It's about time, I say.

Restaurants are finally starting to look at ways to make the wine experience more palatable -- in terms of money, not mouthfeel -- for their customers.

Sure, all too many of them have stuck with markups of 300 percent or more over their wholesale price, especially at the lower end. But a lot of them are finding ways to sell more wine the old-fashioned way: by offering fairer prices. Some of the stratagems:

No corkage fee: FireLake in downtown Minneapolis recently launched "No Corkage Sundays," with no limits on the number of bottles. (That's not the only reason to dine there: The food is locally sourced whenever possible, and the quality rivals that of two better-known hotel restaurants, Chambers Kitchen and Cosmos.) Nearby, Palomino has no corkage fee on the first bottle of anything that's not on its wine list ($13 for subsequent bottles or anything that is on its list).

Truth be known, a lot of restaurants will waive corkage on some kind of basis if you call and talk to a manager in advance.

But the courtesy should work both ways. If someone agrees to waive or seriously discount corkage on several bottles, it's always good form to buy one bottle from the restaurant -- maybe a bubbly to kick off the evening. And without fail, offer your server and/or the manager or chef a small pour of your wine, especially if it's something special.

In the back door: Since it opened six years ago, I Nonni in Lilydale has offered its entire inventory at the same price or slightly higher than the cost at the adjacent Buon Giorno wine store. Last year, Spasso, sharing space with the Wine Shop of Minnetonka, rolled out the same option. We're talking some seriously good deals at both places. I have been wowed and dazzled by the recent wave of wines from Italy, from which all of I Nonni's and much of Spasso's wine lists emanate.

Meanwhile, Cafe Barbette, with advice from France 44, is aiming to implement a champagne list with retail prices.

Gimmicks and deals: Many restaurants offer half-price-wine nights, but I've never found one that does so on Fridays. Now comes word that the Chop House in Bloomington has a "Wine Lottery" on that night, where customers get discounts of 25 to 100 percent per bottle based on a "draw."

Figlio's in Uptown and the Salut in St. Paul have a "10 wines under $10" deal every Monday. The Loring Pasta Bar in Dinkytown offers students (of legal age, but of course) a 30 percent discount on bottles priced at $30 or less. Chiang Mai Thai in Uptown has always had close-to-retail prices on its wines.

Hey, times are tough for restaurants, too. Many are in survival mode, and most insiders feel there will be a lot of closings at the end of this year.

The places making these kinds of efforts, eschewing the standard exorbitant markups, should be on the radar of those who love wine and the food that goes with it.

Bill Ward •