A week after the launch of B.C.’s Bring Your Own Wine program, Verace Pizzeria and Enoteca (189 Keefer Place) has uncorked a total of eight bottles brought in by customers. The year-old eatery is one of a growing number of restaurants to announce its participation in a controversial initiative introduced by the provincial government on July 19, which allows diners at participating restaurants to bring their own bottle of wine to have with a meal. Verace usually charges its customers a $10 corkage fee, but on Wednesdays, the restaurant runs a “Wine Wednesday” promotion and uncorks customer bottles for free.
“I think Bring Your Own Wine is a good thing for us, and I’m trying to get out there and drum up some business from it,” owner Roberta Lee tells the Georgia Straight while on the line from her restaurant on July 26. “I looked at our wine sales from our inventory, and they were exactly the same as last Wednesday even though we had those additional bottles as well.”
A bit of research helped Lee set Verace’s corkage fee at $10, which she says is based on a model used in San Francisco—one of several North American cities, including those in Ontario, Quebec, and Alberta—that allows customers to bring their own wine to restaurants.
“It said that if it’s a casual establishment and they have a wine list of under 20 selections, then it should be about $10,” says Lee, who counts 13 different types of wine in Verace’s stock room. “Then, anything above that, it goes up from there based on the inventory a restaurant has, and if they have a sommelier, of course, it should be more.”
While Verace’s corkage fee falls on the low end of the spectrum, some B.C. restaurants have indicated that they will be charging more than $50 to uncork customer bottles, which has some diners confused.
“The public’s kind of up-in-arms saying, ‘Why would I pay $25 to open a bottle of my wine? That sort of defeats the purpose,’ ” Karri Schuermans, co-owner of Chambar restaurant (562 Beatty Street), tells the Straight. “It kind of leaves a bad taste in consumers' mouths thinking restaurants are just being greedy rather than they’re trying to protect what they pay a lot for.”
Schuermans explains that the corkage fee, for most restaurants, is a kind of protectionism. “We pay a sommelier who is very qualified, and we store a fairly good-sized inventory of wine. We pay rent on that space and the costs associated with that, so it’s basically discouraging people coming in with cheaper wines and trying to get people to bring in nicer wines and getting people to think of it more as a special occasion to celebrate a bottle that they’ve cellared,” Schuermans says.
Chambar, which has a $25 corkage fee, saw five customers bring in bottles of wine during the first week of launching the program. Schuermans says that she doesn’t believe that BYOW will negatively affect the restaurant’s wine sales and hopes that it will instead help her save money when it comes to wine storage and inventory. What she isn’t happy about is the way that B.C. restaurateurs were notified about BYOW.
“If it’s announced at 11 in the morning, most restaurateurs are really busy…and we were caught off guard,” Schuermans says of Minister of Energy and Mines Rich Coleman’s surprise announcement of the program on the morning of July 19. “If the government had said, ‘On August 1, we’re going to implement this, and this is how you tax it, and this is what all the stipulations are,’ then restaurants would have had time to figure out and plan and talk to other restaurants, and find out as a collective how we wanted to deal with this.”
Schuermans is also concerned about government policy requiring restaurants to confirm that the bottled wine is commercially produced and that it was purchased in B.C. for tax purposes.
“There’s no way they can police or control it, saying to restaurants, ‘You’re not allowed to allow people to bring wine into a restaurant that’s purchased outside of B.C.’ Well…how do we know if they went to France on a holiday and bought the wine, but it’s available in a liquor store here?” Schuermans asks. “Physically it’s not possible for us to check that, so…now you have people bringing in wines they could’ve gotten anywhere in the world. They didn’t really think it through.”
George Siu, co-owner of the Memphis Blues Barbeque House (various locations) franchise, isn’t surprised by how BYOW was introduced. He sees the program as just another example of how the responsibility of food- and beverage-associated government initiatives always seem to fall on restaurants.
“To me, they’re always putting the onus on us. We’re like the foot soldiers, and they’re just making the call of the shot—no different than the drunk driving rules. We have to be responsible. We have to cut people off,” Siu tells the Straight by phone.
Memphis Blues plans on allowing customers to bring in their own wine starting in August, charging a corkage fee of $15. Siu says that the restaurant delayed announcing its participation because Siu and co-owner Park Heffelfinger, who is also sommelier, were hesitant about it at first.
“Our wine list is kind of eclectic, funky, and unique. We do spend time tasting and putting together this list,” Siu says. “We’re not going to miss out on the sale if they bring in their own bottle and we charge the corkage. We will still make that markup on it, but certainly our inventory is dead.”