Wednesday, March 17, 2010

BYO and Corkage

I've become a great believer in the practice of bringing my own wine to a restaurant.

It used to frustrate me that I'd go out for a nice meal and find the wine list full of stuff that I either didn't like or couldn't afford. Meanwhile at home I had plenty of wines that were ready to drink that I was saving for "a special occasion". The final straw was about 10 years ago at a nice restaurant in San Jose where my wife asked for a Cabernet Sauvignon and I couldn't find a single one on the list for under $50.

At first the idea of bringing my own wine to a restaurant seemed odd. Back in the UK it was acceptable to bring drinks if a restaurant (most often Indian/Balti) did not have a licence to sell alcohol, but almost unheard of in a licenced restaurant. Nowadays almost the first thing I think of when going to a restaurant is what wine to take. I choose my dishes from the menu based on how they would pair with the wine I've brought.

The reason I bring this up is because I recently read a discussion on the Wine Spectator forums regarding the legality of BYOB, particularly with regard to a bottle that had been opened earlier. I've done this myself a couple of times without a problem, but I learned a few things as a result of the discussion that I thought people might find interesting or useful. Obvious disclaimer: I'm not a lawyer.

In California there is no law either for or against corkage.
According to a poster on the Wine Spectator forum, quoting an un-named California ABC official:
    Neither the Alcoholic Beverage Control Act nor our business regulations specifically allows the practice of an adult customer bringing a personal bottle of wine into a properly licensed premises (“BYOB”). On the other hand, nothing specifically precludes the practice. A licensee may or may not permit BYOB as he or she sees fit.

Since there is no law, opening or decanting is not prohibited.
Perhaps you want to decant the wine to remove the sediment, so that it doesn't get shaken up on the way. Or maybe it's a younger wine that will benefit from several hours in the decanter. Either way, there's no law against it. However according to the same post:
    While a restaurant manager may not have any problem permitting BYOB, it is possible that for other (non-ABC) reasons these managers may insist on his/her wait staff opening the bottle of wine inside the restaurant. You may want to discuss this matter with the restaurant owner or manager.

There are laws in most - if not all - states against transporting open bottles.
This is something that catches many of us foreigners by surprise. You aren't allowed to be in posession of an open beverage container in a vehicle, unless the container is locked in the trunk/boot or glove compartment. If your car doesn't have a trunk then that's OK, the bottle
    shall be kept in some other area of the vehicle that is not normally occupied by the driver or passengers. For the purposes of this paragraph, a utility compartment or glove compartment shall be deemed to be within the area occupied by the driver and passengers.

This rule doesn't apply to buses, taxis or limousines. (Source: WWW.DMV.CA.GOV). Rules about carrying an open bottle as a pedestrian can vary by locality.

What about taking unfinished wine home?
This is another area where the laws vary wildly. Some don't allow it, which I find very strange. Some states such as New York have laws mandating specific seals or bags, others just require that the bottle is properly sealed. In California the rule seems to be that if you buy wine in a restaurant they must open it, but you don't have to drink it and can take it home - handy if you happen to be in a restaurant that comps corkage with purchase. You can often find a bottle on the list that costs around the same - ask whether a half bottle counts too. Also when trying to push the cork back in, hold the bottle by the base and press the cork against a hard surface such as a wall, leaning on it if necessary. Much easier than trying to press the cork in by hand.