Hey, I Screwed Up With That Trader Joe’s Thing. OK?

I feel like a Catholic school boy caught smoking after trying some of the ultra-cheap wine at Trader Joe’s (be sure to read all the comments on that post).  First, the experience wasn’t all that great, and then there was the guilty aftermath.

Sure, the wine only costs 5 bucks a bottle, and sure, the first one I tried wasn’t bad.  But everything went downhill from there.  The OK wine was awful on day 2.  The white wines were completely undrinkable.  The Italian tasted like grape juice — without the fermentation.  And those were the best parts — I got completely slammed by some folks whose opinion I completely respect.

Ultimately, two different wine merchants pretty much nailed it on the head: Trader Joe’s sells the “fast food” of wine.  I’m going to quote an entire comment, because this reader really identified the issue:

$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.

Here’s where I screwed up: I think of wine as a commodity.  Wine is still pretty much a mystery to me.  I enjoy drinking it, but again, my palate is unable to distinguish much other than body, acidity and fruit — oh, and sweetness, too.  Moreover, I don’t make wine nor do I hang out with the winemakers.  I just buy the stuff.  With restaurant food, I actually have some sense of what goes into it, because I’m a decent home cook.  And I hang out with chefs and other cooks.  And, hell, I’ve even “worked” in a couple of restaurants.  I understand that craft and style and how the care of a restaurant kitchen can translate to the plate.

I don’t see that with wine, and so I haven’t even thought about the issue.  Until now.  Yes, I still want to find cheap, tasty wine.  But I want a story with that wine.  I want to know what makes it distinctive. If I have to pay a few dollars more, then so be it.  And you know what, I suspect that wine will taste a hell of a lot better than that Trader Joe’s shit.

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11 Responses to Hey, I Screwed Up With That Trader Joe’s Thing. OK?

  1. Nancy says:

    Dean – you didn’t screw up – just the opposite. You’ve done a public service for any of us who were tempted by the cheap Trader Joes price. I, for one, salute and thank you.

  2. Dave says:

    Trader Joe’s is some pretty “not-good” wine. The few times I’ve tried their offerings, I’ve been unimpressed (and their beer selection isn’t so hot, either). Plus the one here in Cary is ridiculously overcrowded.

    The best way to buy wine is to go to a place like the late Carolina Wine Company, or the Wine Authorities (which I’ve heard good stuff about, but never been to), and tell them what you like and your budget, and let them help you pick things that you might like. Then the varieties/producers you like, you take note of, and you explore them in more detail.

    If you want inexpensive wine, the best thing to do is to buy “non-mainstream” wines (like, wines from South Africa/South America), where the quality is just as good as a California or French wine, but the price is lower (usually).

    But “sub-$5” is a pretty tough price point. If you raise that to the $8-10 range, you can get much better wine for not that much more scratch.

    Good post though, and kudos for realizing that TJ’s wine sucks.

  3. susan says:

    I always thought that $1-2 of a bottle was for marketing and distribution costs, so a $6 bottle of TJ’s wine would be equivalent to an $8 bottle from Harris Teeter…..

    I agree with Dave’s idea, though – and may I suggest Seaboard Wine. They have free tastings every Saturday and they have a friendly and helpful staff that aren’t the slightest bit snobby. (They will eventually come to know what you like and dislike and can recommend accordingly.) And of course, they’re a locally-owned business that does a lot to support local causes and the community.

  4. James says:

    I’m flattered by the full comment quote. Thanks!

    Given your interest in food and how it’s made, the craft, the people, and the stories that underlie the process, I cannot recommend strongly enough spending a day or two at a working vineyard/winery. It will provide you with the same degree of insight into how good wine is made as your stint at Heron’s did with a professional kitchen. Perhaps more since you already know a great deal about food and cooking.

    All good wine – be it Argentine Malbec, California Cabernet, or French Bordeaux – starts with good grapes, which come from well cared for, carefully farmed vines. And the wine making process requires attention to detail, around the clock attention during crush, and equal parts art and science. It’s a living, organic symbiosis between the winemaker, the yeast, the grapes, the barrels, and countless other variables that change not only from season to season, but from day to day.

    For something more immediately accessible than a working vineyard/winery, I highly recommend both “Inspiring Thirst: Vintage Selections from The Kermit Lynch Wine Brochure” and “Judgment of Paris” by George Taber. Both of them delve into the stories behind people who love and make great wine, why they do it, and what’s fascinating about the timeless pairing of food and wine.

  5. Josh Vickery says:

    Check out bag-in-a-box wines if you are looking for bargains. I still dream about the 3L of ’98 Powers Cabernet Sauvignon I got Southern Season to special order. I believe the price was around $20, maybe as high as $30, which translates to $5-$7.50 per 750ml bottle.

    Bag in a box wines take a lot of crap from people and I got a lot of nasty comments from local wine stores when I inquired about them. The buyer at Southern Season, however, had the opposite response. Not only was he happy to track down what I was looking for, he actually sounded excited about looking into it.

    I’m not saying that all bag in a box wines are good, I’ve tried several that are not. I am saying that there are good ones.

    Going back to that great buyer at Southern Seasons. He’s not there anymore. He’s at Wine Authorities, who, when supply is available, have been offering a 3 liter bag in a box Le Garrigon, VDP Rouge for $20. Unfortunately I failed to snag one before I moved out of the area, but if Wine Authorities is carrying it I bet it’s darn good.

    I love the concept of BiB wine, and when done well, it saves you a ton of money in two ways. First off the cost of shipping glass bottles is outrageous and amounts for a large portion of the selling price of less expensive wines. Second, a bag in a box wine stays sealed when you pour, meaning that you can buy larger containers (3L say) and have a glass whenever you like, leaving the rest of the package perfectly fresh for weeks.

  6. Cindy H. says:

    Hmmm…all I can say is I can’t relate…to this post or its comments. Ahs wells! To each their own…

  7. Chops says:

    The Le Garrigon box wine is not available at Wine Authorities until hopefully January. Le Garrigon produces this box only for Wine Authorities, so availability is difficult. I just picked up a red Portugal box wine from Wine Authorities that I think is an excellent alternative. I think it was $28, which works out to $7/bottle.

  8. Doug says:

    I haven’t shopped at TJ’s much but I’ve always wondered if everything they have sell is similar to their wine in terms of mass production. Are they the Olive Garden of gourmet food stores? I have to say their peanut butter cups are pretty good.

  9. PTuorto says:

    I’m about 50/50 on the TJ issue. I responded to the previous post that certain Italian Red’s like the Salice Salentino are just the kind of young, biting red I want with pasta on a tuesday night….that doesn’t mean I’m going to serve it with the duck ragu I spent hours on for thanksgiving. There’s a time and place for everything I suppose and TJ wine’s fall into the accessible/cheap wine for the week category. The only support i can think of is that more often than not, a $10 bottle at the grocery store tastes just as shitty.

    All that being said…when I’m really looking for a bottle I’ll stop by the wine merchants in cary, great staff and the greek whites they have are flippin delicious.

  10. Pam says:

    This is why I drink beer 🙂 (Although I did have a mild debate with my brother over Thanksgiving about his stepping it up from Butt Light to something a little nicer, like Sam Adams or Fat Tire 😉

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