No tasting room, no state fair gold medals and no Wine Spectator 90 points here: you pays your money and you takes your chances when buying wine at Trader Joe's. The low prices assure that a hit taken on the gamble won't be big. While the ever-popular Two Buck Chuck is still seen in better homes everywhere, the grocery chain's house-branded wines offer appellation-designated wines from reputable producers, many of them in the North Bay—perhaps a better value.
Like Trader Joe's food products, wines are made or blended by wineries who prefer to remain anonymous. The store's Fearless Flyer sometimes coyly intimates a product's origins (German-style beer brewed in the Bay Area?) but it's notoriously difficult to get behind the Hawaiian Print Curtain. Ah, but for the truly curious, there are ways.
VINTJS 2009 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($5.99) It's pronounced "vintages." Clever? Discuss. Meanwhile, here's where the grass hits the grapefruit. Honeydew melon, crackling grapefruit, with canned-fruit-cocktail flavors. A sharp wine for the price. It appears to originate out of St. Supéry in Rutherford, where a Sauvignon Blanc from the same vintage retails for $23.
TJ's Petit Reserve 2009 Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($5.99) A button of a nose, a bit of toasted nut over apple cider. With golden apple flavors and vintage sparkling wine overtones, it seems that only a portion of this wine went through malolactic. Lively, sweet and easy, and without the usual cheap perfume of budget Chardonnay. Very likely produced over at Sebastopol's Taft Street Winery.
VINTJS 2009 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($8.99) This light-colored Pinot is redolent of raspberries that want very much to be cherries, nutmeg-sprinkled latté with a shot of orgeat syrup. It's as light and harmless as a watered-down crantini, with a dash of Grenadine. The enemy of pizza (Trader Giotto's Organic Three Cheese), this wine is bright and pretty to the end. From a custom winemaking consultant in Dundee, Ore.
TJ's Reserve 2008 Sonoma County Zinfandel ($9.99) Dark licorice, boysenberry and leather aromas, with big flavors of fig, brambleberry and bit of cassis. Although the center is a little hollow, the finish is firm. It's made by Healdsburg's Mazzoco Sonoma and says so on the label.
TJ's Grand Reserve 2008 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($12.99) Uh-oh, there's the cognac and oak of a hot-rinsed barrel in the aroma, with licorice and black cherry lurking in the cedar. Black cherry, plum sauce and the chocolate crunch of cherry cordial are on the chewy, tannic finish. Also coming out the back door of St. Supéry, this turns out to be a smashing good value for a Napa Cab.
Sonoma County 169 N. McDowell Blvd., Petaluma; 707.769.2782. 3225 Cleveland Ave., Santa Rosa; 707.525.1406. 2100 Santa Rosa Ave., Santa Rosa; 707.535.0788.
Marin County 2052 Redwood Hwy., Larkspur; 415.945.7955. 7514 Redwood Blvd., Novato; 415.898.9359. 337 Third St., San Rafael; 415.454.9530.
Napa County 3654 Bel Aire Plaza, Napa; 707.256.0806. Stores open 8am to 9pm.