Many of you have probably discovered that Trader Joe's is a great place to get wine. I wasn't impressed the few times I sampled their famed "two-buck Chuck" wines under their Charles Shaw label (now three or four bucks), and that probably slowed my adoption of TJ's as a wine source, but about a year ago I gave their other wines a try and discovered that they are a great source of quality, excellent-value-for-money wines. You won't find the most high-end, handcrafted, and often expensive wines here, but if you're planning on spending $4 to $20 for a wine, you'll probably do better at TJ's than most places. I believe that they can use their volume buying capability, and long-term contracting capability, to grab large lots of wine or grapes that are pretty good but not quite what some pretty good winery wants in its expensive blend; or to buy the excess production of a good winery that can't sell all its production at premium prices, or perhaps even to work directly with both winemakers who don't grow, and growers, to get what they want made for them. They are privately held by a German family business, which I speculate (quite baselessly) may give them some special connections with or insight into medium and low priced Bordeaux of quality, since Germany seems to traditionally have good reasonably priced Bordeaux available, that you don't see in the states. (More on TJ's Bordeaux in a later post.)
Some recent finds in the super-value department:
2009 Trader Joe's Petit Reserve Tempranillo, California. Don't precisely recall the price, probably in the $4-6 range. Rather velvety mouthfeel, with some nice but not overbearing mouthcoating tannins, a little bit of hotness or roughness but not too much. Good strong berry fruit flavors, not overdone, though not an especially dry wine. Veering a little toward candy but not too much. And, late in the meal, some dark, toasty, minerally, really surprising complex tastes emerging that remind me of nothing so much as the excellent (and far more expensive) Syrahs and Grenaches made by Jaffurs in the Santa Barbara area. Definitely has California forwardness compared to most Spanish Tempranillos, but a really good wine for the money. If the dark complexity holds up or develops upon finishing the bottle over the next few days, this could be not just a very good, but a stunning, value. I plan to buy more if it's still available (this may have been purchased several months, perhaps even six months, back).
2009 "The Wingman" California Shiraz (90%) / Viognier (10%), County Fair Wines (Sebastopol, CA). $6.99. On first opening, this has a classic Cotes-du-Rhone-like nose and mouth, with some autumn-leaf and slightly spicy components, dark berry fruits and very slight hints of mineral or tar. The mouthfeel is smoother and fuller than a generic Cotes-du-Rhone, and slightly glyceriny, probably due in part to the Viognier, which may be responsible for a bit of a floral, aromatic note (the label mentions tropical fruits). There's also more blueberry, a typical feature in some Syrahs (notably some Aussies, and Cornas). Reasonably well balanced, perhaps a little bit elegant though not velvety, with some relatively coarse tannin that feels loosely held in a fairly "watery" (not a criticism, and doesn't imply lightness) wine. Holds up well over a few days, too...mostly losing the leafy and floral elements, though, and some of the fresher berry elements. My son thought the label was "awesome"...it features a male harpy with a turn-of-the-century (1900ish) moustachioed face, cutaway revealing skeletal and visceral components, armor or stocking-clad human legs, wings of course...and various diagrams and quill-pen writing in a 19th century European calligraphic style. Quite weird and slightly pretentious...I would probably not normally buy a wine with this label, but a TJ's staffer recommended it, and rightly so. I bought two more bottles on a return visit. This wine is an excellent value, and a fairly unusual wine. Closest comparison is probably certain mid-range ($20ish) Australian Shirazes, but this is a bit less alcoholic and tannic, which may be good thing for current drinking.
2010 "Panilonco" Merlot-Malbec, Colchagua Valley, Chile. $4.99. Produced by Vinedos Errazuriz Ovalle. This is a great deal on a hearty but very drinkable red. It seems to me to have delicious ripe-tomato flavors in addition to a decent amount of berry fruit and somewhat chewy tannins, along with a teeny bit of darker, more complex flavor. I like it much better than the "Trader Joe's Coastal" Cabernets and Zins I've tried at the same price which have a similar overall profile, but are less balanced and have some foxy (Concord-grape-like) flavors and sometimes a slighlty offputting amount of vegetality. Again, I could use another bottle or two.
2010 La Finca Cabernet, Argentina. $3.99. This was great with burgers, both veggie and beef, at a Democratic Party barbeque. (It would probably be just as good at a Republican party barbeque.) I seriously doubt you will find a better red for $3.99 anywhere, although TJ's Epicuro Salice Salentino is in the same price range, and as good (but different). Very drinkable, combines some blackberry and other dark fruit flavors with little tea and tarriness, medium body supported by a modicum of somewhat chewy tannin, a relatively loose structure but reasonably good balance. Most importantly, a wine you just want to drink more of, not a tiring overalcoholic or overbearing-with-fruit wine, but not wimpy either. Kind of like a good example of a less vegetal Bordeaux Superieur, but more enjoyable to drink than most Bordeaux superieurs I've ruin across even in the $10-18 range, as the latter often have the flaw (possibly due in part to poor conditions during transport from Europe to the US) of being relatively full-bodied, strongly flavored, and decently tannic, but with something a bit bitter and austere, a slightly excessive hit of vegetality and olives on occasion, and more importantly, somewhat closed or unexpressive. I went back to get more and the labels were still on the shelves but all the La Finca wines, save five or six bottles of Chardonnay, were gone from the shelves. (They also make a Merlot and a Malbec, and I think also another white, like a Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon blanc.) That tends to happen at TJ's---people identify the best bargains, and load up.
2009 Trader Joe's Reserve Cabernet, Mendocino, California. $9.99. Vinted and bottled by DNA Wines, Ukiah, CA. Made from organic grapes. This wine is softer and more elegant than any of the above. On the other hand, at $10 it doesn't really qualify as "cheap". I have had good luck with all the TJ's Reserve wines I've tried (besides this, two vintages of Dry Creek Reserve Cabernet (2008 and 2009) and a Dry Creek Reserve Zinfandel). This one indeed has plummy flavors as claimed on the label... I think of the dark purple-black-skinned plums with reddish-orange to pale-orange flesh. Add to that some clovish elements, dark berry fruit, hints of complexity, fine tannins in moderation, and you have a really nice wine, quite different from the Dry Creek cabernets, and I fancy showing some typically Mendocino characteristics and flavors. Ready to drink now, or age a few years; perhaps slightly low in acid and loose in structure for long aging, but it might be worth a try. Excellent value, distinctive, flavorful, and easy to drink Cabernet. Again, I plan to get two or three more bottles.