Re: Best premium rod for beginner?
Probably should go with a 5 wt rod, best general purpose rod for western trout streams and rivers, very versatile. Good for dries, droppers and nymphs. I would highly recommend casting some rods before buying as other have mentioned. I learned that the hard way buying a Sage One sight unseen. A great rod for many purposes but the fast action does not match up well with my casting style. It has a phenomenal sweet spot, when I can find it. My old Albright A5 is an easier rod to cast and fishes well up close in that 35 foot zone. So, I am going to cast rods before buying them in the future.
Price does not always indicate what is best in terms of finding a rod that matches your casting style. From the Yellowstone Angler 2011 5 weight shootout: "Ironically, the Passport felt far better to me than the VSL, which Winston sells for $100 more!" Price usually is a pretty good indicator of components and build quality, however.
The $400 price point is tough, it's in between budget and high end. You should try the A4 as it is in that zone. Winston GVX is worth a look but over your budget at $495. A Sage Vantage or Flight is also worth a try and on sale at many places. Winston Passport is a good one to try as well as the Redington Classic Trout.