High on the Vine: Blind tasting Trader Joe’s wine with Miller Union sommelier Neal McCarthy

McCarthy tried ten wines from Trader Joe’s, including Two Buck Chuck. What did he think?

Not everybody has an opinion on wine, but even those who confess to know little about the subject have something to say about bottles from Trader Joe’s. The pinnacle of Uncle TJ’s wine collection is Two Buck Chuck (Charles Shaw Blend), which rings in at $2.99. From there, prices can soar to a sky-high $15, if you’re sticking with TJ labels. For those who couldn’t give two grapes about weather patterns, appellations, and soil composition, palatable vino at piggy bank prices fits the bill perfectly.

What, though, do professional tasters think of Trader Joe’s? Recently, I picked out five whites and fives reds for Neal McCarthy, the co-owner and sommelier at Miller Union, to blind taste. Earlier this year, McCarthy passed his level II examinations with the Court of Master Sommeliers to become a certified sommelier. Blind tasting is one of exam’s components, so it seemed appropriate that for this tasting, I would give McCarthy no clues as to what the wines would be or where they would be from. Each bottle was covered in a brown paper bag to conceal its identity.

Below are the results and the wines McCarthy wouldn’t mind drinking again.

Wine #1
Rene Barbier, Mediterranean White 

Tasting Notes: very short finish, slight sweetness, not a complicated wine, tropical fruits like pineapple
Conclusions: It’s just wine—fermented grape juice. It’s fine.
How much he’d pay: $10 to $15
Actual Cost: $5.99

Wine #2
Vin de Bordeaux Sauvignon de Seguin, 2013 

Tasting Notes: gooseberry, slight cat urine on the nose
Conclusions: That is rough. It tastes like New Zealand cat piss. I’m not a huge Sauvignon Blanc fan, and I would say this is a more modern style. It’s very astringent. I prefer my Sauvignon Blanc to be mineral-driven, and this is more fruit-driven.
How much he’d pay: No more than $10
Actual Cost: $6.99

Wine #3
Pancake Cellars, Big Day White (Blend), 2012 

Tasting Notes: stony fruits, apricot, some oak, rose petals
Conclusions: This leans toward an Old World wine that’s more oily and a little more viscous. I like more weight in my white wines, and I like fattier foods—pork with white wine or dark meat chicken with something like this. There’s a bit more quality here, and it feels like there are some secondary notes as well. I’m not mad at it.
How much he’d pay: $15 to $20
Actual Cost: $6.49

Wine #4
Vintjs, Arroyo Seco, Chardonnay, 2012 

Tasting Notes: new oak, a good dusting of coconut, spice, and vanilla,
Conclusions: Cheap, American Chardonnay. It’s got oak in it so maybe it’s got a few more dollars wrapped up in it. Property value in California is so high that even cheap California Chard can cost $20. I would hope this is no more than $10. If it’s not, it should be. Stylistically, it’s where it needs to be, and if somebody asks you for a glass of California Chardonnay, this is it, although it lacks a bit of finesse.
How much he’d pay: No more than $10
Actual Cost: $8.99

Wine #5
Fetzer, Gewurtraminer, 2012

Tasting Notes: floral, smoky bacon, slight effervescence, tropical fruits like papaya
Conclusions: I like this one. It’s got some more complexity to it. I get nice minerality with a good, long, strong finish. So far, this may be my favorite one.
How much he’d pay: $20
Actual Cost: $5.99


Wine #6
Pinot Noir Trader Joe’s Reserve, Russian River Valley, 2012

Tasting Notes: bad oaky smell, red plums, stewed cherries
Conclusions: This is foul. When I smell oak in my wine, I want it to be the second thing after fruits. This smells like an imbalance between oak and fruit. It tastes like wood chips and tastes like inexpensive American Pinot Noir.
How much he’d pay: No more than $10 but it’s probably $20, if it’s American Pinot Noir.
Actual Cost: $9.99 

Wine #7
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Incanto, 2010

Tasting Notes: dark fruits, blackberries, and bramble, barnyard notes, bright acidity
Conclusions: My gut is it’s from Italy. It’s a pretty good Sangiovese. I like this, and it’s one of the favorite wines I’ve tasted so far. It tastes like Chianti.
How much he’d pay: $20
Actual Cost: $10.99

Wine #8
Chateau de la Riviere Fronsac, 2007

Tasting Notes: darker fruits so maybe it’s Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, more earth, blackberries, tar, leather, pretty complex nose
Conclusions: It’s a little thin, but I like it. I could drink it, but it’s not a wine you’d drink without food.
How much he’d pay: $18 to $20
Actual Cost: $15.99 

Wine #9
Trader Joe’s Charles Shaw Blend aka Two Buck Chuck

Tasting Notes: This one smells terrible. This smells like really inexpensive—I don’t even know what to call that. Wow. Purple? Grapey?
Conclusions: I really don’t like this. It smells and tastes like grape juice. There’s nothing to this. It’s very non-descript. This is a very complicated one to me but in a bad way. This is offensive.
How much he’d pay: No more than $5
Actual Cost: $2.99

Wine #10
Black Mountain Vineyard, Cabernet, 2012

Tasting Notes: oak woodchips, stewed tomatoes, dried herbs
Conclusions: I don’t feel good about this. It’s got a vanilla finish but in a fake way. Pretty non-descript fruits, but leaning on red and black currants.
How much he’d pay: No more than $10
Actual Cost: $6.99

Final Thoughts
Buying wine at Trader Joe’s is a bit like playing Russian Roulette. Great values lurk among foul choices, and there’s not a rubric or a guideline you could follow to know the difference. We know for certain that the Barbier, Fetzer, Incanto, and Riviere are fantastic values. Two Buck Chuck, on the other hand, did not pass the McCarthy Test. If that’s your go-to wine, don’t be ashamed. As I was taught early on, “Drink what you like, how you like it.”