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BYOB, but it'll cost you

More people are bringing their own wine, and restaurants are fighting back with tougher rules and corkage fees as high as $50.

November 13, 2002|Valli Herman-Cohen | Times Staff Writer

High-END restaurants are losing patience. For years they've accommodated diners who brought their own wine by charging them a modest corkage fee to serve it. The practice hurt profits, but only a few of the best customers tended to bring their own, so why worry?

But lately -- and especially in Los Angeles, restaurateurs complain -- this BYOB thing is out of control. More people are bringing ever more bottles, and worse, they tote them in cheap paper sacks, or lug in boxfuls of bargain-basement finds.

In reaction, corkage fees are shooting up, from $10 or $15 to as high as $50 a bottle. There are new rules: If your wine is on their list, Firefly Bistro and L'Orangerie won't pour it. Dan Tana's peculiar calculus multiplies bottle fees by the number of glasses poured. Valentino forbids more than two bottles. Some places, such as Bastide and the Ivy, won't let any wine through the door, period.

It's a tricky issue on both sides.

"I used to bring my own wine to restaurants all the time," said Steve Wallace, owner of a Wally's Wine and Spirits, and a general partner in restaurants including Capo in Santa Monica. "Now that I am in the restaurant business, I don't," he said. "I know how most restaurateurs feel about it. Most good restaurants that have good wine lists do not like customers bringing their own bottle, unless you buy something off of their list."

Many restaurateurs agree that the first shot in the corkage war was fired two years ago, by French Laundry chef Thomas Keller. He hiked corkage in his Yountville restaurant in the Napa Valley from $30 to $50 for a bottle not on his list -- and mailed a letter to customers, explaining his philosophy on food, wine and economics.

The French Laundry aims to provide a "tremendous culinary adventure," he wrote, including his "approachable and inviting wine menu." (The 51-page list has about two dozen $60-and-under bottles and many $500, $1,000 and $2,500 bottles that by the sip are more expensive than a sniff of illegal narcotics.)

"While we graciously present our customers their wines utilizing our wine service materials, we immediately take a loss due to lack of sales," Keller continued. "Just as retail businesses, wineries and other businesses need to sell their merchandise and services, so do we."

His message was clear and now other restaurateurs hope that steep corkage fees send a sign -- a stop sign. Restaurateurs admit that the BYOB crowd is relatively small: 3% to 5% of diners, although some, including Patina, say it is up to 10%. Though some wine lovers bring their own bottles to avoid high markups, others say bringing their own lets them to share fine wine with friends, learn about new types and, not infrequently, brandish their bottles as a sign of their good taste and sophistication.

But wine and liquor sales account for 30% or more of restaurant profits. Some restaurateurs, particularly those with extensive, expensive wine lists, look at those bottles and see not red wine, but red ink.

"This is a policy to discourage people from bringing their own wine," said Mike Miljkovic, general manager of Dan Tana's, a West Hollywood industry hangout that charges $6 per person per bottle to pour outside wine. "You can't make any money on food at our type of place," he said. "If you serve rice and beans, you can make money."

Wine cellars represent a huge investment at some of L.A.'s best restaurants.

"We have a million dollars sleeping downstairs," said maitre d' Stephane Clasquin of the cellar at L'Orangerie, West Hollywood's French institution.

Wine and liquor sales are the most profitable part of his and most menus. "Fifteen people work in the kitchen just to make sometimes one dish," Clasquin said. "People need to understand that in order for us to have 12-foot flower arrangements in the middle of the dining room, we need to have some revenues. I'm sorry to say that, but to me, if the restaurateurs were all holding hands and saying, 'No, we can't do that,' the restaurants would be in a better economic position."

Money's not the only issue; class counts too. "One day," sniffed Clasquin, a person is going to come with a steak and say, 'Cook it for me medium.' "

His attitude isn't hard to justify in Los Angeles, land of the peculiar food fanatic. Even by bringing a $45 bottle that might list for $120 in a restaurant, it's hard not to look cheap -- even when you pay corkage -- or worse, uninformed.

Putting three to the test

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