Searching Trader's shelves

In which we sample Joe's cheap wines
By BRIAN DUFF  |  December 1, 2010

food_wine_main
SOLID OPTIONS A selection of Trader Joe’s wines.

What should we make of the craze for cheap Trader Joe's wines that has overtaken Portland? In One Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse warned against the democratization of elite tastes: "This assimilation represents not the disappearance of classes, but the extent to which the needs and satisfactions that serve the preservation of the establishment are shared by the underlying population." Long ago the elite drank fine wine to soothe the burdens of noblesse oblige. They knew the suffering of others was their responsibility, and they sipped away their gnawing guilt. Now the guilt has been distributed down, even as wealth moves the other way. Recent electoral results suggest that most people believe that if you struggle to get by in the post-bubble economy it's your own fault. So it's good that you can drink away your self-contempt with something inexpensive.

But which to choose? When computer engineers and other geeky-male parvenus visit the red-light districts of Bangkok or Amsterdam, they experience a profound disorientation. There is a strange plenty of choices, many of which are bound to offer an experience cheap and alienating, and at least one, they desperately believe, quite lovely. So it is for the rest of us in the wine section of Trader Joe's.

To shed light on things the Phoenix convened a panel to sample a variety of the store's cheap red wines, along with some of their representative frozen appetizers. In choosing bottles we followed the advice of the store staff, and broke the $5 barrier only on strong recommendation. It turns out that, as in Amsterdam, lovely is too much to ask, but there are a number of choices that get the job done.

We tried two varieties of the famous Two Buck Chuck: a Charles Shaw Merlot and Cabernet ($2.59). These are unpredictable bottles since you never know just where they bought the discount grapes, or who mixed up your batch. Our cab was a good one as they go: inoffensive, plummy, with a hint of spice. The finish was vinegary. The merlot smelled a bit stale and gym-socky. But on the palate things went better, with a taste that mixed the floral and the fruity, but still seemed monosyllabic. A pricier California blend, the Novella Synergy ($8), was fruit-forward and a touch too sweet on the front of the tongue, but pleasantly dry on the back. Though the blend is half-zinfandel, it had little by way of spice.

The Epicuro Aglianico from Italy ($6) was right down the middle: fruity but not sweet (though we wished it were drier), with hints of pepper and cinnamon. A Nero d'Avola from Ruggero di Tasso ($5) was unexpectedly frizzante until you spun it around your glass. It drank sweet, light and young, like a Beaujolais nouveau. When it opened up a bit it revealed some grassy notes. The Zafrika Pinotage ($5) had hints of the distinctive smoky-to-the-point-of-burnt flavors one finds in South African wines. The alcohol was aggressive, and it had a long, rough finish.

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