In the Fanciest Restaurants, Hong Kong's Elite Are Their Own Sommeliers

A question for wine lovers: Where would you expect to see the greatest consumption of the world's priciest bottles of wine? A fusty gentleman's club in London? The private room of a culinary temple in Paris? A high rollers' table in Las Vegas? Well, those are all good places to observe oenophilic excess, but they hardly compare to what you can find in Hong Kong. Amuse Bouche, for instance, a modest French restaurant in Hong Kong's former red-light district, has an impressive wine list and might see more fancy bottles opened and drunk than any other dining location in the world. But that wine the customers are drinking? It's rarely purchased off the Amuse Bouche list. More likely, the customers have brought in their own extraordinary bottles.

Hong Kong is the world BYO (bring your own) capital, and Amuse Bouche has become its epicenter. The BYO movement began somewhere in the backstreets of Melbourne, Australia, in the 1960s, when restaurants without full liquor licenses allowed customers to bring bottles of wine, which tended to be priced at the budget end of the market. In Hong Kong, one of the world's wealthiest cities, BYO has gone distinctly high-end. BYO established itself in Hong Kong because until about 20 years ago hardly any restaurants there served wine, so it was easier to allow customers to bring their own for a fee than embark on the expensive business of creating a serious wine list. Once the custom had begun, it was hard for restaurant owners to change course. Now, in the highly competitive Hong Kong market, if a restaurant refuses to allow BYO, the diner can easily choose to go elsewhere.

Hong Kong's decision in 2008 to abolish all taxes and duties on wine imports prompted rapid growth in the Chinese territory's wine market. The policy has been a stunning success, and Hong Kong is currently one of the top three hubs for fine wine sales. Imports quadrupled and stand at just over $1 billion annually, with the majority of wines heralding from famous French vineyards. In 2010, Hong Kong supplanted New York as the leading place for fine wine auctions. As a result, restaurant wine lists have become very impressive—but so have the collections of private individuals. "Even the top restaurants in Hong Kong can't match the depth of some of the big collectors here," says Paulo Pong, who in 2001 founded Altaya Wines, the leading fine wine merchant in Hong Kong and exclusive agent for nearly 100 of the world's most famous wineries. He also owns 12 restaurants. "Sommeliers hate it, but the other senior managers understand they have to be a lot more accommodating with it."

The government may have sacrificed some import tax returns with its 2008 decision not to levy taxes on wine imports, but it has more than made up for that in increases in revenue from auction and restaurant sales. Kent Wong, a sommelier from one of Hong Kong's leading hotels, opened Amuse Bouche in 2009 on the 22nd floor of a high-rise building. He stocked its cellar with 1,100 different wines from his own cellar but remained open to the BYO philosophy. Wong sometimes even adapts his menu to better suit the wines brought by his customers.

To make up for the hit they take by allowing BYO, most restaurants charge around $40 corkage per bottle. Some allow one corkage-free bottle provided that customers purchase another bottle from the wine list priced similarly to the one brought in by the customer. Amuse Bouche has a somewhat different approach. "We prefer to charge per person rather than per bottle, so if customers want to bring along great bottles, we prepare an entire dinner for them and charge $170 per person [for corkage and dinner]," says Wong.

BYO culture is now so widespread in Hong Kong that only a handful of restaurants refuse to allow it, including L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon at the Landmark luxury shopping center. L'Atelier has a superb list and makes the promise that it will find any great bottle requested by a customer. No such restrictions apply at another of the center's dining establishments, Amber, the most acclaimed restaurant in Hong Kong, located within the Landmark Mandarin Oriental hotel. Amber allows one BYO bottle free if another similarly priced bottle is purchased, but it sets a limit of four BYO bottles per party. "In the past, we had people walking in with 20 bottles," says chef Richard Ekkebus. "It created anarchy in the restaurant because of the glassware, so regular customers didn't receive adequate service."

Pong and others in the Hong Kong wine trade believe that more fine wine is opened in Hong Kong every night than anywhere else in the world. Many Hong Kong restaurant walls are decorated with trophies that commemorate evenings marked by the drinking of big-name wines: empty bottles of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti or rarities from legendary winemakers like Henri Jayer or Christian Moueix. Those mementos of meals past act as a constant reminder to diners: Hong Kong may be the most cost-effective place to enjoy the world's finest wines alongside some of the best cooking on the planet.

In the Fanciest Restaurants, Hong Kong's Elite Are Their Own Sommeliers | Culture