The quest for wine-wallah-hood in the Northwest, part one, in which I visit Trader Joe’s among other retailers
Prolegomenon: chill all your reds for 45 minutes in the refrigerator, or 18 minutes in the freezer (on a timer, please).
At Trader Joe’s, improve your odds by selecting bottles that are worth more than the glass itself and the shipping and handling to get it onto the shelf. That means spending at least $4.99 for a Trader Joe’s brand California wine. You could get a generic “California” red. Or you can spend $4.99 or $5.99 and step up in geographic specificity to a Paso Robles or Central Coast syrah or zinfandel, or perhaps cabernet. Some say “Trader Joe’s” explicitly, others seem to be house brands (e.g. Vintjs). Your best odds would seem to lie in sticking with “Trader Joe’s Exclusive” labels and away from goofy names and labels. Unless your psychic income from the kaleidoscopic label is greater than about $2.
Look at the back labels of the Trader Joe’s exclusive reds. You want “produced and bottled” or, even better, “estate grown, produced, and bottled” (a Dry Creek Valley zinfandel from “PK” at $12.99), rather than simply “cellared and bottled” or “vinted and bottled” or, worse, “bottled.” The former do not guarantee fine quality but they are legally meaningful categories that indicate greater continuity in the journey from vineyard to bottled wine. If you really want to buy a French or Italian bottle, look at the back label. If you buy a wine “bottled” by what looks like a password or zip code, you are getting something no producer wants to put their real name on. The same is perhaps true for California wines from “ABJ” or other anonymized entities, though one hopes that the chain’s buyers live near enough to the wineries that quality control works a bit better.
If you spend $9.99 you should be paying a higher proportion for the drink itself, not the packaging. Seek out Napa and Sonoma, though a Central Coast petite sirah is also worth a try. And for $12.99 you can find zones within Napa such as Oakville or Yountville, or within Sonoma (Alexander and Dry Creek). These appellations are the best California has to offer, and can produce wine with real character. These wines seem to be purchased in small lots of 500 or 750 cases from wineries who presumably sell them for a hot price but appreciate getting immediate cash. If the Trader Joe’s buyer had a well-functioning nose that day, customers win.
If you do not want to spend $12.99 a day on wine you could try this: buy a $5 or $6 bottle and a $12.99 bottle from, say, Rutherford or Oakville or Dry Creek or Sonoma Valley (a small, very good portion of Sonoma County). Drink a glass, or a glass apiece, of each. Both wines should be fine overnight in the refrigerator. Just take them out when you get home the next afternoon or evening, pour out a few ounces of each into glasses, and wait 15 minutes until they warm up a little. My point: the $12.99 wines with very specific appellations ought to be worth the premium, unless the Trader Joe’s buyer had a runny nose.
The top shelf at Trader Joe’s seems to be mainly nationally distributed brands. Prices seem in line with Safeway, Fred Meyer et al. Nothing wrong there, but nothing special ventured or gained either. How lucky do you feel? But unlike Powerball, there are ways (see above) to improve your odds.
Update: can recommend 2014 TJ Grand Reserve Oak Knoll District of Napa Valley Merlot, $12.99. Vintjs Mendocino Carignane at $4.99 not tried yet but how bad could it be?