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In Bars & Clubs

Should Wisconsin change its strict BYO laws?

Wisconsin's "BYOB" laws cause controversy, confusion


"Bar Month" at OnMilwaukee.com is back for another round! Thewhole month of February, we're serving up intoxicatingly fun articleson bars and clubs -- including guides, the latest trends, rapid barreviews and more. Grab a designated driver and dive in!

The legality of bringing store-bought alcohol into a restaurant is sometimes misinterpreted, but the bottom line is that Wisconsin law prohibits "bringing your own" (BYO) beer or wine into an establishment.

However, the statute is rarely enforced and, therefore, a handful of local eateries allow it.

Milwaukee assistant city attorney Bruce Schrimpf confirms that -- despite the actions of some local eateries -- there are multiple laws in place that make it illegal for diners to BYO. Wisconsin Statute 125.32 6a "prohibits patrons from bringing their own alcoholic beverages into a restaurant for consumption."

Plus, to dispense alcohol in Wisconsin, the restaurant owner must obtain a liquor license and all alcohol served in the restaurant must be purchased from a distributor.

"For one to bring a bottle into a restaurant and consume it, if the restaurant would be licensed to sell malt beverages or intoxicating liquor -- including wine -- would violate all of the foregoing provisions," says Schrimpf.

The fine for violating this law can run as high as $10,000 and / or imprisonment for up to nine months for a first offense.

Many states do not have these laws, including Illinois. Consequently, Chicago has hundreds of restaurants that allow diners to bring in their own wine. Many of these restaurants cannot afford -- or were not granted -- a liquor license and therefore they allow diners to bring their own.

A "corkage fee" ranging from $15 to $50 is sometimes added to the bill, but there are many restaurants that don't charge a corkage fee or waive the fee on certain nights of the week.

Michael Fentley lives in Glendale and travels to Chicago about once a month. Five or six times a year, he and friends bring a bottle of his homemade wine to a restaurant.

"I love drinking my wine in restaurants. I really wish Milwaukee would get on board with this. I, for one, would eat out a lot more often," says Fentley.

A few local restaurants allow diners to bring in their own wine, especially for a special occasion. Hinterland, 222 E. Erie St., is one of the BYO-friendly restaurants.

"If a special occasion calls for a particular bottle of wine -- for example, let's say the customer has been saving a bottle bought in Napa Valley -- then we will allow them to bring in that special bottle," says Michael Matousek, Hinterland's sales manager. "We think it's important to accommodate the needs of our customers. We provide excellent service and value, and we appreciate our customers making the choice to dine with us."

For a period of time, Hinterland did not have a corkage fee, but Matousek says the bar and restaurant will soon charge $15 to open a bottle of store-bought wine.

"Would we ultimately prefer our customers to choose an outstanding bottle from our list? Yes. But we don't want to turn anyone away over this issue," says Matousek.

Mitchell Wakefield is the owner of Tess, 2499 N. Bartlett Ave. Wakefield did not go on the record as to whether or not he allows carry ins, but he did say that those restaurants that allow diners to carry in offer the BYO option as a service to their customers.

"Most advertise this (corkage) fee visibly in their menus or it can be determined by calling the restaurant ahead of time. I don't know of any that treat this information like a clandestine secret for fear of retribution," says Wakefield.

According to Wakefield, restaurants with strict policies against "BYO" usually have previous liquor license issues and can't afford another strike on their record. Other reasons might be because they want customers to buy wine by the glass or bottle because the markup is so high or, like in the case of Sanford Restaurant owner Sandy D'Amato, they are simply playing by the rules.

Several other local eateries are widely known to allow diners to carry in wine but did not respond to OnMilwaukee.com's inquiries or declined to speak on the record.

In 2009, D'Amato and his wife, Angela, wrote an open letter to Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn that was published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The couple -- owners of Sanford Restaurant and former owners of Cafe Coquette -- vigilantly obeys the no-BYO law.

"Truthfully, as long as it's the law, we are going to conduct ourselves according to that law. But you know what? We hate this law and the kind of restaurateur it turns us into. It is at the very least ungracious, and we can't understand that since taxes already have been paid on the product, who is losing?" states the letter.

Upholding the law, according to D'Amato, has made him the "black sheep of the family" and angered devoted customers.

"We say let that couple who is celebrating their 20th anniversary bring in that special bottle. We say let those business diners crack open a bottle of bubbly they've saved for just that moment. And then we would do like other restaurants do in so many states around the nation, impose a corkage fee," he wrote in the letter.

Talkbacks

chinaski | April 1, 2011 at 12:27 p.m. (report)

Thanks for this information.

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rickram | Feb. 24, 2010 at 11:17 p.m. (report)

Interesting topic. The article makes it sound like the statutory language is super clear, especially with the emphatic quote by Mr. Schrimpf. The essence of that section states that "no person may possess on the premises covered by a retail or wholesale fermented malt beverages license or permit any alcohol beverages not authorized by law for sale on the premises." To me, that means that (1) "no person may possess on the premises covered by a retail or wholesale fermented malt beverages license...any alcohol beverages not authorized by law for sale on the premises" and that (2) "no person may...permit any alcohol beverages not authorized by law for sale on the premises." Without looking at the legislative history, it reads to me that (1) disallows the common BYOB situation of an establishment without a license. (2) looks like it could be interpreted to mean that an establishment with a license can allow BYOB. The incentive for these establishments to allow this is not very clear, but that is my reading. If you continue this interesting string of articles, please include a clarification of the statutory language along with attorney comments.

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theatretwist | Feb. 10, 2010 at 1:38 p.m. (report)

Hmmm, I've been paying a $10-$15 corckage fee in the Milwaukee area for as long as I can remember. It still beats paying a 50% - 300% upcharge on a restaurants bottle of wine. Besides, wasn't there a law passed within the past 5 years or so, that allows you take home a bottle of wine that is not finished (meaning you have an opened intoxicant in the car)? I don't know, some of these laws just don't make sense to me. Oh well, thank you for the explanation. I just hope this article doesn't scare away the current restaurants I take advantage of the corkage policy with.

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sas_tarr | Feb. 9, 2010 at 10:40 a.m. (report)

Make your own with http://www.happymountain.net/index.html

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alba | Feb. 9, 2010 at 10:04 a.m. (report)

A $15 charge to open a bottle of store-bought wine? Bah - I will never do that. Like most alcohol-related laws in Wisconsin, these rules are left over from prohibition days. When the government finally agreed to repeal prohibition, they added a bunch of regulations to ensure they could maintain control of liquor distribution and make money from taxes and fees. In some states, this resulted in government-run liquor stores. In Wisconsin, this developed into weird alcohol distribution laws. This is why Great Lakes Distillery needs to have a third-party provide samples of their product on tours, and why the Milwaukee Ale House does a similar thing for their 2nd Street Brewery. These laws dont make sense for local businesses, but they help line the pockets of the liquor distributors and the politicians they support.

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