Is It Time to Open Up Corkage Laws?
Virginia and Maryland debate whether to overturn bans on restaurant BYO; a Wine Spectator survey finds laws around the country remain a confusing tangle
Ben O'Donnell, Robert Taylor
February 17, 2011
In some states, you can simply bring your own bottle to a restaurant. Often, it's more complicated.
As more Americans drink wine regularly with meals, more are asking their favorite restaurants that perennial question: Can I bring my own bottle? Like most practices created in the aftermath of Prohibition, corkage laws are a jigsaw puzzle of arcane, contradictory and confusing rules that vary from state to state and even from town to town. But whether they call it “corkage,” “BYOB” or “brown-bagging,” most wine drinkers want the freedom to bring a bottle of wine from their personal collection into a restaurant.
This year, some states with longstanding corkage bans have begun to reconsider. Last week the Virginia state Senate passed a bill allowing corkage; the House is voting on it today. Groups in Maryland are pushing to end their state’s ban as well.
A Wine Spectator survey of all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, found that 25 of these allow corkage in restaurants with a license to sell wine; some also permit the practice in unlicensed restaurants, though individual municipalities—and, of course, individual restaurants—can often elect to outlaw or limit the practice. Fifteen states forbid corkage outright, and an additional 12 have more convoluted regulations.
Of those states with complex laws, Arizona, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont permit corkage only at establishments with no liquor license. Illinois, Louisiana and Nevada have no state laws governing corkage; it’s left to county, parish or municipal governments. In Oklahoma, restaurants that wish to allow corkage can apply for a special “bottle club” license, but only in counties where by-the-glass service is illegal. Similarly, in North Carolina, restaurants can apply for a “brown-bagging” permit—but only in counties with laws forbidding the service of mixed alcoholic beverages.
Most state laws do not address corkage fees and leave them to the discretion of the restaurants, but in D.C. they are capped at $25, and in New Jersey unlicensed establishments may not charge them. Certain states also curtail the volume of wine that may be brought onto premises. In Arizona, the upper limit is six ounces of wine per person; in North Carolina it’s eight liters per customer. Oklahoma requires each diner to have his or her own bottle. Residents of dry counties in any state are typically out of luck.
Lawmakers in two states are debating ending bans on corkage in licensed establishments this year. On February 8, the Virginia state Senate voted 27-13 to pass SB 1292, which “provides that any restaurant licensed by the ABC Board may permit the consumption of lawfully acquired wine by bona fide customers on the premises,” and leaves the option and fee for corkage up to the restaurant. The House of Delegates has scheduled a vote for Thursday, Feb. 17. Update: On Feb. 22, the measure passed in the House, 78-18. It now goes to the governor for his approval.
Republican state Senator Jeffrey McWaters, who introduced the bill, argued its passage would be a boon to Virginia’s restaurants, which he finds are disadvantaged by the current laws. “I think it’s going to increase the business restaurants get. People who collect wines will take them out to a nice restaurant, they’ll go out more often and they’ll buy more items,” he said. “You can do it in D.C., so people in northern Virginia can take a fine bottle of wine to a D.C. restaurant. You can do it in North Carolina, so the people in Viriginia Beach can go to North Carolina and do it.”
McWaters also envisions a boost to the state’s burgeoning wine industry. Visitors to Virginia wineries cannot buy a bottle of wine and open it on a winery's premises. “This bill allows our wineries to say to someone who has a great Virginia wine, ‘Go to your favorite restaurant, try it and if you like it, come back tomorrow, and we’ll sell you half a case.’ It’s an opportunity for tourism and an opportunity for Virginia wines,” he said.
Though McWaters is optimistic about the bill’s chances in the House of Delegates, he still feels uncertain that all representatives know the facts, or even the details, of Virginia’s current corkage law. “I think the restaurants that are for this need to be more vocal,” he said. McWaters himself was recently frustrated in trying to bring a bottle from his daughter’s birth year to a restaurant’s private banquet room (the only place where corkage is permitted).
To the north, advocacy groups in Maryland are also pushing to end the present corkage prohibition. “We feel the restaurant owner should be able to make that decision himself,” said Adam Borden, president of Marylanders for Better Beer & Wine Laws. He echoed McWaters’ concerns about interstate competition. “If Virginia comes to pass its corkage law, Maryland will be sandwiched between