Incidents of an aimless mind.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

BYOB and Other Wine Cost Saving Tricks

Between a wide array of wine shops, grocery stores, and websites (such as my favorite discount site, Wines 'Til Sold Out), there are plenty of discount and budget options for wine nowadays. Don't be fooled, wine makers are feeling the pinch of this economy, too, and it's starting to show in retail price tags across the world. Yet, if you've eaten out recently, you've probably noticed that it's not showing up on restaurant menus. Why is that? For starters, the markup on wine in most restaurants is usually at least 2 to 3 times the wholesale price they pay, which makes small discounts look like fractions of pennies. There's a valid reason for this, restaurants have a lot of overhead and waste they have to cover in their pricing structure, and alcohol (all types, not just wine) is a good way to recoup some of those expenses. Secondly, many of these places buy so far in advance that their current wine offerings aren't showcasing the discounts yet.

In the past, people have simply paid the prices, chalking them up to part of the experience of a nice evening out. But this doesn't seem to be the trend any longer. Everyone is looking for alternatives to pinch some pennies. And why not? Wine doesn't have to be relegated to the upper echelon of society or break the bank, nor does it have to be expensive to be good. It can be an enjoyable and affordable part of dinner. It just takes a little research and ingenuity. I've provided you with a few of my favorite budget-savvy options, but I'm sure you can come up with more. If you do, feel free to email them to and I will make sure to test them out!

1. Bring Your Own Bottle ("BYOB")

Although this is not a new concept, it is one that is starting to make a comeback, in a rather deterrent sort of way. Restaurants are recognizing that their patrons may prefer to bring their own and are accommodating that desire - for a corkage fee. The corkage fee typically includes wine glasses and the waiter opening the bottle for you. At most places the charge runs $15 to $30 and is designed to bring the price of the wine closer to those on their wine list, eliminating the value of BYOB. In addition, many restaurants require that the wine brought in must not be on their current wine list. As a result of these rules, it only makes sense to utilize the service if you have a special bottle of wine (e.g. one you had at your wedding that you want to use for your anniversary) or you have a very expensive bottle of wine.

That said, not all restaurants are taking this route. My husband and I used to be regulars at a Thai restaurant that did not have a wine list. They allowed us to bring in our wine for free when we ate there. The "regulars" part is important to note in this situation as they did not allow everyone to BYOB. Sometimes building a relationship with restaurant owners can make a difference between getting a yes or no to your "may I drink my wine here" question. But in either case, it never hurts to ask.

Other places, often along wine routes or wine centered areas, recognize the value of allowing people to bring in wine and only charge a nominal fee (such as $6 for a place in Oregon recently mentioned in Wine Spectator) to defray the service cost. How can you tell the difference between which places have high prices and which don't? Call the restaurant and ask or surf the net for reviews that mention corkage fees and select your restaurant accordingly. It may take a while to find the places that are more BYOB friendly, but once you do, the time will be worth the money saved.

2. Take it Outside.

When my husband and I were first dating, we were fans of picnics for broke college student reasons. This is still a fun way to go for us in nicer weather months, but we prefer to add a little bit of entertainment to the bill. We live in the DC area, which offers a lot of options in that regard. Jazz in the Garden, for instance, is a free jazz concert in the Smithsonian Sculpture Garden every Friday night during the summer months. Wolf Trap, a Virginia venue, also offers inexpensive lawn tickets for music concerts (and even deeper discounted ones for pre-season purchase; if you're local, get on their mailing list for more info). Both places allow BYOB and food. We pack a picnic, a blanket, wine, and stake out a spot on the ground. Even with the price of the tickets at Wolf Trap, this is often cheaper than a meal at a restaurant, it lasts longer, and it feels better to be outside, enjoying the sunshine. Check out your local newspaper listings for events in your area. You may be surprised to find that many cities are offering similar entertainment.

3. Half-Price Bottle Night.

This is definitely not a new concept, but as the economy is dipping slightly south, it's popping up at many restaurants like it's the new bell bottom for the 70s. Take advantage while you can. In my area, I know of at least 6 restaurants that do this at least once a week. Even if you pick the more expensive wines on the list, you'll find that the prices are much cheaper than BYOB+fee. Recently, we did this at a restaurant close to our house. We bought a bottle of Alsatian Pinot Blanc and paid only $5 more than the same bottle sold for at the local grocery store.

4. Take Out.

This is a great alternative for my husband and me on our busiest nights. We grab a meal on the way home, pop the cork on a bottle of wine, and enjoy a date at home. Although we tip on carry-out, the tip is not as high and we find that we spend and eat less when not prompted with the menu every 20 minutes. So it's a money saving proposition all the way around. If you have some favorites for take-out, keep a few go-to bottles at home, at the ready for those "I need a break" nights. My favorite pairings include Viognier with Indian curry, Gewurztraminer with Thai, and Sake with Sushi.

5. Have it for Dessert.

If you still want to eat out, but you don't want to pay the fees or the wine list prices, then plan on having your wine for dessert. Skip it at the restaurant then head home and drink it. In the summer, we like to drink on the porch as the light wanes and the lightning bugs dissolve into view. In the winter, we light a fire in the fireplace and cuddle up beneath the blankets as the logs pop fireworks into the air.

However you decide to drink your wine, make it an experience. After all, that's really what wine is all about!

4 thoughts:

Anonymous,  July 16, 2009 at 2:42 PM  

We also like the idea of making dinner at home, saving money in that respect, and then treating ourselves to dessert and wine out! Great tips. Thanks for sharing.

lilminnow July 16, 2009 at 4:38 PM  

We are headed up to Mt. Rainer tomorrow and I'm going to use tip #2. =)

AnnJames July 16, 2009 at 7:24 PM  

mmm sake and sushi! great tips kristen! thank you for sharing! :)

Paula/Lulubelle July 19, 2009 at 2:03 PM  

Great ideas, Kristen! At our restaurant, we tripled the price we paid for the wine, but we only charged a $12 cork fee if someone wanted to bring in a special bottle!

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