Cheap Thrills

Last-minute cheapo champers shoppers, we know you’re out there. We’ve been there, too: lurching down the liquor store aisle at 11pm, cruising the bottom shelf for any old bubbly and calling it Champagne. All you require is that it goes “pop” (after being shaken up in direct contradiction to the idiot warning on the label that is only supplied with sparkling wine of this caliber). Half of it will douse a person in front of you whom you don’t even know, and the whole point anyway is to smooch someone in your immediate vicinity—maybe even that wet, sticky person in front of you.

Or perhaps you just want an economical glass of celebration after an energetic evening of Scrabble while watching the ball drop on TV—oh, yes, we’ve been there too. But when spending $7 or less, why not get, you know, the good stuff—or at least as good as you can get? Who knows what sparks may fly after midnight. It wouldn’t be the first time that a great love, however fleeting, was found at the bottom of a bottle of Cook’s.

So I gathered seven experts in the field of social drinking to assess a selection of usual suspects from the bottom shelf. Wines were blind-tasted, scored and a ringer was thrown in as a sort of control. Prices are approximate—these are from Santa Rosa’s Bottle Barn—and the results were surprising.

1. Cristalino Brut Cava ($6.49) One of two samples produced méthode champenoise, the Cristalino prompted one wag to question whether I’d sneaked a good French Champagne into the mix—ha ha. Noted for musky cologne or yeasty aroma, it had good bubbles, a dry, citrusy palate and was praised for its “drinkability,” also an attribute of a nationally distributed beer.

2. Cook’s Brut California Champagne ($6.59) Cook’s has come a long way. While the most frequently noted flavor was berrylike, this off-dry sparkler, with aromas of dusted bowl, honey and tropical fruit, was called a crowd-pleaser and one taster guessed it to be Prosecco. But hey, didn’t this used to cost $2.99?

3. Moët & Chandon Imperial ($34.99) Yup, the ringer. A mid-priced (or entry-level, depending on your perspective) authentic French Champagne, and the successor to Moët & Chandon’s popular but abruptly discontinued White Star, this placed third. After Cook’s. The popular take on it was that it was “like the last one [Cristalino], but fartier,” with opinions improving a few minutes out. Honeysuckle aromas and papaya-pineapple flavors took this import a little too far on the sweet side for most, although its creamy, nutty finish was judged . . . “Champagne-like.”

4. André Brut California Champagne ($3.29) Clean, peachy and sweet with a hint of kiwi, the André was nowhere nearly as roundly dismissed as it might have been had it been announced as such.

5. Barefoot Bubbly Brut Cuvée ($6.99) Coming in close after the André, the Barefoot was nice and dry, with aggressive effervescence and a palate of dry apple cider—Strongbow, anyone? Some thought the finish a bit hot.

6. J. Rogét Brut California Champagne ($2.99) No surprise here. Not horrible: flavors of apple fritter and Fresca, but cloying, and the bubbles spent themselves fast. You, um, might want to skip this one. Happy New Year!

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