The ins and outs of bringing your own wine to restaurants

In theory, to buy a bottle of wine, bring it to a restaurant that already serves wine and then pay an extra fee simply to have it uncorked sounds a bit counterintuitive. Yet, if done right, it can make a night out feel extra special.

Here are some considerations and best practices when deciding whether to bring your own wine.

First things first: Call the restaurant in advance and ask if bringing your own wine is permitted.
If so, ask how much the restaurant charges for corkage. Paying a corkage fee means you now have permission to BYOW, and, in turn, the restaurant is supposed to treat your bottle the same as if you ordered it there – the server should bring glassware, uncork the bottle, put the bottle on ice if needed, and pour and refill glasses. In St. Louis, we have found corkage fees to run between $15 and $25, which, compared to other cities, is very reasonable.

Once the corkage fee is established, consider if you have a special bottle you want to bring – and make sure it’s not already on the wine list.
If you are bringing your own bottle, generally the assumption is that it has meaning to you. This doesn’t mean it has to be super expensive or rare, but it does mean that the restaurant isn’t looking for you to show up with that case of Two Buck Chuck that you bought in bulk during lockdown.

Next, take a look at the restaurant’s wine list to see if it even makes sense to pay the corkage fee.
From a dollars-and-cents standpoint, understanding the restaurant’s wine markup helps with this decision. Typically, industry-wide markups run around two-and-a-half to three times the wholesale cost of the wine. (For example, if a wine costs $20 wholesale, it will probably sell for $30 retail, and then a restaurant will charge around $50 to $60.) If you are simply trying to save money, buying a bottle for $30 and then paying $25 to uncork it isn’t going to save you anything if the restaurant is marking its wine up by industry standards. 

Some reasons not to BYOW:
Many restaurants have spent a lot of time and money curating an interesting and thoughtful wine list that highlights both a diversity of winemakers and winemaking techniques that also complements the restaurant’s food. If a restaurant’s staff is knowledgeable and can afford you the time, it can be fun to learn about those wines. In that case, there simply might not be a good dupe you can bring to that restaurant, nor will you want there to be.

While the wine bottle markup can feel annoying for the restaurant diner (particularly if you’ve seen the same bottle retail for half the price), for many restaurants, liquor sales help keep them afloat. In a way, to overpay for a bottle of wine is part of the social contract of dining out: You want someone to cook for you and serve you, and the way that can happen, so the restaurant is still able to pay rent, buy ingredients and pay its staff, is in part by charging more than the wine costs at the store. To us, this feels fair.