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Trader Joe's

Behind the Hawaiian Print Curtain II

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Everybody knows that Trader Joe's has the best price on drinkable, cheap wine—the inimitable "Two Buck Chuck." If you are in the fortunate position of being able to spend $10 or $12, however, the discount retailer's house-branded "Reserve" wines offer value on a different level. Many are locally made by mid-sized Sonoma and Napa County wineries that sell similar wines for $30 and up. Which wineries? It's not always easy to tell, but often there's a wine manager on hand who's actually tasted the product and can offer shoppers helpful suggestions—unlike almost every other chain supermarket or discounter that you can think of. Not to toot TJ's horn too much. A recent sampling:

VINTJS Napa Valley Chenin Blanc ($5.99) Like those kitchen-sink white blends with Gewürztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc and what-all, but drier, this smells floral, sulfurous, with fresh banana, pear and nasturtium. Mixed review? It's the one I saved to drink after tasting. Chill it, and nuke the frozen vegetable Pad Thai.

TJ's Reserve 2011 Napa Valley Chardonnay ($9.99) Like lemon-scented furniture polish, i.e., expensive oak barrels, with a hint of roasted cashew nut bar snack and apple syrup—but not cloying. One might imagine that it was unloaded on "Joe" because it lacked mid-palate weight, but for $9.99 that's splitting hairs. Bake a plate of mushroom appetizers and put on a rom-com.

TJ's Grand Reserve 2012 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, Lot #22 ($12.99) There's a lot more to this than many a "cheap" Pinot. It benefited after being open a day. Toasted oak, allspice, dried raspberry, strawberry conserve and a light finish reminiscent of a Côte de Beaune-Villages. Is the vanilla in front of the weeds, or behind? Is that sarsaparilla or ginseng extract? It has me thinking, anyway, and that's a job well done. Sip it in reverie and forget to make dinner.

TJ's Reserve 2011 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel, Lot #71 ($9.99) Plum and boysenberry syrup drizzled over cheesecake with graham cracker crust? Yes, please. With flavors and tannin knit together like a Merino sweater, and a sticky, lingering finish, this is a standup wine for sitting down and yakking with a friend long into the night. Doctor up a frozen pizza with extra sausage, Romano and broccoli florets, and you're in business.

TJ's Reserve 2009 Dry Creek Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Lot #72 ($9.99) Leather bomber jacket and gothic fruits meet plain vanilla oak. It's enduringly tannic, but how many shoppers are going to cellar this wine? Crème de cassis, cocoa powder, blueberry—drink the second day after opening, and it's juicy enough.

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