Most restaurants in California are, thankfully, open to guests bringing their own wines, but there are a handful of rules to play by.
Sommeliers and wine directors spend enormous amounts of time creating what they hope will be great wine lists. They want restaurant patrons to understand and respect this. Don’t be the guy who eyeballs the list then runs out to the corner store for an $8.99 bottle. It won’t go over well.
Also, avoid trying to save money by bringing a wine already on the restaurant’s list. I knew a couple who always brought a bottle of Cakebread chardonnay to Gary Danko in San Francisco (and not buying it there), and I assure you they were not favored guests.
Always ask ahead of time if you can bring wine. Some restaurants do not allow it. A handful have specific nights when it is welcomed and corkage is complimentary. If the corkage charge is more than $20, it’s probably not worth the trouble. The math does not really add up, and your money will go further buying something from the list rather than paying the corkage fee (on top of the price of the wine you bring).
Many San Francisco restaurants offer BYOB (bring your own bottle) options on slow nights, such as Sundays and Mondays. Others, mostly lower-key restaurants in areas such as the Tenderloin, don’t have liquor licenses and don’t charge corkage.
Sommeliers and wine directors want to know you understand the effort they put into their lists. BYOB is generally viewed as an opportunity for guests to bring something spectacular from their cellar or a bottle that has sentimental value.
Tell the wine staff if you are celebrating a special occasion. I always bring a favorite Champagne for my birthday and most restaurants have been totally gracious about it and never charged corkage.
Offer the sommelier or wine director a taste of what you bring. They will be beyond delighted if they have a chance to try an old vintage of Bordeaux or an esoteric wine from northern Italy. You can ask the sommelier or wine director if they want to taste the wine upon opening, or let it breathe. Or you can leave a half-glass in the bottle for the staff to enjoy after dinner service.
Buy something off the restaurant’s wine list. It’s quid pro quo. Proprietors have been gracious enough to allow you to bring and drink a bottle of your own choosing, so you should express a little love for their wine list. It could be an entire bottle or a half-bottle, but at least two glasses of something lovely.
Always tip on what the bottle you brought would have cost if purchased. If you brought a $600 bottle of a historic Napa Valley wine, you may not need to leave that much, but take a good look at high-end prices on the restaurant’s wine list. Leaving a $30 to $40 tip on a bottle you have brought is considered generous. You have used the venue’s stemware, possibly a decanter and had the staff serve you. They should be taken care of for services provided.
Liza B. Zimmerman has been writing, educating and consulting about wine, cocktails and food for two decades. She has also worked almost every angle of the wine and food business: from server and consultant to positions in distribution, education and sales.