Wed 23 Apr 2014
We’re dining with a friend tonight at an excellent restaurant, and, as is my habit, I’ll take a bottle of wine from home. “But wait!” you say. “Doesn’t this restaurant have a wine list?” Indeed it does have a wine list, and a good one, but not a great or adventurous one. I’m happy to pay a corkage fee to bring a bottle in that gives me the opportunity to try it with a variety of foods and to take a few notes. “Brown-bagging,” as the procedure used to be called, is a time-honored tradition in eating out, and while restaurateurs may grumble, it’s a way of keeping patrons happy, especially high-ticket customers that own collections of lovely old vintage wines. (Full disclosure: I’m not one of those.)
Let’s face it, most restaurants don’t store large quantities of older wines because they don’t have the space and because the wines are expensive, and they don’t buy young wines with the potential to improve with “laying down” because they can’t afford to tie up capital while the wine is aging. Depending on the state or municipality, restaurant owners can institute rules about bringing in wine but not necessarily forbid the practice. In this state, for example, according to an opinion filed on June 14, 1977, by Tennessee assistant attorney general William C. Koch Jr., “the practice of ‘brown-bagging’ is legal under state law,” and “‘brown-bagging’ is permissible as a matter of state law in all parts of the State.”
If you want to take your favorite wine or a special wine to a restaurant, though, certain forms of etiquette apply. I mean, there’s no sense in antagonizing a restaurant owner or manager just to get your way. Look at it this way: A bottle of wine brought into a restaurant by a customer makes an interruption in the (one hopes thoughtful) synergy between the cuisine and the menu, unless that customer is very knowledgeable about the menu and the wine list. Act accordingly. Here are some aspects to consider:
1. Don’t take a wine that’s on the restaurant’s wine list. That’s just tacky. Most restaurants nowadays post their menus and wine lists online; check it first.
2. Don’t take a wine that insults the restaurant. If you’re eating at a fine dining establishment that features an award-winning menu and a great, imaginative wine list, leave your plonk chardonnay and Beaujolais-Villages at home.
3. Don’t take too many wines or burden your waiter with a table loaded with your wines, as if you’re promoting your own tasting. Two bottles should be the limit, unless you have made arrangements with the manager and, preferably, occupy a private room.
4. Buy a bottle from the restaurant’s list for every bottle you bring in. After all, the restaurant needs to make something from this transaction.
5. If you’re bringing in a rare old bottle, offer a glass to the sommelier and chef or owner. If it’s Mouton-Rothschild ’29 or the like — you should be so lucky — call the restaurant and inform the manager. Don’t spring a legendary wine on the restaurant as a surprise.
6. Pay the corkage fee willingly and graciously.
7. Tip for the bottle or bottles you brought in. The waiter or sommelier made an effort to accommodate you.
8. If there’s a little wine left in the bottle, leave it for the staff.
9. Don’t actually put the wine in a brown paper bag.
Image from worldmarket.com.