BYO - Two Sides of the Coin

By Franz Scheurer and Roberta Muir

 

BYO is something every Australian understands: Bring Your Own. BYO can mean a lot of different things: BYO wine (restaurants) BYO meat, BYOG (Ďbring your own grogí) or in the old days BYO everything (home BBQs). What it definitely does not mean these days is BYO anything but wine to most restaurants (at least those with a licence).

 

Letís look at BYO in the sense of Ďwine to a restaurantí. Is it a good thing? If yes, for whom and why? If no, why not?

 

To bring your own wine seems to be a very Australian thing (just try it in EuropeÖ). It seems to have started in the days when liquor licences were both difficult and expensive to obtain, and to have suited a generation of diners who viewed eating out as an expensive indulgence, the cost of which could be partially reduced by bringing along their own wine (as opposed to those now living in kitchen-less apartments and consequently eating out every night). Wine was also not viewed as an integral part of the meal a generation ago, at least it may have been Ďappropriateí to have wine with a meal, but not much thought was given to the food and wine match by either the diner or, in many cases, the restaurateur. So the fact that a restaurantís wine list may have been chosen to match the chefís food would not have been a consideration. Furthermore wine-by-the-glass was usually limited to 2 choices: red or white and then the cheapest wine available (often cask).

 

From the dinersí perspective, to be able to take that special bottle along (be it a birth year wine or something youíve been saving for a special occasion) is terrific and should be possible. BYO is also still often practiced, simply to save money. Invariably a bottle of wine is cheaper at a bottle shop than on a restaurantís winelist, so restaurants that allow BYO will be more attractive to many diners.

 

From the restaurantsí perspective BYO can put a lot of bums on seats. However, there is work involved in catering to BYO patrons. Glassware and wine service donít come cheap, not to mention the cost of a liquor license if a restaurant chooses to be both licensed and BYO. To charge a reasonable corkage to offset these costs (plus the revenue lost from wine sales when a diner chooses to BYO) is not only OK, itís to be expected.

 

No doubt having a license should mean that the wines on the wine list are appropriate to the chefís food (and cheaper restaurants that still give no thought to food and wine matching are an example of a different reason why you may choose to BYO). No doubt proper cellaring, wine service and glassware cost money and have to be paid for, and it is the restaurateurs right to make a profit. Of course this means that the wines will cost more than in the local bottle shop, the upside is that you will have a better and more appropriate selection and older vintages. A good sommelier to assist diners select the right wine is another expense in which a good licensed restaurant has invested.

 

So how do we reconcile the two opposing sides in the BYO debate?

 

Unlicensed restaurants will always allow BYO (unless they cater to a clientele that doesnít consume alcohol for religious reasons, such as halal restaurants) and should charge corkage according to the effort they go to with the glassware and the wine service. A nominal corkage if they open the bottle, plonk it on the table with a couple of small cheap wine glasses and then donít touch it again all night. And more if they have invested in good glassware, provide ice buckets and decanters as required and regularly top up glasses.

 

Restaurants who do have a license should make their BYO policy clear. Allowing BYO during the slower, early weekdays at an appropriate (usually nominal) corkage is a good thing, both for the restaurant and the diner, however, on weekends there is no economic reason why licensed restaurants should encourage BYO. It is definitely NOT a patronís given right to bring their own wine (as long as the licensing/BYO policy has been made clear to the patron when they booked) and making a scene when a restaurant refuses to allow BYO is both childish and, usually, counterproductive.

 

Having said that, every restaurant should be flexible enough to allow diners to bring a special bottle of wine for a special occasion (providing, of course, itís a wine that the restaurant canít supply). In this instance, the corkage fee my be high (as much as the cheapest bottle of wine on the wine list, to prevent abuse of the situation), but if youíre bringing out the bottle of 1985 Grange that youíve been hanging on to to celebrate your sonís 21st birthday, then a corkage of $35/bottle isnít an issue.

 

So the patron wants to save money and the restaurateur wants to stay in business. I think both can be achieved with a little thoughtfulness and goodwill on both sides.

-         Remember that many restaurants allow BYO early in the week, and many also offer special (less expensive) menus on these nights as well.

-         Check a restaurantís BYO policy when booking and either respect it or choose another restaurant if it isnít to your liking.

-         Ask politely and in advance if you do want to bring a special bottle to a restaurant for a special occasion and make it clear that you are prepared to pay a reasonable corkage (bearing in mind that it may be as dear as a cheap bottle of wine).

-         Remember that if you do BYO for a special occasion, the restaurateur may not want it made obvious to the rest of his patrons in order to avoid confusion or unrest, so be prepared to have the wine delivered ahead of time or to be discreet in handing it over to the maitreíd.

 

BYO at the right time is a good thing. Inappropriate BYO is not.