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Wine

In D.C. Restaurant Patrons Can Take Home Leftover Wine

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By Dave McIntyre
Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Doggie bags have been good for business at Dino. Wine doggie bags, that is. Since the District began allowing restaurant patrons to take home leftover wine last year, Dino has used more than 500 of the specially designed, sealable bags, says Dean Gold, proprietor of the popular Italian restaurant in Cleveland Park.

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"The wine doggie bag law is fantastic," Gold said. "It is clearly helping in a time when people are cutting back on their drinking in the restaurant. People are buying fewer expensive bottles, and some ask if they can take it with them before making their selections. So this law is a pure winner."

And some patrons are even spending up, he said. "Customers who used to buy wine by the glass now ask for a bottle and a doggie bag."

Gold told of one Canadian couple who liked their wine so much they ordered a second bottle at the end of their meal, drank a little and asked to have it recorked. "They drank it on a picnic the next day, then called to tell us how much they enjoyed it," he said.

Under the D.C. law, patrons may take home one partly consumed bottle of wine if it has been resealed by the restaurant and placed in a tamper-proof container. (A customer who drinks the wine on the way home is violating the District's open-container law.)

Virginia and Maryland also allow diners to carry leftover wine out of a restaurant, with some variations. Virginia does not require a special bag. Maryland considers the bottle an "open container," so it's best to keep it in the trunk on the way home.

Allowing diners to carry out unfinished wine seems utterly sensible, but the concept is new within the past few years. Before, the law more or less encouraged us to drink all of our wine before driving home.

Taking wine into a restaurant is a different matter altogether. Many wine lovers enjoy opening special bottles with a dinner cooked by their favorite chef, and some simply don't like what's on the wine list at various restaurants. They are happy to pay a corkage fee to the restaurant for opening and serving the wine and for use of glassware. There is even corkage etiquette: Check ahead of time to see if a restaurant welcomes your wine; don't bring a wine that's on the restaurant's list; if the wine is particularly rare, offer the chef or sommelier a taste.

The etiquette is moot in Virginia and Maryland, which do not allow restaurant customers to bring in wine. (Maryland law gives the counties some BYO discretion regarding restaurants that do not have alcohol licenses. Montgomery and Prince George's counties do not allow BYO in those cases, for example, while Howard does.)

The District is more wine-friendly. District law gives restaurants discretion to allow BYO and to charge a fee of up to $25 per bottle for the privilege. Corkage policies and fees vary widely, so it is always a good idea to check with the restaurant before showing up with your prized bottle. For example, Bourbon Steak charges $25 per bottle with a two-bottle limit; 1789 Restaurant charges $20. At Oya and Sei, sommelier Andrew Stover will welcome your wine for a $25 corkage fee provided the wine is not on his list, you bring no more than two bottles and you bring no large-format bottles.

Some restaurants waive corkage fees on certain nights to encourage business. Dino does that Tuesdays through Thursdays, luring new patrons on evenings that are typically slow. "Unfortunately, most bring supermarket merlots or malbecs," he said. "But these often are people who might not come to Dino at all if they had to pay our menu prices. So I love free corkage, and so does my wait staff. Except for the groups who bring in 20 bottles for a wine tasting."

One quirk with corkage: Because the District's doggie bag law requires you to have a receipt proving that you bought the wine from the restaurant, you can't take home leftover wine you carried in yourself. And the District has been known to check up.

"We have had customers stopped outside the restaurant" by police or liquor agents, Gold said. "They check the bags for seal and receipt. It takes five seconds, but they are out there enforcing it."

Dave McIntyre can be reached through his Web site, http://www.dmwineline.com, or at food@washpost.com.


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