We all have a few favorite restaurants that deliver amazing service, great food and … an uninspiring wine list. Fortunately, there is an alternative to forcing yourself to drink something you don’t want: it’s an ideal time to bring that special bottle of wine, or two, from your cellar along with you. But how do you do it?
The first thing to remember is that restaurants make a lot of their profit with their alcohol sales. This isn’t surprising as a high-end restaurant will normally make 30-50% of their revenue from wine and spirits and the mark-ups are quite large. Even many two- and three-star Michelin restaurants, which are renowned for their food, would probably operate in the red if it weren’t for their robust wine programs. That means that since we are taking the chance to make money out of the restaurant’s hands, we need to tread carefully.
The first order of business is to check their wine list. You can typically do this on-line since many restaurants will put their wine menu on their website for your advance study. If they have the same bottle as you intend to bring, then it’s a non-starter: you can’t do it. Now, if they have the same brand of Italian wine in a 2012 vintage, but you have bottle from 1996 – that isn’t the same bottle! Most restaurants need to rotate their wine inventory and this makes it hard to hold onto older bottles like that unless they have a very large inventory, which means you’re in the clear.
The second polite thing to do is to call the restaurant and ask what their policy is regarding bringing wine to dinner. Usually, they are happy to let you know. A typical arrangement would be a maximum of two outside bottles for a table of 4, with the bonus that you can bring an extra one for every bottle you buy off the list. I’ll typically also ask if the wine list on the menu is accurate. It would be embarrassing to bring a bottle, just to find they changed their list and have exactly your bottle available. And they’d be happy to sell it to you for three times what you paid, too!
When you arrive, you’ll want to hand the bottles over to the wine steward or sommelier. They are still going to provide the service of chilling, opening, providing glassware, and serving the wine as though you purchased it. This doesn’t come for free, however. You will usually pay a corkage fee for the wine service that ranges from a low of $10 up to $50 a bottle in a high-end restaurant. That means you will want to make sure you are bringing a bottle that is worth that kind of service fee; your bottle of “Two Buck Chuck” just isn’t going to be cost efficient.
At this point, it’s just like you purchased the bottle. The service and pacing should be exactly as you would expect. Frankly, since you are paying for it with the corkage – it should be!
One trick that insiders use is to offer a taste to the sommelier if you have brought a particularly special bottle. I’ll usually ask if they have ever tasted this particular wine. If not, I’ll tell them to please take some if they’d like. Sommeliers are wine geeks and they live to taste new and special bottles. If you really reached deep into your cellar, you’ll make their night. And sometimes, the corkage fee will magically disappear from your bill!
So, don’t be intimidated when it comes to bringing your own bottles of wine to a restaurant. Just do your research, be respectful of the process, and enjoy!