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The art of dodging rip-off restaurant wine prices


So there you are at a nice local restaurant, scanning the wine list for something you can afford to drink with dinner. Your eyes move quickly past the $50 bottles, all the way down to the bottom of the list. With dismay, you discover that the cheapest wine is $30, which wouldn't be so bad if you didn't know damn well that the bottle in question sells for $8 at the corner store.

What's a budget-minded wine geek to do? In a less accommodating world, your options would be limited to the following:

A) Cough up the $30 and forgo the appetizer, dessert and possibly the entree. (Hey, the bread is free!)

B) Skip the wine and ask for a glass of yummy tap water instead.

C) Forget the restaurant and order take-out.

Luckily, the world isn't as cruel as all that. Why suffer when you can BYOW? Yes, that's right: You can bring your own wine. Though they rarely advertise it, many restaurants allow customers to bring in their own wine, provided they pay a small service charge called a "corkage fee." Corkage fees vary from restaurant to restaurant, with average costs ranging from $5 to $20. The fee helps cover the costs of washing, drying and handling the glassware you'll be using (no, don't show up with two glass-shaped bulges in your pocket), not to mention the profit loss the restaurant incurs by letting you bring your own stuff. It's a fair deal all around. What's even cooler is that if you practice good corkage etiquette, the server or sommelier may decide to waive the corkage fee and let you have a freebie.

To help put you in the restaurant's good graces, here are some dos and don'ts for BYOW:

  • Do call ahead to find out how much the restaurant charges for corkage. This will help prevent embarrassing "corkage shock" if the fee is higher than you're willing to pay.

  • Don't bring a wine that's already available at the restaurant. The point is to bring something they don't offer. This isn't always possible, but try.

  • Don't bring wine-in-a-box or anything else that's obviously cheap. The general rule is to bring a wine that costs at least as much as the corkage fee you're paying to drink it.

  • Do offer your server or sommelier a taste of the special wine you brought. (This is the No. 1 way to suck up!)

  • Do tip the server more than you usually would. He or she is losing tip money on the sale of the wine you might have bought.

  • Do order any additional bottles for the table from the restaurant's wine list. This will show that you're not a cheap-ass, and pave the way for future BYO experiences.

  • Do keep in mind that restaurants are not required to let you BYOW. If a restaurant allows corkage, act like they're doing you a favor -- because they are.

    Now that you know the rules, there's no excuse not to milk the corkage thing for all it's worth. You'll drink better, eat better and save enough cash to justify ordering that decadent dessert.

    Tina Caputo is a San Francisco-based wino who supports her nasty habit by writing for wine publications. Comments? E-mail, write Corkscrew, 1310 E. Ninth Ave., Tampa, FL 33605 or call 1-800-341-LOAF.

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