Insider's Review: Best wine deals at Trader Joe's
Balance + Quality + Price = Value
Welcome wine lovers! My name is Eric Wickersham, and I'm a journalist who moonlighted as the wine and food tasting director at the flagship Trader Joe's in San Francisco, educating coworkers for over ten years. I have literally tasted every wine TJ's carried during that time, and I know the ins and outs of how and why they acquire each and every bottle. Whether it be a contract wine or a one time buy, or whether they are bottling a wine under their label to protect a top producer's branding and retail price point, I can decipher what is the "real" deal at any given time. This skill set has also given me insights into how other retailers price their wines.
Clients, friends and family have been coming to me for years to select the wines for their weddings, parties, holiday dinners or just the perfect pairing for that special recipe. After a gazillion requests to share this insider information online, I decided the time is now.
That's who I am, now let's talk wine. For me, a quality bottle of wine needs to be balanced first and foremost, be sourced from good fruit, and come from at least a decent vintage, a factor that cannot be downplayed. So, what deals are on the shelf for October? Here are three wines that I cannot resist at the moment.
Sainte-Croix Syrah-Merlot Vin De Pays D'oc, La Bergerie 2010 $4.99
This is as fine a $5 wine as I have seen at TJ's in a while. All of the people I have recommended this to say, how is this possible? This is how. Let me give you an example. A few years back, TJ's was selling a tempranllo from Raimat, a fine Spanish producer, for $5.99, and it was killer. When I was in Madrid gearing up for a trip through Rioja and Priorat, I was walking the wine aisle in the supermarket and saw the same wine for 12 euros. Even before you compute the exchange rate, that is an insane markdown. How? This has everything to do with the purchasing strategy that Trader Joe's employs, which is my area of expertise comes in for you. You would be hard pressed to find a better bottle in the $10-$15 range at any other major grocery store.This extremely food friendly wine displays the soft, mouth filling fruitness of Syrah in tune with the rustic, dry edge of Merlot. Surprising complexity and balanced. This isn't an ad for TJ's, I don't work there anymore, just an homage to what they can put on the shelf, and at this price point, this wine is the exception, not the norm. Exceptional it is.
Buena Vista Carneros Merlot 2006 $8.99
First things first. 2006? Just go out and try to find a 2006 anything at another grocery store, it simply does not exist. Why is this important? Simply put, if this wine wasn't balanced, it would have tasted like vinegar by 2009. Trader Joe's doesn't buy distressed juice, it buys good juice from distressed wineries(this does not apply to their contract wines). In this case, my guess is that Buena Vista(one of the oldest wineries in Sonoma/a great and unpretentious winery to visit) needed to move this juice to make room for incoming wine, not to mention that this wine is peaking now, so they'll take what they can get and TJ's will buy the whole vintage at a steep discount and pass the savings on to you. All of the aging has been done for you on a wine that retails elsewhere for $22! A more recent vintage of this wine received 89 points from Wine Spectator. Dark and full bodied, my guess is that this wine was finished off with Cabernet Sauvignon, which would explain it's weighted mouthfeel. An absolute bargain that is suited to roasted dishes of any sort.
Sommavite Brunello Di Montalcino 2006 $19.99
Where to begin? Well, for those of you unfamiliar with Brunello Di Montalcino, here's a quick insight. One of the most noble of Italian wines, it is a highbrid of Sangiovese sourced from the area around the southern Tuscan town of Montalcino. The standards of production are extrememely stringent. You won't find anything younger than 2007 in any wine store, for these wines need a minimum of 5 years barrell and bottle aging before they hit the market. It's safe to say balance is less of a concern with these wines for that reason alone. You won't find the Sommavite winery anywhere because it doesn't exist. TJ's has repackaged this one to protect the maker's established pricing. Knowing the tricks is everything. I noticed that there were some bottles taller than others on the shelf at TJ's. On the taller bottles, human error/oversight left the maker's foil at the top. Solaria, ah ha! Solaria is a well respected winery. KL Wines has a great price on this wine at $29.99(for those of you that don't have TJ's, KL is a terrific online retailer, I religiously make a monthly order from them, incredible inventory), others have it priced up towards $50(which is actually reasonable in the Brunello realm). So at $20, this wine is a steal, James Suckling gave it 92 points. I went to Montalcino in 2011 just to sample the 2006 vintages en masse(it was one of the best growing seasons in the last 30 years), and this wine is a fine example of what this special region has to offer. This wine is built for aging and can be enjoyed thru 2025. Affordable and cellar worthy usually don't go in the same sentence. This wine will really improve with a few more years of proper cellaring, but it can be enjoyed now, but for Pete's sake, do it right. I recommend decanting and letting it breathe for a couple hours minimum. If you don't have a decanter, vigorously pour out a full glass and give it a couple hours before consuming. These wines are so tightly wound that it takes ample time for them to unwind, but when they do, oh my! They absolutely need to be had with a complimentary meal for full enjoyment. Dry, full bodied, rich and complex, this wine is a carnivores delight. Montalcino restaurant, Il Giglio's pheasant terrine in concert with Ciacci Piccolomini Pianrosso Brunello ranks as one of the finest food and wine pairings of my life. Now I'm daydreaming, sorry about that. Get out a pen during dinner and jot down all of the different flavors and aromas that color your palate, All for $20!
Living the high life doesn't have to cost you. Look for my upcoming articles on incredible online Spanish deals and why you don't have to serve Pinot Noir with Thanksgiving dinner(there are better options out there).