As the holiday party season winds its way toward New Year’s Eve, sparkling wine or Champagne is on many shopping lists. Personally, I feel sparkling wine is ideal as a drink before, during or after a meal, but when entertaining, I round up a good selection of still wines too.
Although my husband and I frequent specialty wine shops, a weekly visit to Trader Joe’s is a routine, and we’re not alone. Checking out doesn’t take nearly as long as finding a parking space at any of the Los Angeles area Trader Joe’s stores. Part of that chain’s mantra must be, “If they really want our bargains, they’ll fight for parking spaces!”
The grocery chain was founded as Pronto Market in 1958 by Joe Coulombe, and the store’s name was later changed to Trader Joe’s. The first Trader Joe’s store opened in 1967 in Pasadena, California, and now there are more than 400 stores in 40 states. Southern California has a heavy concentration of the stores, and it’s a favorite haunt for shoppers looking for global food flavors and wines for less than $10 a bottle.
Trader Joe’s wine comes with free tastes
On a recent visit to Trader Joe’s on La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles, I heard a friendly “Hi” in the wine section and turned around to see my neighbor Karis.
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“I’m looking for a wine under $10,” she said. Her pick had to be kosher because she was buying it for a Hanukkah party that evening. Together we took a look at the limited selection of kosher wines, and I pointed out a 2012 Baron Herzog Old Vine Zinfandel from Lodi, Calif., that cost $9.99. The price was perfect.
In addition to bargain bottles, Trader Joe’s also stocks pricey brands to give people options for gift giving. “This time of the year people spend money,” said Jason, one of the managers at the La Brea store. The hot sellers are reds and sparkling and dessert wines, he said.
Pricey wines may not always be on display, though. “When people are looking for expensive wines for gifts they’ll ask one of our staff,” Jason said. The most expensive purchase at the La Brea store was Napa Valley’s 2008 BV LaTour Cabernet Sauvignon at $89. That’s a far cry from the less-than-$10 category, but customers buy these wines for parties, the manager noted.
Trader Joe’s is well known for its affordable wines, and the bottles are served at many Los Angeles parties or art openings. At the latter, don’t be surprised to find so-called Two Buck Chuck, those Charles Shaw wines that have, in fact, gone up to $2.49 (prices vary nationally) from the original price of $1.99. But the stores also have a nice lineup of pricey Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon wines from well-known brands such as Grgich Hills, Stags’ Leap, Caymus and Whitehall Lane.
The chain has added wine-tasting counters at five of its Los Angeles and South Bay stores, as well as some other stores nationwide. I stopped by for a taste at the store at 3rd Street and Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles. The counter offers three tastes of wines, and they are rotated every three to four days. One of the daily offerings will be a Trader Joe’s brand.
I found the Trader Joe’s Grand Reserve series impressive and affordable. Ranging in price from $7.99 to $14.99 a bottle, these wines are from distinct California appellations and display case production and lot numbers on the bottles.
The Grand Reserve 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon I tasted had a delicious, round mouthfeel. From Napa Valley’s Rutherford appellation, the label read 999 cases produced. Others in this series include wines from various Napa Valley appellations: Zinfandel from Howell Mountain, Merlot from Spring Mountain, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Carneros and Malbec from Sonoma’s Bennett Valley.
For less than $10 a bottle, Trader Joe’s carries a wide selection. The non-appellation designate California Pinot Noirs range from $5.99 to $7.99, and the Central Coast classified Pinots fall in the $7.99 to $14.99 category. In fact, Caretaker, a Santa Maria Valley-designate Pinot from California’s Central Coast, is an excellent buy at $9.99.
The Bordeaux Superieur lineup from labels such as Chateau Payanne and Mayne Guyon are good bets for a party, as are Malbecs from Argentina, Carmènére from Chile and California Zinfandels from Cline, Ravenswood, Bogle Old Vine and Rutz Alexander Valley.
Among the less-than-$10 category for Italian wines, you can find a good selection of Tuscan wines, such as Valpolicella Ripasso, Casa Rossa Rosso and Il Tarocco Chianti Classico. From Spain’s Rioja region, you can’t go wrong with Crianza wines (which have been aged two years, one of which must be in oak) from both Marqués De Riscal and Marqués de Cáceres.
For white wines costing less than $10, go for New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc from Nobilo and Picton Bay, Mouton Cadet’s Sauvignon and Semillon blend, or the citrusy Picpoul de Pinet wine from Cuvée Azan in the Languedoc region in France.
And because it’s the time of the year to traditionally pop sparkling wine, why not treat yourself to a really pricey Champagne? Perhaps a Veuve Clicquot Rosé ($58.99) or Moët Chandon Imperial ($36.99)? In the mid-price range — $12.99 to $26.99 – you’ll find good California bottlings from Schramsberg, Piper Sonoma and Gloria Ferrer.
But if you’ve blown your budget on Christmas gifts and your wallet is a little thin, there’s hope. You can ring in the new year with sparklers costing less than $10, such as Michelle Brut from Columbia Valley or Trader Joe’s Reserve Brut and Blanc de Blancs.
Cheers … and safe drinking.
Main photo: One of the wines from Trader Joe’s Reserve series, a Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley’s Rutherford appellation. Credit: Mira Honeycutt