F&W’s Megan Krigbaum tries to understand this mystifying behavior and makes a passionate case for letting sommeliers do their job.
I find true and wondrous joy in taking a great bottle of Champagne to my favorite Chinatown spot, Peking Duck House. (Sure, they might have crummy glasses, but bubbly, brilliant, fruit-inflected wine is such a perfect contrast to that crispy-skin duck.) Lately, however, I’ve been hearing about the opposite trend: customers BYO-ing cheapo bottles to restaurants with outstanding wine lists. It seems these customers have a bizarre, deep-seated distrust of sommeliers, a belief that their prices are such a giant rip-off that it’s better to bring in any random, unimportant bottle.
Obviously, restaurant wine prices are higher than retail. But in exchange, you get to choose from wines that have been stored properly and, thanks to the sommelier, go perfectly with the chef’s food; plus, you have access to old wines you’d never see on a store shelf. “It’s disheartening when someone brings in a wine that is not special and just sort of acts like a placeholder,” one sommelier told me. I get that.
Many sommeliers I talked to have come up with different ways to discourage this kind of frustrating behavior, like charging a sizable corkage fee–up to $150 in some cases. But the smartest sommeliers combat the notion that they’re money-grubbing wine slingers by seeking out impressive bottles at low enough prices that paying any kind of corkage fee stops making sense. Where there’s a great somm, there’s sure to be great wine—at every price.