Acronyms. You just can’t get away from them these days. They can certainly be amusing and are frequently unfortunate (BOGOFF anyone?) but more often than not they are pretty useless. There is one acronym however that I am personally very fond of – BYO.
Instead of being something unpleasant to do with personal hygiene, BYO is something special because despite the letters standing for Bring Your Own, what BYO really means is ‘pay a small corkage fee to the restaurant and be able to enjoy fantastic wine that you have been saving for ages at a fraction of the price you’d pay if you bought it off the wine list.’ But that sentence doesn’t make for a very good acronym hence BYO.
I’d been saving a bottle of Dom Perignon (‘DP’) to drink with my wife after our son was born. Having resisted the urge to guzzle it myself when I got back from the hospital, she said she would like to go out for dinner to celebrate. Seeing as I had the wine and an occasion to drink it, I though I’d phone a few places to see if they would let me bring it along. The response was surprising – almost all of the places were quite happy for me to do so, for a minimal fee. So my bottle ended up costing me far less than if I’d ordered it on the restaurant list.
Now this kind of thing is really only good value if you take along decent wine, there’s no point you stumping up with a bottle of Blossom Hill and paying £10 to the restaurant for the dubious pleasure of having it with your meal. The great thing about BYO is that unlike a normal wine list, corkage fees are a flat rate, typically £8-£10 for still wines and £10-£15 for Champagne. Take Sancerre or Chablis as an example, wines that are typically around £9 in the shops and £25 – £30 in restaurants. Pay your £10 corkage and you save yourself enough money to indulge in a dessert. Where you really win is with the top-end wines. Decent Bordeaux, Burgundy, Australian or New Zealand wines can usually be bought at good prices on the high street, but might cost you three times as much in a restaurant.
The obvious comment that cunning wine waiters would make is that the wines on any restaurant list do not appear on supermarket shelves and this fact alone is supposed to make them somehow better. Well the fact is that many of the high street brands also have on-trade brands and use exactly the same wine in different packaging. The other thing to remember is that the wines you see on restaurant lists are at least equivalent to their off-licence counterparts, but in many cases can offer poorer value, despite their ‘exclusivity’. For those of you who like new world wines, take the example of Penfolds bin 128 Shiraz, widely available for around £10. Most restaurants will have a cheap aussie for around £14 and a premium for around £25, but bear in mind the four-fold mark-up that is standard practice in most places. The ‘exclusive, premium shiraz’ that Jean-Pierre Lurkio the sommelier is peddling is actually a £6 wine. Assuming a £10 corkage fee, if you take your bottle of Penfolds along with you, you’re getting a far better wine for a good deal less money.
In the past I have been to a restaurant that charged no corkage for bringing your own bottle and in some cases where a restaurant has no alcohol licence, this is their only recourse but these are very few and far between. Unfortunately the restaurant I used to go to has since closed. Given that I now expect to pay some sort of fee, I tend to take bottles that I have had for a good few years, that would either simply not be on any wine list, or were bought so far in the past that I’ve forgotten what I paid for them.
Having said all this, the most important factor of all is making sure that if you do take a bottle with you, it is going to go with the food you are eating. No point taking your Penfolds red to a fish restaurant, or your treasured bottle of Meursault down the curry house. The last thing you want to do is flatten your carefully selected wine with a meal that doesn’t match.
Most big chain restaurants like Café Rouge will not allow BYO, but smaller independents are more likely to do so, the key thing is to ‘phone before you go and if they prevaricate, tell them it’s a special occasion!