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Restaurants Can Let Customers Bring Wine

March 29, 2011

By Alexander Chang
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Under a new state law, Virginians will be permitted to bring their own wine into a restaurant – if the dining establishment allows.

Senate Bill 1292, which takes effect July 1, will allow any ABC-licensed restaurant to permit customers to bring a bottle of wine into the establishment and drink it on the premises.

Restaurants that have such policies will be able to bill customers a “corkage fee” – a service charge that usually ranges from $10 to $75.

Currently, 26 states, including North Carolina and the District of Columbia, have corkage fees laws, according to Sen. Jeff McWaters, R-Virginia Beach, who proposed SB 1292. He said the legislation will benefit both patrons and restaurants.

“People who are collectors of wine (will) have to make the choice: Stay home, cook dinner, mess up the kitchen and drink that bottle of wine; or take that special bottle of wine to a nice restaurant and have them cook for you,” McWaters said.

“We’re the fifth-largest state in wine production, but we’re the only state (among the major wine producers) that doesn’t allow for this.”

McWaters said Virginia restaurants have been losing business to neighboring states that have legalize corkage fees.

McWaters’ bill stirred a little controversy during the General Assembly’s recent session. It passed 27-13 in the Senate and 78-18 in the House. Gov. Bob McDonnell signed the bill into law last week.

Restaurant owners are divided over the idea.

A restaurant could lose customers if it doesn’t offer a corkage fee option, said John Van Peppens, owner of Fleming’s Richmond, a steakhouse and wine bar. But the restaurant could lose wine sales if it does offer one.

Moreover, corkage fees may be higher than customers expect because they must offset broken stemware and other expenses.

“When a guest calls me to bring in a nice bottle of wine and we have to tell them that it’s going to be a $20-$30 corkage, the guest is going to wonder in their mind, ‘Why do I have to pay that much money for a bottle of wine I paid for and drink it in your restaurant?'” Peppens said.

“To me, there are a lot of negatives before the guest even arrives at the front door.”

At the same time, corkage fee laws can help small, independent restaurants compete with chain restaurants.

Ted Doll, owner of Zeus Gallery Café in Richmond, said chain restaurants fear corkage fees because a lot of their revenue comes from selling wine purchased directly from wineries.

“What chain restaurants do is basically ensure to a winery that they’re going to sell X amount of cases a year, and buy it nationally and cut out two middlemen before paying for a product,” Doll said.

Independent restaurants, on the other hand, can make a profit by letting customers bring in wine and charging them a corkage fee, Doll said.

“It might be some of the purest money I can make, in that I don’t really have to stock anything except for a glass and a corkscrew.”