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Sommeliers share BYOB tips and etiquette

How do wine professionals navigate bringing their own bottle when dining out? Decanter gets the sommelier's take on making the right choice and understanding the restaurant's perspective.

For many, BYOB, or bring your own bottle, likely makes one think of attending a party, or trying to save a few quid. However, these days, the bring-your-own style is increasingly popular in the restaurant industry. Instead of showing up with a bottle of the cheapest wine – complete with an animal on the label – at an upscale restaurant, a guest is encouraged to arrive with a wine to match their meal and the calibre of the venue.

Choosing the right bottle to bring

‘If you’re going to an upscale restaurant to celebrate a special occasion, opt for a more expensive bottle. If you’re attending a casual night out with friends, bring a bottle you would typically enjoy at home,’ says Elyse Lovenworth, lead sommelier at Sommsation, laying the ground rules for a BYO reservation.

The compelling part of a BYO reservation is that you get to choose the food pairing around the wine, not the other way around, which is perhaps why you see it available from Chinatown noodle houses to Michelin star establishments around the world. So, how do you choose the wine to bring if you’re not sure exactly what you’ll be eating that evening?

Joshua Castle, head sommelier at London’s Noble Rot, suggests browsing the restaurant’s wine list ahead of time to gather clues as to what styles work best with the food. But since every BYO restaurant doesn’t necessarily offer a wine list, he advises sparkling wine is always adaptable. He cautions against bringing mature wines, which can be risky if you haven’t opened and tasted them in advance. ‘I recently BYO’d a bottle of 1994 Troplong Mondot only to discover it was terribly oxidised.’

A sommelier decants a wine for guests

Credit: NoSystem images / E+ via Getty Images

Other versatile and food-friendly wines include Riesling or Pinot Noir, advises Lovenworth. The key is to create a balance between the dishes and the wine, she adds: ‘Steer clear of wines that have a dominant feature or characteristic like the grassiness of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or abundant tannin structure of heavily new oaked Cabernet Sauvignon.’

Choosing the perfect bottle is not just about what’s on the menu. ‘Always keep in mind the audience with whom you are sharing the wine,’ says Cyrus Schultz, beverage director of Cyrus Restaurant in Geyserville, in California’s Sonoma County.

If you’re meeting a group, bring a variety to appeal to different palates, says Lovenworth. ‘Planning ahead and coordinating with your group to bring a mix of wines, like whites and reds, adds a fun element to the meal. It can spark conversations and help you discover new favourites together.’ Groups also provide an opportunity to open a large-format wine. ‘It adds a festive element and ensures everyone can enjoy the same wine.’

For a more intimate setting, consider a special bottle of wine, says Hugo Bensimon, sommelier at Grill 23 in Boston. ‘Special is different for everyone but for me, it’s something I’ve had my eye on drinking for a while, or have been cellaring for some years… a bottle that I won’t be able to drink again right away.’

BYO, like a pro

Once you’ve chosen the perfect bottle or bottles, remember you’re still dining out, which means there’s some etiquette around BYOB.

‘If you’re planning on bringing multiple bottles, then best practice is to contact the restaurant ahead of time,’ says Castle, explaining how this gives them a chance to prepare adequate glassware and decanters.

Some BYO restaurants charge corkage fees, which can be waived with a purchase from the wine list. Regardless of the fee (which is usually nominal in comparison to the wine price), Bensimon thinks diners should always purchase something off the wine list. ‘While it’s very nice to bring in your own wine, supporting the restaurant that is allowing you to do so is important,’ says Bensimon, who usually brings one or two bottles in addition to purchasing a bottle from the restaurant’s list.

Another non-negotiable for Bensimon is to offer the sommelier a glass during dinner. ‘They typically open the bottle, and it’s nice for everyone to get to experience it.’

Once you’re settled into your table with a fresh pour in front of you, trust the pace of the restaurant team. ‘The working people of the restaurant understand the flow and cuisine better than guests, so allowing them to fill a void with a glass here or a bottle there can alleviate some of the stress,’ says Schultz. Castle agrees, saying BYO can often throw off the cadence of a dining room, so guests should ‘be flexible’.

Flexibility includes not expecting a change in glassware for each wine that’s opened, adds Lovenworth. ‘A well-seasoned glass is a sign of an enjoyable night. When switching wines, simply pour a small amount of your next wine into your glass and swirl it around to reduce the remnants from your previous wine. This also limits glasses accumulating on the table, keeping the table clear for your dinner plates.’

Finally, remember you don’t need to finish the bottle or everything you brought. Don’t forget to leave an extra gratuity for the staff.

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