While it's easy to just follow the crowd and go for the $16,000 bottle of Henri Jayer Richebourg Grand Cru with your grilled cheese, sometimes your budget may call for something a little more on the affordable side. But that doesn't mean you have to sacrifice quality. That's why we brought on our shadowy -- but always well-dressed and limber-of-word -- learned wine individual Paul Bernard to school you on the 20 finest, most legitimately delicious and interesting bottles you can get for less than what you probably paid a guy outside a liquor store for a box of Carlo Rossi at one point in your life.
The 20 best wines under $20
1. 2011 Zocker Grüner Veltliner, $19
Sub the word “grape” for “gal” and get why you need to drink this Austrian grape that was raised in Cali: Blonde, long legs, and apple & peach flavors that work well on the sand or the slopes.
2. 3 Girls POS Petite Sirah, $14
This wimpy-sounding sauce has a serious Napoleon complex, which is good for your taste buds. It’s dense and chewy like Guinness, with plum and good diner-coffee tastes, and will totally go toe-to-toe with your steak and stare it down all crazy-eyed.
3. Murphy-Goode, The Fumè (Sauvignon Blanc), $16
Fumè (“smoke” in French) just means it clocked time in an oak barrel, providing more teeth to an otherwise boring, gummy grape. Sniff this Sonoma sucker and check the banana and pina colada notes. Pair with spicy BBQ.
4. Poema Cava Brut, $12
Cava is the Champagne of Spain. This oversimplification will make wine snobs shudder... but they’re not reading this, they’re off being mean to a server somewhere. Bonus: You’ll sound slick with the ladies (and super-douchey with your boys!) by declaring Cava the new Prosecco.
5. Di Filippo Montefalco Rosso 2010, $19
An Italian vino cheat sheet in a glass, this is a mash-up of the two Italian grapes you need know -- Sangiovese and Barbera. It's spicy and rich, and’ll upgrade any red sauce dish.
6. Nobilo Icon Sauvignon Blanc 2012, $19
Stuck with a first date who still spews “totes” and “sauv blanc”? Score this high-alcohol New Zealand crusher that has peach and watermelon notes.
7. Bodegas Arrocal, Arrocal Tempranillo, $15
If your go-to wine store grabs are easy-priced Pinot Noir and Malbec, it’s time to step it up with Spanish Tempranillo. The good examples, like this one, often pack more nuanced blackberry, Oreo, and pipe-tobacco flavors. Oreo! Best part: Prepare to freak out at how those already awesome notes improve tenfold over the short time it takes to drain it.
8. Willamette Valley Vineyards Whole Cluster Pinot Noir 2011, $19
Portland has it all: Food trucks, strip clubs, and strip clubs with food trucks. It also has the nearby Willamette Valley (wil-LAM-ette), a region you need to know because it makes some of the best Pinot Noir on the planet. This is one of them.
9. Whispering Angel Rose Provence 2012, $19
This may look like watered-down Kool-Aid, but it’s anything but sweet. The rock star quality is its acidity, which makes your mouth literally water as it rushes over the tongue. With notes of strawberry Starburst and rhubarb, it’s best served cool on a super yacht in St. Barths/ your wobbly fire escape veranda above a bus stop.
10. Vina Robles Red 4, $18
This blend of four (get it?) traditional Rhône grapes hails from Paso Robles, the Brooklyn of the wine world... minus the lumberjack phase. It’s affordable, young, and where the next-level ish is breaking. With grenadine and dark chocolate notes, this new-school easy drinker only likes to be carried in distressed Filson bags.
11. The Crusher Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, $18
It's a tasty Cabernet called The Crusher. Duh. It boasts hints of raisin and rib eye. Drink solo or with grub -- you win either way.
12. Marchesi di Barolo Barbera d’Alba Ruvei, $17
A solid red to wash down pizza or pasta, this bright-tasting vino with blueberry and vanilla flavors also doubles as the perfect starter kit for the big league wines from Piedmont. If this blows your dome, step to a Nebbiolo next.
13. Mönchhof Estate Riesling 2011, $15
This German wonder's got honey & green apple juice notes, and is a slightly sweet wine that won’t end with a crushing headache. It's also the go-to gulp for those hungover dim sum smorgasbords.
14. Laroche Viño Punto Alto Carménère, $14
Carmenere is like the Wolverine of grapes. For centuries it was an elite varietal in France, until it was presumably KIA by a fungus in the late 1800s. Then, a few years back, it reemerged even stronger in a few random vineyards in Chile trying to fight some chump Merlot grapes.** It's big, spicy, but silky smooth. Bust it out at the BYOB steakhouse.
**( Fact: Some knucklehead grape farmers in Chile thought they were growing French Merlot, but it was French Carmenere all along.)
15. Areo Malbec 2011, $12
This crowd pleaser has some serious complexity, with raspberry and chocolate-covered cherry notes and a clean, dry finish. It goes down easy, so double up.
16. Clovis Point Chardonnay, $18
From one of the better Strong Island wineries, this golden grape juice starts elegant and smooth with banana notes, but is punctuated with a dry, haymaker punch to the palate at the finish to remind you that Long Island is good for something other than Wally Szczerbiak .
17. Andrew Rich Tabula Rasa Red 2010, $19
This dude makes some of the best wines in Washington, so it’s rare that his bottles dip below $30. It tastes as if blackberry jelly were pillow-talking to some lamb-on-the-grill smoke in a deep, Barry White voice. Truth. Snatch it up fast... wine nerds are already tweaking for this seductive stuff.
18. Inniskillin Riesling Ice Wine, $10 (50 ml)
Ice wine is made with grapes that are plucked while still frozen on the vine. Shit job, awesome hooch. Like Welch’s for grown-ups, it’s super sweet with grape, honey, and surf-wax notes both on the nose and the sip. Skip pairing it with something sugary and just drink your dessert.
19. Henry Fessy Fleurie Beaujolais Crus 2011, $17
It usually requires a big dent in the debit card to score a French bottle that truly typifies a region, style, and year. Not here. This classic and elegant Beaujolais has fig, raspberry, white toast, and bacon flavors all vibing in unison like they just smoked out together. It's so crazy good, you’ll swear the store mispriced it.
20. Chateau Poitevin 2009, $17
Like Justin Timberlake, this date-night Bordeaux blend is soft, high-pitched, funky in a good way, confident, and ladies drink it up. You don’t have to understand it, you just need to know it’s good and she loves it.