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BYOW: a year later 

Any business drummed up by changes to Bring Your Own Wine regulations amounts to a drip in the bucket.

When Nova Scotia changed its liquor laws to allow Bring Your Own Wine (BYOW) last year, I imagined people would come out in droves---a legion of oenophiles, bottle in hand, enjoying fine dining with a wine they chose themselves.

Not so fast, buddy. The impact of BYOW regulations on dining habits is virtually nil. Consumers haven't responded to the change.

Costa Elles, with business interests in Opa, Seven, The Argyle and Mosaic, is clearly underwhelmed by the effect of BYOW on wine sales. "I can say that we probably have only been asked no more that six times altogether!"

"It's nice to be able to do it," is the general perception of BYOW from consumers and restaurateurs with most people taking advantage of it for special occasions with very special wines. Elles remembers one instance where he "was delighted to see a gentleman bring in a 20-year-old Chateau Palmer a couple of months ago to celebrate the 20th birthday of his daughter."

"I would estimate we have three to five BYOB bottles brought in a month," offers Jane Wright, owner of jane's on the common. "It hasn't made any discernable difference to our wine sales."

This is especially interesting because jane's charges a $10 corkage fee, compared to most of Elles' restaurants, which charge $20 ($40 at Seven being the exception).

"I feel it is useful in that it offers an alternative for those few customers who find our wine list lacking," Wright notes. "That said, I have noticed customers bringing in the same wines we currently have on our list."

These trends mostly make sense. Usually, restaurants mark up inexpensive wines by two to three times the retail price. For example, at jane's, the $17 Mission Hill Pinot Grigio is marked up to $38. If you brought it yourself you'd pay only the $10 mark-up, for a total of $27, saving $11.

Savvy resto-goers should be aware of restaurant corkage fees. If corkage is $15 or less, bring a favourite value wine; if it's over $25, buy a more expensive wine.

Some restaurants charge $30-40 corkage fees, to prevent people from bringing in cheap wines. In a restaurant like Seven or Bish, it only makes sense to bring a premium bottle. A $50 NSLC-priced wine is a steal in a restaurant with a $30 corkage fee. The BYOW customer pays $80, whereas buying from the wine list might cost you over $100.

Why hasn't BYOW taken off in Halifax? Elles believes our low mark-ups and big pours have something to do with it. "Other places in Canada have been tripling and quadrupling the price of wine bottles," he says, and "I know that in Toronto, restaurants pour four and maximum five-ounce servings, unlike us. At all of our properties, we serve six ounces."

Wright isn't sure why the low $10 fee has not resulted in legions of BYOW participants. "I believe it is free in most Montreal restaurants, which is what made me go for the low fee; however, I do understand a significant difference in Montreal is that you can't have a liquor license and do BYOW."

While BYOW amounts to barely a drip in the bucket, it's up to customers to take advantage. At a recent dinner at jane's, I brought two excellent bottles: a $20 Zuccardi Chardonnay from Argentina and a red Bordeaux, Chateau Carsin 2000 from my brother's cellar---courtesy of the $10 corkage.

If you eat out once a week, choosing BYOW could easily save you $20 a week for a total of $1,000 a year...far from a drip for most of our pocketbooks.

What's been your experience bringing wines to restaurants in Halifax? Tell Coast readers: post online at thecoast.ca.

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