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Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. Steven is co-author of Exploring Wine, which has sold more than 125,000 copies, and was nominated as Best Wine and Spirits Book by the James Beard Foundation. Steven is also co-author of WineWise, a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the world, which won both the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Beverage Book and the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Award for Best Wine Book of the Year. He is also the author of A Sense of Place, a history of Napa Valley's Niebaum-Coppola / Rubicon Winery (foreword by Francis Ford Coppola) that received the prestigious Versailles Award for Best American Wine Book in 2000. He is a contributing editor and the wine columnist for The Valley Table and Salon.com. In 2007, Steven Kolpan was named Wine Educator of the Year by the European Wine Council. He has been a member of Slow Food International for 20 years. Steven Kolpan lives just outside of Woodstock, New York.

To B or Not to BYOB?

The Hudson Valley abounds with fine restaurants, many that feature great wine lists. These days we take this as a given in the Valley, but if we were living in Philadelphia or Montreal, the Bay Area, or many other cities and towns across the United States, we might get in the habit of dining at BYOB (Bring Your Own Bottle) restaurants. These places don’t have wine and liquor licenses, and encourage patrons to supply their own wines; the restaurant provides the service.

In New York State, it is legal to bring your own wine into any restaurant that has a beer and wine license or full liquor license. It is not legal to do so at unlicensed venues, unless the restaurant has less than twenty seats. BYOB on licensed premises is at the discretion of the restaurant, and they may charge a fee for the service of the wines – and loss of income to the restaurant. This fee is known by the cheery name, “corkage.”

Corkage fees vary throughout the Hudson Valley, but most fall in the $10 to $25 per bottle range. Corkage policy also varies: some restaurants forbid BYOB altogether, while others try to discourage patrons from bringing in inexpensive wines by imposing a stiff tariff per bottle. A select few don’t make judgments on the customer’s wine choice, and charge a very reasonable corkage fee.

The French Corner in Stone Ridge has garnered much praise in both the New York Times and the Wine Spectator for the cooking of chef/owner Jacques Qualin and the restaurant’s wine list, presided over by Qualin’s wife and partner, Leslie Flam. Both the menu and the wine list reflect the gastronomy of Qualin’s native Franche-Comte region near the French/Swiss border, which means an unusual list of wines from the Jura and Arbois wine regions, many of which are priced around $30.

Corkage at The French Corner is a reasonable $15 per bottle. Leslie Flam speaks to her own true spirit of hospitality. “We believe if one of our patrons has a special bottle of wine that they would like to enjoy with Jacques' delicious food then they should do so. Good wine should be enjoyed with good food and not everybody has the time or the means to prepare a meal to match their wine at home.” Flam also mentions that BYOB customers, even though they are welcome, are rare at The French Corner.

And that rara avis description is pretty consistent throughout the Hudson Valley, based on my conversations with restaurant owners, chefs, and managers. Another consistent theme in those conversations is the strong feeling that BYOB customers should observe a kind of unspoken etiquette: bring in a special bottle, not just any bottle.

Kevin Katz is the chef/owner of The Red Onion restaurant in Saugerties, a restaurant with a good wine list. Katz recently decided to raise his corkage fee from $10 to $25 per bottle, and he can tell you why. “I’ll never forget walking through the dining room and seeing a party of four drinking a magnum of [yellow tail]. I didn’t want that to happen again.”

[yellow tail] is the famous, and famously inexpensive Australian import, and a magnum (a big 1.5 liter bottle) sells for about $12. Katz feels that making that bottle cost about $37 (when corkage is added) will dissuade customers from bringing in cheap bottles and steer them towards his wine list.

Of course, Katz supports the idea of customers bringing in a truly special bottle of wine to enjoy with his food, and has enjoyed the privilege of BYOB in other restaurants. “When my wife and I celebrated our 4th anniversary, I brought a bottle of the Champagne served at our wedding to the restaurant. That bottle had special meaning for us and I was happy to pay whatever the corkage fee was. ”

Corkage fees also seem to be fluid in the Hudson Valley. I heard the same refrain from many restaurateurs: the fee might be waived for regular customers, or for patrons who bring in truly special bottles that they would never find on the restaurant’s wine list.

