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Thursday, 27 August 2009 20:00

Q: Can I bring a bottle of wine to a Michigan restaurant? I know a couple of restaurants that allow BYO, but others tell me it's not legal. What's the story?

Ask the Wine GeekA: Michigan law puts us behind the curve of many other good-sized states that produce wine. Except for a couple of loopholes, you can't legally BYO to most restaurants in the state.

But it's confusing, because Michigan law doesn't simply say, "No, you can't  bring an alcoholic beverage into a restaurant or bar." Instead, several different sections of the law touch on BYO.

Restaurants and bars with liquor licenses can't let you consume any alcoholic beverage except those they buy from a licensed wholesaler and serve to you. The relevant section of law (paragraph 5) even forbids them from letting you have an unopened alcoholic beverage unless you buy it from them.

In this case, it's the restaurant or bar that breaks this law, not the consumer. And a licensed restaurant has a lot to lose if it gets caught; the Michigan Liquor Control Commission (LCC) can suspend or even yank its liquor license for repeated violations.

But you have one significant loophole; it's called "hotel". Paragraph 4 of a different section exempts licensed hotels in a "resort area"  from those pesky consume / possess prohibitions. The hotel industry clearly had a good Lansing lobbyist when they wrote the law.

They also conveniently neglect to define "resort area", which makes it essentially impossible to enforce against any hotel, anywhere. For example, The Townsend Hotel's Rugby Grille, located in the heart of downtown Birmingham's "resort area", lists its $25 BYO corkage fee right on the dinner menu.

So if you want to BYO at a licensed restaurant, try one in a hotel. Just remember that nothing requires them to let you BYO; they're simply allowed to.

When it comes to unlicensed restaurants, even the LCC acknowledges the confusion. In 2007, they found it necessary to issue a public statement to clear things up.

The bottom line: businesses that sell food but don't have a liquor license can't let you consume alcoholic beverages on their premises under Pagargraph 2 of this section.

And under Pagargraphs 1 and 5, it's also a violation for them to accept "consideration" for letting you drink on their premises. That doesn't mean what you and I might think -- "consideration" not only includes obvious charges like admission fees or corkage, but also selling the customer anything at all, including food. 

In other words, when a restaurant sells you a hamburger, Michigan law treats it as "consideration" for letting you bring in that bottle of Chateau Margaux to drink with it. And it's illegal.

But there's one small loophole: guests at events in an unlicensed venue, like a rental hall, don't pay "consideration" to attend -- unless you count that wedding gift you brought. So nothing prevents the organizers of such events from providing alcohol for their guests to consume, as long as the hall's owners don't mind.

By the way, in another legal quirk, the LCC only enforces liquor laws at licensed premises.  So if the unlicensed restaurant on the corner lets its customers BYO, that gets handled by the local police, not the state liquor folks.

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Thanks to David Creighton, former promotional rep for the Michigan Wine and Grape Council, for his help with some of the information in this reply. But we're wine geeks, not lawyers, so nothing here should be considered legal advice.



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