While it hasn't been in widespread practice, the recently introduced policy allowing patrons to bring their own wine (BYOW) into a B.C. restaurant has been in existence for a while. A small restaurant near the Courier office has openly had a BYOW policy for as far back as I can remember and charged a $15 corkage fee. (I will have to check if anything has changed. It's been a while since I ate there.) An Indian restaurant on Cambie-now gone-allowed patrons to bring in wine and charged no corkage fee as long as you were discreet about the libation. A restaurant a co-worker visited at Chinese New Year's for large family gatherings allowed patrons to bring in bottles for a nominal corkage fee.
Of course, BYOW has been the norm for decades at many restaurants in Quebec, where there is no corkage fee. In Ontario, according to a report in last Friday's Vancouver Sun, corkage fees can range from zero to $60.
Across the pond, on London's Brick Lane, many of the restaurants entice customers in by offering them a discount coupon on beer at a nearby grocery store to bring back to the restaurant.
So it is refreshing to see one of the most provincial of provinces-especially one with a parochial attitude to beer and wine-finally join the 21st-century on the BYOW practice. (I would have preferred the government called it BYOB. Rolls off the tongue better.)
It must have been quite the surprise for restaurants, however, to hear last Thursday morning that as of that day, the government was implementing the BYOW plan-without giving them any advance notice. It's voluntary and the issue had been discussed within the industry, but giving restaurants a chance to figure out their plan of action before the dinner crowd came in would have been nice, Mr. Rich Coleman, the minister responsible for liquor.
Lesley Chesterman, the Montreal Gazette's fine-dining critic who loves BYOWs, says there's a caveat. "BYOW restaurants aren't always that good and are often not considered 'serious' restaurants," she told me. "There are now several excellent BYOW restaurants [in Montreal], but the majority are cheap places with lousy food."
Perhaps it will be different in Vancouver. The popular, well-reviewed and award-winning Chambar restaurant on Beatty Street is pro-BYOW. It will charge a $25 corkage fee (plus HST, a tax owner Karri Schuermans calls unfair, but is forced to charge). Schuermans, who owns the restaurant with her husband/chef Nico, sees it as an opportunity to bring people back downtown, especially from the North Shore. "People stopped drinking at restaurants or people stayed home and had dinner parties," she said. "[BYOW] is a good opportunity for people to bring in a special bottle of wine and what they're going to save can cover their taxi ride home."
While researching the plan, Schuermans discovered that once the novelty of BYOW wore off, an average of 10 to 11 per cent of patrons-depending on the city-took advantage of the plan.
The industry has had a difficult time lately-from the economic downturn, to losing its discount on booze when the HST was introduced and B.C.'s tough and sometimes confusing drunk driving laws that caused a dip in restaurant patronage. But Vancouver restaurants are already getting creative. Verace Pizzeria on Keefer Street near the Stadium SkyTrain Station has a $10 corkage fee every night except Wednesdays when there is none.
Every restaurant will figure out its own approach-if they're even interested in the BYOW plan. And customers will have to decide if there is any savings by bringing in their own bottle. I predict a boon for lower-end restaurants with limited wine selection. High-end restaurants with expensive sommeliers might not be so keen. We'll see.
What is peculiar about the program, however, is that any BYOW bottle must be purchased through the B.C. system. So don't bring that great bottle of California or Washington wine you bought in the U.S. that costs twice as much in B.C.
No such rule exists in Quebec, Chesterman said. The wine can be purchased from anywhere in the world, which is as it should be.
"What about someone with a private cellar? How can they tell if those wines are from the BCLDB? Seems like a useless rule," Chesterman said.
No kidding. This only adds to a restaurant's many headaches to check the labeling or worry that an overzealous inspector will fine them if they open a non-B.C. purchased wine.
The irksome rule counters the B.C. Liberals' mantra of being the party of free enterprise. But I doubt the NDP will change anything on this front when it likely gets elected next year. Nor will they ever approve a policy allowing grocery stores to sell beer or wine. But I live in hope.