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To bring your own, or not to bring your own Add to ...

Pick of the week

Nuvole Pinot Grigio 2002 ($9.85, No. 637611) is a great pinot grigio for the money, light and crisp, yet relatively concentrated, with a floral aroma and flavours hinting at peach, citrus and minerals. A lovely apéritif for spring.

So, the Ontario government wants to let customers bring their own wine to restaurants. My initial reaction was one of shock -- not at the enlightenment of the idea, but at the thought that some high-ranking politician somewhere must have had to pay for his own meal.

How else to account for Queen's Park's sudden concern with the high cost of drinking out?

The rest of us, meanwhile, have long known about scandalous wine markups. Just the other week, I ordered a $50 bottle at a posh Portuguese restaurant in Toronto. Its retail price: $12.95. That's an almost 300-per-cent markup.

What's more, the $50 list price didn't include a tip or the additional 15 per cent in taxes tacked onto the bill. All told, the wine cost me about $65.

That's grand theft vino of about 400 per cent above retail.

For that reason alone, I'm in favour of a bring-your-own policy. Typically, when a customer carries in his own bottle, the restaurant charges a flat fee, known as corkage, of $10 to $25. This would have saved me at least $25, much more had I been in the mood for something fancy. Just as important, it might have sent a message to the restaurateur: Stop shafting your customers.

But not all restaurants are so shameless. At most places, the markup is closer to 130 or 140 per cent.

That's only fair, given that restaurants must cover expenses not built into retail prices, such as servers' salaries, stemware, cellar upkeep, heating and air conditioning, steep commercial real-estate rents and capital outlays to design and furnish their premises.

Surprisingly, many customers who decry wine markups don't consider those costs. "Customer awareness on that issue is not great," says Carl Korte, a partner in Scaramouche restaurant in midtown Toronto, which carries about 270 different wines and several hundred thousand dollars worth of cellar inventory.

At Scaramouche, where the average bottle tends to be marked up a reasonable 120 per cent, corkage could decimate profits. A $90 selection from the list (the typical order) costs the restaurant about $45, for a gross profit of $45. By contrast, a $20 corkage fee would deny the restaurant the difference of $25.

Given that most fine-food establishments such as Scaramouche couldn't survive without a reasonable profit margin from alcohol, were every patron to walk in with a brown bag, the city's well-paid bankruptcy lawyers would soon be serving Korte instead of the other way around.

And even if Scaramouche did miraculously manage to make ends meet, Korte might be bidding a tearful farewell to some of his sought-after floor staff, because waiters earn most of their income from tips, calculated as a percentage of the overall bill.

Another significant, if seemingly mundane, issue is liability. This is a key reason restaurants as a group have come out against the BYO proposal, which is merely under study at this point.

Ryan Parks, manager of government relations for the 11,000-member Ontario Restaurant Hotel & Motel Association, says a BYO plan could introduce a number of risks, either real or perceived.

And a perceived risk is all it takes to make nervous insurers -- permanently on hair trigger when it comes to rate hikes -- jack up their premiums.

What if, for example, customers were permitted to take home unfinished bottles, as Consumer Minister Jim Watson suggested they might? That could place a new enforcement burden on owners, who already share liability for tipsy patrons wreaking terror behind the wheel.

How, for instance, do you prove the near-empty bottle at the crash scene was three-quarters full when it left the restaurant?

Conversely, if a patron leaves behind a half-full bottle purchased outside Ontario, an inspector the next morning could suspend the restaurateur's liquor licence for trading in contraband.

It's no idle risk. Insurance premiums have already shot up across the board, as every driver knows. Parks says some of his members have seen coverage jump 400 per cent in the past two years. And, he says, that's with no claims against the restaurants in question.

What's more, Ontario restaurants are only now climbing off life support after a year that saw the hospitality industry -- which employs more than 400,000 workers -- lose more than a billion dollars in tourism spending because of SARS, the mad-cow scare, a major blackout and the war in Iraq.

"It comes at absolutely the wrong time," Parks says. "We're just looking for the government to leave us alone for a while so the industry can build up its strength again."

Add to this the recent hike in the minimum wage (the base salary of most waiters) and a new recycling tax, and the situation is dire for an industry that, before 2003, squeezed by on a meagre 5-per-cent net profit.

Still, Korte at Scaramouche supports a bring-your-own plan -- in principle. A reasonable policy, he says, would require not only considerable forethought from the government but also some discretion on the part of patrons.

In jurisdictions where BYO laws have worked, such as Alberta, corkage tends to be treated as an occasional privilege -- a chance to enjoy a special bottle, such as an anniversary gift or a vintage gem -- not as open season to skimp on fancy food and service with a $10 pinot grigio.

Korte says corkage could also be a boon to wine lovers who frequent certain restaurants where the wine selection tends to be wanting.

Indian and Thai food, for example, can be delicious with Alsatian gewurztraminer, but you won't find much Zind-Humbrecht or Domaine Weinbach on the list at your local Delhi dine and dash.

Over at the restaurant association, Parks has an alternative proposal. Why not slash wine prices across the board at both the retail and restaurant purchase level? After all, the government-owned Liquor Control Board of Ontario took in more than $1-billion in profit last year.

That's public money earned off the backs of wine, spirit and beer drinkers. Cheaper LCBO prices, rather than a gut punch to restaurateurs, would make wine more affordable for everybody, whether they choose to dine out or eat in. And that's something we can all drink to.

Touring California winemakers will be pouring their latest vintages at wine fairs in four Eastern cities: Halifax (March 31), Ottawa (April 2), Toronto (April 6) and Montreal (April 7).

Prices range from $40 to $70. Call the California Wine Fair Hotline at 1-800-558-2675 or visit .

Two highlights among the 300 wines to be featured are Cuvaison Cabernet Sauvignon 1999 from Napa Valley and Soleil & Terroir Chardonnay Paragon Vineyard 2000 from Edna Valley.

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