I also have carte blanche to bring in whatever wines I see fit as long as I offer the owner a taste as well.
- When you establish that you’re willing to buy wine from a restaurant, and when you start conversations with the staff, you’re less likely to get hit with a massive corkage fee by the owner. Beyond this though, you’re offered a behind-the-scenes look at the restaurant’s wine selection process. The key is to always offer your sommelier a taste of any wine you bring, and to keep an open mind about what he thinks. You might learn that the sommelier recommends a better vintage than the one you’re currently drinking, or that your sommelier thinks the wine isn’t quite ready to drink yet, suggesting you store your other bottles for a year or two longer. In this way, you can get an expert opinion on your recent wines. And fresh ideas for your collection. That alone is well worth the $40 corkage fee on your guest check.
By: Harley Hoffmann, Vinfolio