The $20 Challenge

Is 20 bucks all you need to drink superbly well?
The $20 Challenge
Matt Kramer sends value hunters to Beaujolais and Australia. (Jon Moe)
Feb 21, 2017

One of the truths of wine is that there's no such thing as the "right price.” We've all heard others—and ourselves, for that matter—exclaim in disgust or dismay how outrageous it is that this red Bordeaux or that Napa Valley Cabernet charges some megabuck price for a bottle that we believe hardly justifies such a sum.

But the truth, however unpalatable, is that if you can find enough people to pay your asking price, well then, you've found the "right price.” Supply and demand and all that. So you're not going to find any handwringing hereabouts. I'm all for letting the market sort it out.

That said, I'm also all for getting a deal. And for proclaiming that you and I don't have to pay ridiculous sums in order to drink not just well, but superbly well.

To prove this point I performed a little experiment, putting my wallet where my palate is. I went to a local wine shop and bought a variety of wines, all of which shared only one common denominator: They cost $20 or less (before sales tax).

The challenge was simple enough: Could I find an ample supply of less-than-20-buck wine wonders that gave me real wine happiness? Here, I'm not talking about some above-it-all notion of "Well, others will like this wine."

Instead, the demand was personal and exigent: Would I be delighted to drink this wine? Would I buy a case of it for my cellar?

Before I go any further, allow me to explain the $20 price limit. While admittedly arbitrary, it's not entirely so. When I first started writing about wine in the mid-1970s, I recommended wines every week in a local newspaper. Since nobody, then or now, needed me to tell them about the likes of Château Lafite Rothschild, I concentrated exclusively on seeking value wines. Back then, a wine was considered a good deal if it was $4.95 or $5.95 a bottle.

If you run either of those prices through one of those calculators that estimate the relative historical value or purchasing power of the dollar you'll find that 5 or 6 bucks back in 1977 is today—you guessed it—about $20. Voilà!

So what, as academics might say, was my methodology? It was simple: I looked for wines that I personally prefer to drink (it was my money, after all) that also offered an opportunity of proving my point. Do I like drinking, say, Chambolle-Musigny or a Santa Cruz Mountain–grown Pinot Noir? I sure do. But there's no way those wines are going to limbo under the 20-dollar bar. No sense looking there.

So, instead I looked at scooping up whatever remaining deals exist with cru Beaujolais. I've long been on record as loving cru Beaujolais, which are the 10 districts in the larger Beaujolais region that collectively offer the prospect of the highest quality.

There's only one problem: Beaujolais prices, especially for the best wines, are rapidly sailing past the $20 price point, especially for wines from the latest-and-greatest 2015 vintage. But there still are, and will continue to be for the next few years, new or less well-known producers who continue to sell their wines for what I happily concede are undervalued prices. High-quality deals are still to be found in cru Beaujolais from two very good vintages, 2014 and 2015.

I can hear you already: Enough with the generalizations. Who won the prize? The choices were numerous and every wine I bought was worthy. But two achieved a caliber to get what I consider the definitive endorsement: I bought a case of each. Worth noting is that I had previously never heard of either producer.

This last point is significant if only because it shows that any potential expertise on the part of the buyer was a minor factor. All I did was choose the category (cru Beaujolais) and limit the price (less that $20). The rest was sheer chance.

The two prize-winners were Château de Javernand Chiroubles Vieilles Vignes 2014 ($15) and Les Frères Perroud Brouilly Vieilles Vignes 2015 ($15). Both are superb red wines, with dense, beautifully defined fruit, ideal acidity (neither underripe nor overripe) and both will surely do nothing but improve over the next decade.

I then moved on to Australia. As is well-known, the Aussies have gotten the stuffing knocked out of them in the U.S. market. The reasons are sufficient for a column unto itself, but the key point is that right now Australian wines can be bargains. So I looked for two of my favorite regions: Hunter Valley and Margaret River.

Truth to tell, I wasn't expecting success. The best wines in both places are expensive. The word on their quality is out. Still, you never know. Good thing I looked.

Try this: How about a really luscious, beautifully made (my shorthand for "no apparent oak") Margaret River–grown red wine blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot for $11 a bottle?

If I had tasted Amelia Park Trellis Cabernet Merlot Margaret River 2013 blind, I would have guessed (wrongly) that it was a supremely ripe Loire Valley red of really fine quality, as it displays the sort of crisp acidity and lovely flavor definition that Loire reds can offer, but is riper-tasting than many Loire wines. (A really good blind taster would then have concluded that such ripeness indicated that it couldn't likely be Loire Valley and moved on to a better-educated guess.)

Did I buy a case? What do you think?

The other Aussie winner, much to my delight, was a Hunter Valley Sémillon. I love these wines, which are austere, high-acidity crisp whites that when young can be as tightly furled as a freshly-cut calla lily but over time—five years, 10 years or even more—blossom into minerally wonders that you might confuse with a great Chablis. The good ones aren't cheap. The poor ones are thin and lifeless.

Knowing this, you can imagine how happy I was to come upon a superb Hunter Valley Sémillon from a producer I'd never heard of, even though I've been to Hunter Valley (which is a three-hour drive north of Sydney) several times. Silkman Sémillon Hunter Valley 2015 just barely made the cut at $20 a bottle, but what a deal.

Silkman is a husband-and-wife operation—Liz Silkman is the winemaker—who both have day jobs at Shaun Silkman's father's winery, First Creek Wines, where he is the production manager and she is chief winemaker. Their own Silkman label first began in 2013.

Silkman Sémillon Hunter Valley 2015 is exceptional wine: dense, redolent of lemons and stones and buoyed by the signature acidic crispness of this very particular wine. It's one of the best Hunter Sémillons I've had. (Bought a case? You betcha.)

So there's the challenge. Can you drink superbly well—to your own taste and standards—for $20 a bottle or less? Obviously, I think you can.

Care to play?

Values Opinion

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