A continued remnant of Prohibition era legislation that only helps big wholesalers prosper by locking down the market, turns Massachusetts wine collectors into criminals if they attempt to ship favorite wines to their homes across state borders; even when the wines are not for sale in Massachusetts. Bay State collectors have learned to live under this cloud of Big Brotherhood, figuring inconvenient ways around a nonsensical piece of antique legislation. What is less talked about, and as annoying, is the inability to bring a bottle of wine from your cellar to a favorite restaurant in Boston.
Here is the guiding statement by the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission on BYOB and restaurants:
Can anyone bring their own beer, wine, or other alcoholic beverages into an establishment (so-called “BYOB”)? Not if the establishment has a liquor license. If the establishment has a liquor license, then no one can carry onto the premises their own beer, wine, or other alcoholic beverages for their own private consumption (so-called “BYOB” or “brown-bagging”).If the establishment does not have a liquor license, then one must check with the city/town in which the establishment is located to learn if there is any local law dealing with bringing one’s own beer onto an establishment for personal consumption.
Some of the best chefs in Boston understand that a segment of their clientele, like me, prioritize wine and food equally. A few of these chefs who spent their lives developing world-class kitchen skills understand that winos are as fanatic about their beverage as foodies are about food. Several of these Boston chef/proprietors (they will remain unnamed since they are at risk) allow some of us to bring our special wines to their restaurants. They like to see great wines paired with their food.
Economics and broad customer profiles make it challenging for most restaurants to maintain inventories of twenty year old Bordeaux, rare Loire wines, twenty five year old Chateauneuf du Pape, off beat Spanish stuff, aged Languedeoc, old Burgundy, mid-eighties Cabernet, aging Barolo, etc.. I frequently eat at the restaurants that make the exception and allow me to quietly “back door” wine into their restaurant from my collection. They earn a lion’s share of my business. These chefs understand people like me own wines that are not available on their lists and want to drink them with the great food produced in their kitchens. But, all this is illegal in Massachusetts even if the wine had originally been purchased inside the state. Sound nuts?
Last night I co-hosted a dinner at, arguably, Boston’s best restaurant. I know the operators and have written about them here before. We had reserved the kitchen table for 14 people and pre ordered a bunch of wine off the list, many of the bottles in excess of $300. These were business guests, but are also friends I had traveled through wine country with and shared more than a casual passion for wine and life with. They are mostly from Texas and the southeast and now find themselves in Boston, as my guest for an evening, only 16 miles from my wine cellar. Should it be illegal to share some of the wine I have been patiently sitting on with them at our venue of choice? Who else should I share this wine with? The proprietors held a hard line on compliance with state law, which I respect, in fear of jeopardizing their liquor license. They were highly apologetic and sympathetic, totally understanding my intentions and disappointment.
Restaurants do not suffer financially from BYOB policies. They can charge a corkage fee; pure profit without any investment in inventory. Also, I always buy a wine off the list out of respect for their generosity before I open one of my wines. Furthermore, they drive more business from a clientele that is attracted to great eating that can be paired with their older wines. I remember when I lived in NYC that so many great restaurants offered “No Corkage Fee” Monday nights. These restaurants packed in collectors and wine geeks carrying treasures from their cellars to share with friends, sommeliers, and chefs. They were celebratory evenings and the restaurant operators loved the business and the clientele.
This is all illegal in Massachusetts if a restaurant operates under a liquor license. Who do the laws protect? Why should wine enthusiasts in this state not have the same rights as enthusiasts in other states? Will these repressive and nonsensical pieces of legislation ever see the shredder? Certainly not as long as State Senator Scott Brown remains in office. He has no clue on this issue.
Boston now has an expanding food culture compared to the “culinary desert” I discovered here when I relocated in 1992 and left my New York City birthplace behind. There is plenty of hassle and madness living in NYC including severe levels of inconvenience and an exhausting pace that nobody should have to sustain for an entire lifetime. But, the basic violation of consumer rights, insider political dealings, and suffocating legislation that hangs over Massachusetts makes me yearn for the more sensible, albeit inconvenient, city that never sleeps 180 miles to the south of Boston.