by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)
I was in Arizona recently. My wife I went out for dinner, and, as is our custom, brought a bottle of wine with us. We got to the restaurant and were informed, immediately but politely, that under Arizona law, you can’t bring your own wine to a restaurant.
It wasn’t a big problem, as we ordered something off the menu (an Albarino), which in fact went with what we ordered (seafood), better than the Pinot Noir that we had brought with us.
But the episode brought to mind two issues that never seem to go away.
The first is the perplexing array of wine laws in the 50 states. You assume that everywhere is going to be more or less like California, but you’re wrong. Every state is its own mini-fiefdom, allowing things other states outlaw, and vice versa. If you’re selling breakfast cereal, or ketchup, or pretty much anything else, Arizona isn’t going to be that different than California. But when it comes to alcohol, it’s like every state is its own foreign country.
The result is that a winery needs to spend an inordinate amount of its time and money dealing with compliance in every state where it sells its products. If you’re Gallo, this is still a tiny part of your costs of production. But if you’re a small outfit (like us) it consumes way more effort (and dollars) than makes any kind of sense. But there’s really no alternative, so you have to do it.
Then there’s the issue of corkage. This subject certainly raises a lot of controversy. I know many restaurants don’t like it, claiming that the customer should trust the restaurant to select the wine, the same as the customer selects the food. I’ve always believed that this was a cock and bull story, and that the real reason is that the restaurant makes more money on selling a wine off its list than it does charging corkage. Though I did talk to a restaurant owner recently who was happy to have customers bring their own wine. No inventory to spend precious dollars to maintain. No rejected wines. But I do think he was in the minority of restaurant owners.
Personally, I am a big believer in bringing your own wine. The price of corkage is usually fair. To the claim that you should trust the restaurant to select you wines (as you trust it to select your food), I can’t agree. While the restaurant may have an exemplary wine list, on the whole I think I can choose a wine for myself that I’ll enjoy more, on average, than the restaurant can. And that assumes the restaurant has a good wine list. Many restaurants that I frequent simply don’t have a wine list that, in my opinion, is of comparable quality with the food they serve. I can think of one steak house in particular where the food, though basic, is very satisfying, but the wine list is horrible. I would never go there if I couldn’t bring my own wine with me.
I also take exception to the idea that the restaurant should be able to select a wine just as it selects the food. No one is going to be able to approximate my wine likes and dislikes as well as me. I don’t care how conscientious the restaurant may be—it’s still not me.
It’s really ultimately a matter of consumer choice, and I think the restaurant should defer to its clientele if they want to bring a wine of their choice to dinner.