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Drinking Out Loud

The $20 Challenge

Is 20 bucks all you need to drink superbly well?
Matt Kramer sends value hunters to Beaujolais and Australia.
Photo by: Jon Moe
Matt Kramer sends value hunters to Beaujolais and Australia.

Matt Kramer
Posted: February 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?

Eirikur Gudmundsson
Reykjavík, Iceland —  February 21, 2017 2:53pm ET
Spot on! This is what the average consumer thinks about and many have a limit on what they are willing to spend on wine. Having a little wine blog myself, I'm always on the lookout for the right deal for my readers, many of which limit themselves to approx $20 when buying wine.
And I agree - you can drink really well for only $20!
Charles Chambless
Stow, Ohio, USA —  February 21, 2017 9:31pm ET
I am sure it would not shock you to know that none of your 'winners' are available in Ohio. Actually, my experience is that nearly half of the 'under $20' wines rated high (over 87 points) by Wine Spectator are not available here. Nevertheless, I am constantly seeking out top for the shop I run. I do tastings every Saturday and usually offer wines under $15...even under $10 that have WS scores of 87 and above. Not that hard to find. I just wish more of the wines suggested by WS were available here.
Mike Olszewski
Newcastle, WA —  February 22, 2017 12:00am ET
Voila! It seems, Matt, that you are on path to join ranks with the people...Liberty, Equality, Fraternity!

As the years wind on, you learn the holy grail in wine is not chasing a noted expensive label, which because of its renown often languishes in the cellar waiting for the right moment, a moment that may or may not come. In my case the moments will run out long before such bottles. To be sure, the heirs will drink well.

Twenty dollars in the USA forms truly the sweet spot for great wine at a fair price these days. So many options exist in range of this price with Wine Spectator scores equal to or higher than the heavyweights of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Napa and the like.
Benoit Souligny
quebec canada —  February 22, 2017 10:59am ET
i m from quebec canada so 20$ american is around 25-26$ canadian and in that range we have an awsome pick too choose from.i like going in the south of italie(calabre,molise,puglia,campania,basalicata),Douro also has some bargains,vinsobres is also a great bargain appelation.We also can get a few very good chianti classico and even a few riservas at that price.
Denny Kleber
Charlotte NC —  February 22, 2017 11:03am ET
I have been able to find tons of fantastic wine for under $20. Many of them are because WineSpectator has rated them and so I buy them to see what I think and usually love them. Can anyone find a better value than the wines Columbia Crest produce in their Grande Estates and H3 labels? Hard to do so. What about Tait, The Ball Buster from Australia, along with Terra Barossa Shiraz? Or Hahn GSM, Pinot and their other blends? Don't forget Chateau Ste Michele Indian Wells Red Blend and Meiomi Pinot Noir. All of these are under $20 in my city. I could go on and on, but the point is that if you educate yourself on value wines it's very easy to drink "outstanding" (90 Points) wines on a regular basis.
Hugh L Sutherland Jr-m
owens cross road,al 35763 —  February 22, 2017 2:50pm ET
One of the best sources of these wines is Costco. They also have a list on their web site that can be special ordered. Another source are some of the flash sites. My wallet has instructed my palate to be happy with these priced wines. Higher priced wines causes my wallet to tighten up tighter than a fresh oyster.
Timothy Moore
Chicago —  February 28, 2017 4:28pm ET
In that price range , I always look to Spain or Italy
James J Frakes
Rockford. IL —  March 14, 2017 2:39pm ET
Hands-down the best value: Seghesio Sonoma County Zinfandel at the Club Price of $20.80. This has been my "house wine" for decades.
James L Hoofnagle
Pittsburgh, PA USA —  March 15, 2017 10:19am ET
My go-to house wines are the Apothics, both the Red Blend and the Dark and for whites, the Kendall-Jackson 2015 Vintner's Reserve chard or the Kim Crawford Sauvignon blanc. All in plentiful supply and availability at Costco, Total Wine, and other bulk wine suppliers. Go to Winn-Dixie and you may just get not only a sale price, but 10% off if you buy 4 bottles, PLUS fuel perks for your purchase for EACH bottle purchased. I think that all told, my wine tastes much better when the cork comes out or the cap is unscrewed!

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