by Tim Atkin

Eating out? Please bring a bottle

How do you spend $47,221.09 on lunch for six people? Assuming your credit card company will authorise the transaction, it’s surprisingly easy if you’re a billionaire. To paraphrase Withnail in the cult film, Withnail & I, you just order the “finest wines available to humanity”. You order them here and you order them now.

The bill in question was alleged paid by Roman Abramovich for a meal with his family and associates at Nello’s restaurant in New York last October. The Russian oligarch denied that the bill was his, but admtted that he was n the restaurant that day. Must have been another billionaire then.

The identity of the host is irrelevant in one sense. It’s the sums involved that are mind-boggling. If you take off the 20% gratuity, 90% of the $39,892.89 sub total on booze. It would have been a lot of wine for six people — two magnums of Louis Roederer Cristal Rosé champagne, three bottles of DRC La Tâche red burgundy, one of Château Pétrus from Pomerol, two glasses of whisky and five of tawny port would have most people reaching for the milk thistle — but not that much.

Even for those of us who can’t afford $5,000 for a bottle of Pétrus, wine is invariably the largest chunk of any bill. One of my beefs with restaurant reviewers is that most of them barely mention wine, such is their focus on the food, the chef, the décor and their own preoccupations. If I’m going out to eat, I want someone to tell me about the (relative) bargains on the list, assuming such things exist.

People who love wine subsidise other diners in most top restaurants. It’s well known that the mark ups on wine (anything between three and six times the cost price) are generally much higher than those on food, so the more you drink, the more you are punished. And then there’s the service charge. Order a bottle at £100, and it’s £12.50; order one at £30 and it’s £3.75. Same waiter, same glass, same restaurant.

Not all restaurants favour outrageous mark ups. The wine-friendly ones take a smaller cut, particularly on their pricier bottles, to encourage people to trade up. And even in the places where you’re ripped off if you order popular wines like Sancerre, Chablis, Chianti and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the more obscure bins are less expensive. Drinking unfashionable wines is a good way to save money.

An even better solution is to take your own. The BYO culture is extremely well developed in places like Australia and the Far East, where diners sometimes keep their own bottles and glasses on site, but in the UK it’s comparatively immature. There are a surprising number of restaurants that will allow you to bring wine at no or little cost — Tom Cannavan’s – lists more than 400 of them — but most are cheaper, so-called “ethnic” eateries without licences.

But maybe that’s changing. BYO finally seems to be edging into the mainstream. In a recession, even the best restaurants are less busy, especially at lunchtimes and on Monday and Tuesday nights. Unofficially, many of them will allow you to take your own wine, provided you pay a corkage charge. This varies from £15 to £30, depending on the place, although they will sometimes waive the charge if you a buy a second bottle from their list. All you need to do is call and ask in advance.

Or you could join the recently launched BYO Wine Club, which charges £99 a year (£75 introductory offer on and has negotiated deals with around 50 restaurants for no or minimal (generally £10) corkage at specified times. It’s slightly ironic that the club has been created in association with Nicolas, a French-owned off-licence chain that charges some of the highest retail mark ups in the UK, but it’s still a good idea. Think how much money that billionaire could have saved if he’d supplied the same bottles from his own cellar.


Six great BYO wines

2007 Tim Adams Shiraz, Clare Valley (£11.49, 14.9%, Tesco)
Everything Tim Adams makes is worth buying, but this Clare Valley red is especially good. It carries its high alcohol lightly, showing soft, velvety tannins, attractive vanilla oak, fresh acidity and supple, bramble and raspberry flavours.

2008 Craggy Range Zebra Vineyard Pinot Noir, Central Otago (£13.99 each for two, 14%, Majestic)
Much better to take a bottle of this along to a restaurant and pay corkage than buy a bottle of £40 red Burgundy. This has bright red fruits, sweet oak, fine-grained tannins and a complex, savoury finish.

2008 Ken Forrester The FMC Chenin Blanc, Stellenbosch (£17.99, 14.5%, Waitrose)
This is definitely not a wine for people who like restrained whites. It’s a full-bodied, full-flavoured beast of a wine made from old vine chenin blanc. Toasty, honeyed and just off dry with appley acidity for balance.

2008 Sancerre, Les Anges Lots, Domaine Reverdy (£19.35, 13.5%, Haynes, Hanson & Clark, 0207 584 7927)
This may look pricey, even for a Sancerre, but what a Sancerre it is. It’s a while since I tasted a Loire sauvignon blanc as complex as this. Rich, aromatic and impressively concentrated, with tightly wound acidity and layers of flavours.

2002 Chablis Premier Cru, Mont de Milieu, Domaine Billaud-Simon (£18, 12%, The Wine Society,
Most people drink Chablis far too young, especially in restaurants. This mature premier cru from one of my favourite producers is still remarkably fresh and steely, but has undertones of nuts, honey and plain yoghurt.

2004 Château Mille Roses, Haut-Médoc (£19.95, 13%, Berry Brothers, 0800 280 2440)
There’s been a lot of hoopla about the 2009 Bordeaux vintage, some of it justified, but the wines won’t be drinking for at least another five years or more. In the mean time, this elegant, poised, finely-wrought claret is a delicious drink.

Originally published in The Times

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