When was the last time you brought a bottle of wine to a restaurant?
It’s been 19 months since the B.C. government uncorked the much-ballyhooed Bring Your Own Wine program, which allow customers to bring bottled wine into licensed dining establishments in exchange for a corkage fee. But now that all sorts of other antiquated liquor policies are about to get smashed – in light of the government’s endorsement of all 73 recommendations in the B.C. Liquor Policy Review final report – it appears that interest in this early reform has already fallen flat.
“It hasn’t taken off,” says wine consultant Stephen Bonner, who created a blog, BC Corkage Fees, to track participating restaurants. “I guess restaurants haven’t grasped the concept or it’s cutting into their profit margins.”
It’s impossible to say how many of the province’s 12,000-plus restaurants offer corkage fees because participation is voluntary. Dining establishments don’t have to sign up and the government is not keeping tabs.
Among restaurants that do offer corkage, the average fee seems to be about $20 to $30 – with some restaurants charging up to $60. (There is no cap.) These fees are on par with most other jurisdictions offering similar programs, including Ontario and Alberta. Yet for most British Columbians, $25 is too much.
“The average person seems to think that if they’re paying more than $15, they’re getting ripped off,” says Mr. Bonner, referring to an Angus Reid poll in which most respondents said $5 to $10 would be fair.
The sense of injustice could be attributed to the fact that British Columbians are comparing our program to Quebec’s – when they’re quite different. In Quebec, where the beloved tradition has been thriving for more than 40 years, BYOB is permitted only in restaurants that do not sell alcohol but are licensed to serve it. The wine has to be purchased elsewhere.
In B.C., the program extends only to dining establishments with a valid liquor licence. Under the present laws, liquor cannot be served in an unlicensed public place. And this is not going to change, according to a government spokesperson reached this week.
So, for the most part, we’re stuck with $20 to $30 fees. And considering how much it costs restaurants to purchase wine from the B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch (the markups are a staggering 117 per cent), the fees are quite fair. So long as the corkage is less than the restaurant’s markup (add another 100 per cent, at least), it still makes sense to bring your own wine.
In certain restaurants where the wine selection tends to be wanting – Chinese or Thai mom-and-pop shops, for example – the program is actually booming.
“Chinese restaurants used to just look the other way when customers brought in their own wine,” says Craig Stowe, founder of the Chinese Restaurant Awards. “Now it’s all above board.”
And while few, some savvy restaurant owners have come to realize that minimal corkage fees on special nights can buy a lot in customer loyalty. PiDGiN restaurant offers $1 corkage on Sundays and Mondays.
“The average guest checks aren’t any lower,” says general manager Brandon Grossutti, noting that many people – about one table a night – bring in expensive bottles of rare wine, yet still order cocktails from the bar.
At Seventeen89, free corkage on Wine Wednesday brings in about 30 customers on average.
“It’s the new date night,” says owner Daryle Ryo Nagata. “Some people bring in expensive wines, others have their go-to Chilean.
“We’re a small, neighbourhood restaurant. We can’t afford a $50,000 wine cellar. Nor do we have space for it. This has been a good way to engage people who live locally. And it’s given us some great ideas about wines that we should add to our regular list.”
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