The $5 California Wine Challenge

Our friend, Ellen, has a theory: $5 bottles of wine can be very good. Spend more, and you may get a good bottle, but it’s certainly not guaranteed. But failing at $5, that’s no big deal (that’s NBD, for the young’uns). And at $5 a bottle, that’s only about $1.25 a glass. Pretty good competition for the wine box.

We took her advice and had a yummy bottle of $5 Petite Sirah (forgot the name, sorry), $5 Cabernet Sauvignon (Rex-Goliath), and even a pretty-good bottle of $5 Pinot Noir (Pepperwood). Sure, we went bust on one bottle (Naked Grape Cab), but 3 out of 4 got us thinking … scientifically.

I love head-to-head tastings. Blind, natch. So here’s what we decided to do: a $5 bottle (actually a $6.99 bottle) would take on a cheaper and a more expensive bottle. All would be the same varietal, same vintage, same general growing area (California!). Here’s what we chose for the showdown:

  • Sea Ridge California Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 – $2.99
  • Beringer Founders’ Estate California Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 – $6.99
  • J. Lohr Seven Oaks Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 – $12.99
The contenders. Note the increasingly wordy labels.
The contenders. Note the increasingly wordy labels.

Caveats: $5 thing, obviously we missed that slightly, but the theory of cheap wine holding its own holds. And, man, wine is cheap here. These bottles are easily $2-3 more in Chicago.

To keep it fair, we labeled our glasses (a, b, c) and poured in another room so the recipients couldn’t see what they were getting. The goal was to rank them in order of preference. It was all very scientific.

Everybody got a certain type of glass -- stem, jar, stem-less.
Everybody got a certain type of glass -- stem, jar, stem-less.

Here’s what we found: Lisa and Ellen preferred the most expensive bottle, the Lohr, but agreed that it was pretty close to the middle bottle, the Beringer. Both agreed that the Lohr wasn’t 2x as good even though it was nearly 2x as costly. The Lohr was a very good bottle of wine, the Beringer was a B+ (in their rankings). Neither liked the Sea Ridge. Ellen “really disliked” her glass of it. Lisa thought it had an “off-flavor and sourness” she didn’t like. Neither finished that glass.

I almost entirely agreed with them, but after a second (or fifth?) taste, declared my glass of Beringer the winner. I liked the flavor better — it was a little more robust to my palate. The Sea Ridge didn’t compete.

Yummy, yummy science.
Yummy, yummy science.

Our buddy, Ben, summed it up nicely after we told him about our throw-down. His basic point was that as you spend more, you should be more likely to find a good bottle. You’re not guaranteed to get one, but you should better your chances as you spend more. That’s a good way to think about it. You’re never guaranteed a great bottle of wine, but your odds should improve as the price increases.

I generally agree, but I’d get more specific. Yes, the line of quality should rise with price, but I don’t think it’s linear at all. I think there’s a big flattish spot between $5 and $25 where your odds of getting a good bottle are statistically about the same … as long as you have a little knowledge of what’s good and where it should be from. Above $25, quality should take off and you should be getting a very good bottle of wine, IMHO. And under $5? Good luck — this is free-fall territory where quality can drop off dramatically. It may be undrinkable. But if you find something at that end, buy a case for me.

What do you think? Are you a two-buck Chuck die-hard? Or do you only drink Latour? Let us know if there are any cheap bottles we should keep our eyes out for.

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