Confessions of a Trader Joe’s Wine Buyer

I like to drink wine, but of all the essential criteria for being a foodie or gastronome or epicure, I’m weakest on the wine side of things.  I’ve enjoyed some of the best of the “B” wines: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barbaresco and Barolo.  I visit wine shops and buy my fair share.  I’m willing to follow the sommelier’s suggestions.

But at the end of the day, I’m not really sure that I can really distinguish a great wine from a good one.  Or a good one from a passable one.  I don’t taste tobacco and cranberries and leather in my wines.  I can distinguish some fruit, acidity, tannins, and the finish.  I’m particularly susceptible to tasting grassy flavors, as one of my dear friends has learned.

Ultimately, I’ve realized that I don’t need to buy $50 pinot noirs.  I don’t need to focus on that amazing malbec from Argentina, that’s a steal at $25.  I want a wine that cost me five bucks.

Hello, Trader Joe’s.

Trader Joe’s, home of the legendary Charles Shaw label (and affectionately referred to as “Two Buck Chuck”), has more wines priced less than $5 than any other place I know.  Yes, I’m sure most of it is swill (and I do not care for the Two Buck Chuck that actually costs three bucks), but I’ve decided to try some of their selections.

So yesterday, during my lunch hour, I headed to the new Trader Joe’s on Wake Forest Road and bought 16 bottles of wine, including the following:

  • Contadino Pinot Grigio — $4.49
  • Zarafa Sauvignon Blanc — $3.99
  • Chiusa Grande Tommolo Montepulciano D’Abruzzo — $5.99
  • Il Valore Sangiovese — $3.99
  • Epicuro Aglianico — $5.99
  • Vintjs Cabernet Sauvignon — $5.99
  • Hans Lang Rheingau Pinot Noir — $6.99
  • Blue Fin Pinot Noir — $3.99
  • La Granja Tempranillo — $3.99
  • Black Mountain Pinot Noir  — $6.99

I bought two bottles each of the first six wines listed above and one of the last four.  I paid a total of $89.26, including tax, for this wine, which represents an average price per bottle of $5.58 (or $5.18 before tax).  This is my kind of price point!

So I cracked open the La Granja Tempranillo last night, as I wanted to try one of the very cheap samples to see how bad they really could be.  And what the hell, it was actually decent.  No, it was better than decent, it was tasty.  It was a bit tight, but opened up pretty quickly.  It had a fair amount of fruit.  It went well with my pasta.  I actually said, “Wow!” when I sipped it, not because this was some kick-ass wine, but because it was a drinkable wine for FOUR FREAKING DOLLARS!!!

We’ve got friends coming for Thanksgiving, and I’ll not force my cheap wine on them, but for my wife and me, this may be just the way to go.  Will report back after guzzling some more of this swill.  Very tasty swill, at that.

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19 Responses to Confessions of a Trader Joe’s Wine Buyer

  1. PTuorto says:

    The Italian reds and spanish reds trader joe has are actually just as good as some of the young chianti’s and sangiovese I had while I lived in Firenze. The Epicuro line, especially the gold label Salice Salentino is awesome, regardless of the kick ass 5.99 price. But best of all is the Archero Nero D’Avola, it tastes exactly as they do in Sicilia, sharp with plum filled goodness! Try these out and let me know what you think – info@paultuorto.com

  2. VaNC says:

    Thanks for that last paragraph.

  3. Varmint says:

    Although my other stuff ain’t all that expensive, either! My stash is running low. Very low!

  4. VaNC says:

    I do not mind cheap wines…just bad wines! Two buck chuck gives me a serious headache! But will agree with the other poster, that I have gotten some good sicilian wines at TJ’s.

    Don’t worry, I think our “cellar” is in need of winnowing!

  5. Rafe says:

    Check out this guy’s wine blog, he pretty much exclusively reviews wine from Trader Joe’s.

    http://jasonswineblog.com/

  6. Varmint says:

    Well, I tried the sauvignon blanc last night, and it was just not good at all. It actually tasted of green peppers and neither my wife nor I wanted anything to do with it.

    I also had some of the tempranillo that I opened the day before. Instead of softening, it completely melted, lacking any body or vibrancy. It was one of the flattest wines I’ve ever tasted. So the lesson here is to drink the bottle shortly after opening — which is usually not a problem in our house.

  7. Erik says:

    I basically refuse to buy any wine that costs more than $10. I can tell the difference between a $10 and $20 bottle, but it’s nowhere near twice as good. I’d rather drink twice as much. I rarely enjoy a $100 bottle as much as a $7 bottle because I PAID SIX FREAKIN’ DOLLARS.