Charles Fells is the chef/owner of The Artist’s Palate in Poughkeepsie. The restaurant maintains a list of about 50 mostly New World wines, with 20 affordable wines served by the glass. According to Fells, “We are pretty liberal with our corkage. Usually it is $15 per bottle but we sometimes waive the fee if we see that the customer has brought a very special wine that we would not be able to get, or an extremely old or rare wine.”

Many restaurant owners are understandably protective of their wine lists. After all, they have worked hard to offer wines that pair well with their food, and have invested a lot of money in the wine itself and a lot of time in training staff to provide professional wine service.

At Twist restaurant in Hyde Park, co-owner Ellen Henneberry takes her wines and her wine list very seriously. She has attended several formal wine education seminars and can always be found at trade tastings in the Valley and beyond, all in an effort to create a wine list that pairs perfectly with the menu created by chef/owner/husband Benjamin Mauk. Corkage at Twist is $25 per bottle.

Henneberry is of a mixed mind about BYOB and corkage. "If someone wants to bring in a special bottle, that's fine, and we welcome that customer. Overall, I want our customers to enjoy our wines with our food. If I can make someone happy by pairing a $23 bottle of wine with their meal, it makes my night. If I can pair a $150 bottle of wine with our menu, that makes my night too.”

But Henneberry also echoed the refrain of so many other restaurateurs I spoke to when it came to waiving corkage fees. The secret: let the restaurateur sneak a small taste of your special wine. “The other night a good customer brought in a ’69 Grand Cru Burgundy and I got to taste it. So generous! Corkage fee? What corkage fee?”

Sabroso is a Latin-themed restaurant in Rhinebeck, with a wine list that features the wines of South America, Spain, and the Basque region. Corkage is $10 per bottle. Co-owner Christopher Long believes the customer has the last word when it comes to wine. “We have a very accessible list but we encourage anyone wanting to bring along any particular bottle special to them, so the reasonable corkage. That being said our list complements our cuisine. Latin wine, Latin food.”

What about that idea of a restaurant creating the ideal customer experience by matching the culture or the country of the food with the wine list? Some restaurants have gone to great lengths to maintain cultural integrity, and Gigi Trattoria, also in Rhinebeck, is one of them. The vast wine list is all-Italian, except for one estate-bottled Hudson Valley white wine grown and produced by Millbrook Winery under the Gigi label, and even that wine is made from an Italian varietal, Tocai Friulano. Corkage at Gigi is $15 per bottle.

According to Gigi Trattoria manager, Arlin Smith, BYOB is a rare and special occurrence at the restaurant. “I feel that being able to bring your own wine to a restaurant is a privilege. Most of the people who bring wine to Gigi bring very special bottles that mean something to them. This usually means that they are looking for a place to enjoy that bottle and I think any restaurant would take that as a compliment. But I also feel that the corkage fee is necessary to deter people from bringing in just any wine from the shop around the corner. We put as much effort and care into our wine list as we do to the food, so our guests can enjoy their dining experience to the fullest.”

BYOB is not a wide-scale practice in the restaurants of the Hudson Valley. Clearly, restaurants welcome customers to enjoy food and drink, and some will allow you to bring in a bottle or two of wine to enjoy with their menu, and they will charge a fee for that service. Are they truly happy about BYOB? Probably not, but if you bring in a special wine – not a bottle of [yellow tail] or its equivalent - and are willing to pay the corkage fee, all should go smoothly. If the restaurant has a corkage policy, the customer should observe the letter and spirit of that policy. In return, the restaurant should provide the same level of professional wine service offered to customers who purchase wines from that restaurant.

I did find one place that comes close to encouraging BYOB and I found it in my own backyard, my own temple of toil. The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park charges a corkage fee of $10 per bottle in any of its four public restaurants, and according to Tom Peer, director of all CIA restaurants and Associate Dean for Table Service, guests can bring in any wine they like, from the most humble to the most elegant. Peer notes that “the more experience our students have with professional wine service, the better for their education. On a practical level, it doesn’t matter if it’s one of our wines, or one of the customer’s, the goal is the same. Great service and a great customer experience.”

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