    Two buck chuck, however, is swill. I haven’t tried the others you mentioned.

  8. Victoria says:

    TJs also has a brilliant Pinotage for $3.99…can’t remember the name but I know it has a giraffe on the label. So. Damn. Good.

  9. Varmint says:

    All right, I think this was a worthwhile experiment, but a one-time experiment at that. The Contadina Pinot Grigio is not drinkable, so both whites fell flat on their face. The Black Mountain pinot noir has absolutely no redeeming qualities. It’s flat and lifeless. I can’t find a reason to buy it. Hell, the Blue Fin pinot that sells for $3 less is “as good” (but not worth it, quite frankly.

    I’ll try the remaining bottles over the next week or so, but I guess I have somewhat of a discerning palate in that I don’t like dreck.

  10. Cindy H. says:

    I am with you on the cheaper ($$) wines but I too have found some disappointment in the lower priced ones…and not all necessarily from Trader Joe’s.

    I would _like_ to be someone who can buy the $14.99 and up wines but I refuse to budget my dinero for that, except for the special occasions (like company :)). But I drink more than I can afford and anything under $8 makes me happy…I just have to make sure I stick with what I know when buying in bulk.

    BTW, my favorite cheaper wine is Protocolo, a Spanish Red. I first tried it, purchasing it from Whole Foods, where it was deemed something like’ best cheap wine by employees’… It was on sale for $5.99 — a rarity at WF.

    It’s hard to find in the grocery store, but the Edwards Mill Harris Teeter location sells it for ~$8…and occasionally is on sale. This is one of those I’d like to buy in bulk and always have on hand…then try out the other TJ wines on occasion.

    Look forward to reading the other blogs/posts on cheap wine!! Thinking about reporting on my personal cheap wine favorites at some point!

  11. MB says:

    Two Buck Chuck gives me winetis.

    On a different note, check out Barley & Vine next to Waraji. They offer both beer and wine. They recently opened but haven’t had their grand opening yet.

  12. Christian says:

    Nice to read your reviews reviews from several wines currently available at Trader Joes. I tasted the Vintjs Cabernet and it seemed a bit sweet but full of fruit. I never buy white wines from TJ, in my experience cheap white wine is much more offensive than cheap red wine. The epicuro salice salentino was very good – full bodied and dark. I actually drank that for Thanksgiving dinner.

  13. James says:

    $5 bottles of wine are like McDonald’s hamburgers or Applebee’s dinner – mass produced replicas designed and created in a lab specifically to taste like the real thing, and to taste the same the world over. The Applebee’s spinach dip in Seattle tastes the same as it does down the street in North Carolina. And there’s nothing wrong with that per se, it’s just not worth writing or reading about. It serves it’s purpose, but does little more than that. You don’t blog much about Applebee’s food because it’s not really worth discussing. I mean, you can get it cheap, but ultimately there’s not much to it beyond mass appeal and a low price. You blog about people like Ashley Christensen and not the line chefs at Applebee’s because there’s a story there, it’s worth telling, and it’s worth seeking out.

    The same is true of good wine. Good wine is a product of a careful farmer working in collaboration with a gifted wine maker. There are stories worth telling, experiences worth seeking, and people worth meeting. You don’t have to spend a fortune, but it’s also unreasonable to expect decent wine at $5/bottle. Ashley doesn’t purchase her produce and meat by the metric ton and store it for months before hauling it out and reconstituting it. She’s very particular about what she uses, when she uses it, and where it came from. She’s no different than a gifted wine maker in that respect. The difference in resulting quality is evident to anyone who is interested in investigating, whether we’re talking about Ashley’s food or well made wine compared to the mass produced replicas you can get anywhere.

  14. bewinewise says:

    I can’t recommend most of T-J’s wines, but the Nero d’Avola from Sicily was an excellent value–better balanced than more expensive ones.
    One has to remember that with some of their brands they stock and sell so much that the wines are inconsistent–why sometimes the Charles Shaw Shiraz is pretty good, but later batches won’t taste the same because they aren’t the same.

  15. aptly said. honestly there is a lot of honestly great wine that can be had in the $5-10 USD range, and trader joe’s carries some of it.

    I wrote a similar article on finding good, cheap wine with ease on my blog: http://thebrokewino.wordpress.com/articles

    cheers!

  16. Kokteyl says:

    I agree that they are so cheap. More experience based on more essay.

  17. tom says:

    TJ wines: No, they are not all good, but most are well above average for the money, implying the opportunity to have a decent wine whenever desired. Tip: The Raleigh / Chapel Hill, NC area stores offer daily tastings in afternoon. Ask to have a bottle opened. Also, the best wines disappear fast.

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